What defines great restaurant service? Restaurateur Will Guidara, co-owner of New York's renowned Eleven Madison Park, shares his thoughts, and why it sometimes includes personalized bocce balls, with Francis Lam.
Francis Lam: So I'm going to start with a very simple question for you: What is great service?
Will Guidara: In its most fundamental form, I think great service is just doing in as effective a manner as possible, the technical things that are expected from a server. I think it becomes deeper when you start to layer on the presence of hospitality in service.
A lot of people look at them as two different things, in fact for a long time one of my interview questions when I was talking to people was, “What is the difference between service and hospitality?” The greatest answer I actually heard was, “Service is black and white, and hospitality is color.” And I think there's truth to that.
I think great service is greeting people, knowing what you're doing, getting the food to them on time, doing everything as one would expect it to be done. Great hospitality is really getting to know the person you're serving such that there is a true and genuine connection, and great service doesn't exist in the absence of great hospitality.
FL: I love hearing you say that because it makes me think that service is almost like a set of skills, whereas hospitality is something greater. It's something maybe emotional; it's something that sounds almost like it can be creative. And I think of a story that I heard from two friends of mine who actually came into your restaurant, Eleven Madison Park. They were there for lunch. They were guests of someone else's, and at the end of the meal, the staff presented them with a thank you and a going away gift, a little box they put on the table. And my friends opened the box and it was a set of bocce balls, with the Eleven Madison Park logo printed on them.
WG: I remember that.
FL: My friends are two young chefs from Memphis, and they have a bocce ball court behind their restaurant. They could not for the life of them understand how anyone knew that, why they knew that, and certainly why the restaurant would give them this gift. They walked away feeling like something magical just happened, and we will never understand how or why.
I would love to know maybe the how, but certainly the why. When did you realize that the front of the house can be a creative place like this?
WG: Eleven Madison Park is a very specific type of restaurant. People make reservations well in advance, and so we know people are joining us weeks ahead of them actually walking through our doors, and the gift we're given in that is time to prepare ...
We Google our guests, something that some people think is creepy or stalker-ish, but I don't think it is at all. I think it's what you do with the information that defines the spirit of the endeavor. We try to learn as much about our guests, such that the experience that we give them is truly only for them. And we love bocce, and we thought this would be really fun and a great way to give them a gift to take home that would hopefully forever remind them of a meal that was special.
FL: I'm curious to know how you do those things, and what's the psychology of that moment that lets you say, “Hey, maybe there's a different way to do that?”
WG: When someone comes through the door of our restaurant, we always talk about the balance between going out and coming home. We want it to feel like you're going out. It had better; you're spending a lot of money. There had better be a lot of things about it that you don't get in your own apartment.
But there's this comfort in going to a friend's house for dinner, and we try to feed off the inspiration we get from those experiences when we have them, outside the walls of our restaurant. And what do you want someone to feel like when they walk in? You want them to truly feel that sense of welcome, that excitement when you go to your friend's house for dinner on a Saturday night and you walk in, and you look at each other and you smile, because they're genuinely excited to see each other ...
At the end of the dinner when we need to give people the check, I never want people to have to ask for anything, and the check is a delicate situation. I don't want them to have to ask for the check, but you don't want to drop the check on someone and make them feel like you're trying to push them out the door.
So, we give them the check when it's clear the dinner is over, but we put it down without even referencing it. And alongside it, we put down a bottle of apple brandy, or an eau de vie. We pour each person at the table a little sip, and we leave the bottle there. This is with our compliments, drink as much of it as you want. That's our way of saying, “Hey, there's the check when you're ready for it," but if we were trying to rush you out, we wouldn't be giving you an entire bottle of liquor right now to just slowly marinate over.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.