What is Good Service, Anyway? Phoebe Damrosch has some answers in “Service Included”

What is Good Service, Anyway?

This question has been weighing on me ever since the parade of horrors that was Carnevino last week (read my take here, Mike D’s take here).  Also, I’d just gotten around to Phoebe Damrosch’s memoir Service Included, in which she recounts her year-plus as a waiter and captain during the opening months of Thomas Keller’s Per Se in NYC.  So I have service on the brain, as it were.

To me, a restaurant is not in the business of selling food (that’s what Albertson’s and Whole Foods are for), it is in the business of selling hospitality—a total experience which ideally also includes amazing food.  I have and will return to a restaurant that serves only decent food, because the service is excellent.  However, I’ll stop patronizing a place which has amazing food because the service sucks.  When a restaurant excels at both, it’s heavenly (my personal best in this regard: Dan Barber’s impeccable Blue Hill).

In a nutshell, good service can be boiled down to two aphorisms my mom was fond of repeating to us kids growing up.  The first, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the second (painted on the wall of my sisters’ shared bedroom growing up): “Pretty is as pretty does.”  Much will be forgiven if a customer—or pretty much anyone really—knows that you are treating them with respect and that you understand that actions define character.

As Ms Damrosch recounts in her slight but entertaining Service Included, great  restaurant service is all about detail.  This is her first book, published in 2007, and worth a read for those just getting around to it (erm, like me).  There is much discussion of wine glasses being set just so, and the wait staff’s frantic memorization of the life history of say, the butter used with the bread service.  But she also gives a sense that great service is about the bigger picture, making a guest feel welcome and comfortable—feel like, indeed, a guest.  Ms Damrosch notes, crucially, that when Keller’s Per Se first opened, the carefully unobtrusive service was read by customers as cold.  The restaurant wisely relaxed their service, and some of the best anecdotes in Ms Damrosch’s memoir are when guest and server let their guard down (there is one very funny tale in which she disastrously pursues a discussion of marijuana, based on a tragically misheard comment from one of her guests).

I read this book with fascination and a bit of envy—I spent a year and a half working across the street from The Time Warner Center, where Per Ser resides, but never made it there for dinner.  Ms Damrosch does a good job of creating a ‘you are there’ feeling in the front-of-house operations, and I especially enjoyed her dining treks across Manhattan with her fellow industry food nuts.  Her book features little about the food and kitchen, perhaps inevitable given her front-of-house POV.  In a bid to personalize and give narrative arc to her experience, she peppers her restaurant dishing with her on again/off again romance with another Per Se staffer.  I’m guessing her editors pushed this, but honestly I didn’t find her personal life as compelling as the behind-the-scenes look at one of the finest restaurants in the world.

Phoebe Damrosch is a talented writer, and I look forward to seeing what she has to say next.  She isn’t as snarky as Anthony Bourdain, nor as purple as Ruth Reichl (fyi Mike D just turned me on to the most hysterical tweeter ever: ruthbourdain).  Not sure if she plans to focus on food in the future, but her experience at Per Se has provided an excellent starting point in understanding truly great food and service.

Perhaps I will donate my copy Service Included to the staff of Carnevino, where instead of feeling like guests, my party and I were made to feel like the cat that sauntered in to the living room and dropped a dead mouse on the white carpet.  Or Carnevino might hire Ms Damrosch, who is available for restaurant staff training, according to her site.   Or maybe I should just have my mom tag their walls with “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You…”

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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