Sunday, April 15, 2012

It's an Art, or, The Difference Between Good and Great

This weekend, my husband and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary as we have for the past two years, by spending a few days in Newport, Rhode Island. One of the highlights of the trip, for me, is the wonderful restaurants where we dine. The first year we had dinner at Castle Hill Inn, and immediately declared that to be an annual tradition. The food is magnificent, the ambiance and the ocean view are lovely, and the service is impeccable. This year, we had dinner at Castle Hill our first night, and then our second night we ate at a newer restaurant called The Muse, which is in the Vanderbilt Grace hotel. Like Castle Hill, the ambiance is charming, and the food is magnificent, but the service is…well, let’s say, “unpolished.” It was the difference between a good dining experience and a great one.
For example, at Castle Hill, we had an assistant server who seemed to be relatively new – she was very young and seemed slightly nervous, but she was pleasant, helpful, and knew her duties and did them well. She had obviously been well trained. She cleared plates unobtrusively, made sure our water glasses were filled, and made charming small talk with us as appropriate. At one point when she was clearing, she dropped a fork and was obviously unsure of how to handle it. Her hands were full and I could see her considering whether she should try to stoop down and retrieve the fork, but then I noticed her catch our regular waiter’s eye and he subtly tipped his head to indicate to her to leave it, and he came over and swept it up for her. It was a perfect example of a team working well together, silently communicating in such a way as to not disturb the guests, and efficiently fixing problems.

Castle Hill Inn

In contrast, our waiter at The Muse informed us that he had only been there for a few weeks. He was unfamiliar with many of the bar and menu items, and although he dutifully checked with the kitchen and came back with descriptions, his descriptions were mostly reiterations of the descriptions on the menu and repetitions of the word, “delicious.” I’m sure everything on the menu is delicious, but I was hoping for something more descriptive, like, “spicy” or “tangy” or “the sage in the polenta is very subtle” or “the peach glaze is a bit sweet but it’s a nice complement to the tartness of the cranberry coulis.” He was pleasant enough, and obviously eager to serve, but he was a bit disorganized and the service suffered for it. At one point we mentioned how much we were enjoying the pianist and asked if she had business cards on the piano. Our waiter offered to get us one from the office and even offered to give us one of her CDs, but neither card nor CD ever materialized. My husband’s napkin fell on the floor and the hostess offered to bring him a new one, but after she took the old one away, she forgot to bring the new. When our dessert soufflĂ© and ice cream was served, an assistant server removed our spoons and gave us forks. (To her credit, she later brought me an extra napkin to cover the drips I made on the tablecloth while trying to eat a dessert including ice cream and chocolate sauce with a fork.) There appeared to be no regular bartender on duty, and both the hostess and our waiter seemed to be covering the bar, sometimes to the neglect or at least delay of their own duties.
The Muse at the Vanderbilt Grace

Any one of those mistakes or glitches would have been understandable and forgivable, but the collection of all of them, including how they were handled (or, more importantly, not handled), made the difference between a good dining experience and a great one.

At both restaurants, the food was perfectly prepared and gorgeously plated. At both meals, the chef sent out delightful little amuse-bouches between courses that were creative, unusual, whimsical, and delicious. In both cases, the staff recommended wines that were ideal complements to our meals. In both restaurants, the linens, dishes, utensils, and glassware were lovely, beautifully presented, and appropriate for each course. At both locations, the restaurant was tastefully decorated, there was lovely background music, there was soft lighting, and there were interesting and complementary fixtures and artwork or architectural details. Truly, the only major difference between the two evenings was the polish of the service.

It just goes to show that there is a fine line between good and great, and as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” Anticipating your guests’ needs makes you great. Knowing your menu inside and out and being able to describe it in a way that will convince your guests that they cannot possibly live without ordering that specific dish makes you great. Organization, communication, and teamwork make you great.

I hope that The Muse is able to improve their organization and their training. In their defense, they have only been open for not quite one year, so they are undoubtedly still learning and mastering their own systems. If they can do that, they have the potential to provide as fine a dining experience as Castle Hill does. But until they do, I’ll still be a strict devotee of Castle Hill. Because I know that there I will be treated like a queen. A queen with a very well-trained staff.

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