Truly excellent service has a je ne sais quoi about it— that seemingly unknowable quality that sets it apart— it's hard to pin down but you know it when you see it. Great service flows with grace that appears effortless and seems to perfectly anticipate the guest's needs.
This sort of service is rare, and it doesn't always show up where you expect. You'd think the service at a $180 prix fixe, 6-course-meal-type establishment would be impeccable, but this isn't always the case. Likewise, you can be surprised by the quality of the staff at much less fancy restaurants.
When you've worked in the hospitality industry, it inevitably colors the experience you have dining out— you can't ever go into a restaurant or bar again with the same expectations as before. Experience gives you a critical eye, and this will make you either more or less forgiving, depending on your temperament. If you're like me, you also tend to think a lot about why the service in an establishment is the way it is.
My wife and I went to a restaurant last week, a mid-priced Thai place we hadn't been to before, and were given fabulous service. Some of the wait staff looked like they had a few years of experience under their belt but most were just college kids. Our food consistently arrived on time, we felt attended to but not hovered over, the manner of the wait staff was warm and inviting without feeling cloying or forced. We were given authentic service and treated with professional regard. Everything just felt right.
I've been to much fancier places, where it was clear the wait staff had years of experience— you could tell by the way they carried themselves they were all veterans— and been given lousy service. It wasn't a lack of experience that was the problem. There simply wasn't a desire to create a great experience.
More recently, we went to another restaurant where the waiter was obviously a fresh hire, a kid just starting out. He made a lot of basic mistakes. He checked in on us at the wrong time, came back too frequently to fill our water glasses— things all nervous kids do. I understood. I was there once, when I started waiting tables at 15. But— the kid's earnestness was authentic. He had a good handle on the menu and his answers were candid when we asked about the different dishes. I could tell he wanted to do the best for us. He actually cared whether or not we liked our food. Training and experience will iron out any employee's awkwardness and issues with timing, but it takes the right internal culture to identify and nurture the desire to really care about the guest.
So what's more important in your front of house staff— experience, or a real desire to give great service? With the right training, the first part of that equation comes naturally over time, but the second part is a bit more ephemeral. Attitude can be encouraged, but never forced or coerced.
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