To Serve and Perfect

Great food, check. Stylish room, sure. But what makes a restaurant really sing? At Boneta, it's flawless service

March 2, 2008

By Fiona Morrow

On the corner of Carrall and Cordova, the staff of Boneta—some 18 assorted servers, kitchen crew, and bar managers—sit down together for a meal, something they do each night before service. This evening they eat fried chicken with honey-Dijon dip and apple slaw-a special request from Mark Brand, one of the owners. The communal staff meal is a team-building ritual that’s integral to the restaurant’s philosophy; dinner is free for staff (many establishments charge up to $10 per head) and cooked by a junior kitchen member (offering him or her a chance to show their skills).

Next up: kitchen and bar news. There are a couple of new products in the liquor cabinet, and all staff are expected to know what’s what. Brand gives a detailed description, and the bottles are passed around for everyone to smell the contents. “How many times have you gone into a restaurant and asked for a drink and they have no idea what you’re talking about?” asks co-owner Neil Ingram. “It happens all the time. Isn’t that maddening? You ask for a Sazerac and they have absolutely no clue.” Meantime, chef Jeremie Bastien brings over two new dishes added to tonight’s menu, along with a pile of forks. Everyone tucks in, asking questions and proffering opinions.

With some of the city’s best restaurants on their résumés, Brand and Ingram-along with the third business partner, André McGillivray-know a thing or two about how to run a room. McGillivray spent eight years at CinCin before stints at Lucy Mae Brown, Chambar, Lumière, and Le Crocodile. Brand made his name as a top mixologist at Chambar, and Ingram was Lumière’s esteemed sommelier before deciding it was time to be his own boss. Last year’s dining boom brought in a new guard, a fresh force in the local culinary scene, young people with their own ideas about how to run a restaurant. Boneta-a slick, high-ceilinged, high-energy room serving French-, Italian-, and Japanese-inspired dishes-is a notable case in point.

“We learned important lessons on how to do things right and, more importantly, how to do things wrong and correct that,” explains McGillivray. “A lot of the people we’ve worked for in the past weren’t interested in empowering the front-of-house staff. A lot of the old world is stuck in the old ways: browbeating, negative reinforcement, a healthy dollop of sexism. And it just doesn’t work like that anymore.”

For the customer, of course, service can make or break a meal. Food is central, sure, but great service can paper over the cracks in a meal, while indifference-or worse-from the person delivering the plates leaves a bad taste. Plenty of restaurants miss the long view by failing to offer gracious attentiveness to all their patrons, preferring to put their energy into big spenders or famous faces. But treat customers with disregard or disdain and they won’t be back.

“It’s horrible and it’s a huge peeve with me,” shudders Ingram. He recalls a family gathering at one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants. “I ordered the wine, and because my aunt and uncle were on a budget, I picked a bottle that I knew was really good and really reasonable. The waiter looked at me and said, ‘Do you really want that? Do you know much about wine?’ And then tried to upsell me to a $125 bottle.

“This carries on all evening,” Ingram continues, with a scowl. “It was so obvious they wanted us out of there-we weren’t spending enough and we were taking up real estate. They did everything they could to get us out. And I wanted to hospitalize the waiter. I wanted to knock his teeth in with a hammer.”

Brand and McGillivray sputter coffee at the vehemence with which this is delivered. Still, this is exactly the negative service model they fight against. Happy people tend to want to make other people happy, argues McGillivray: “We send good reinforcement down to the staff, they transfer that to the customers, and it comes back around to us.”

I later mingle with the servers, eager to hear whether the bosses are as good as their word; the response is unanimously positive-and, it seems, authentic. The money may not be as good as at other places they’ve served, but it’s not bad. And they love the tip pool: everything goes in one till and is cashed out once a week. Nobody cares which section they work; everyone steps up and helps out when needed. Everybody is trusted to know their job and do their job.

The three words I hear repeated all night-trust, respect, family-make for a compelling mantra. More than that, they’re the key to this service revolution.

“For us, it’s about building relationships,” says Brand. “It’s a network, a community-everybody knows everybody, everybody gets introduced. It’s like Cheers with good dining. I know we keep saying it, but this is family.” (Boneta is named after Brand’s mother.)

The hungry masses are trickling in, and soon the dinner rush begins in earnest. It’s like watching one of those long, dreamlike tracking shots in a Scorsese movie: hands are shaken, guests are introduced to one another, servers move seamlessly between tables. Brand, Ingram, and McGillivray appear frequently, remembering names, whisking off coats, charming the pants off everyone. There’s even a Dean Martin soundtrack playing in the background.

Later, once the doors have closed, the overhead screen that usually displays the menu is hooked up to Wii golf. Between strokes, McGillivray and Ingram dash in and out of the kitchen helping Rueben, the dishwasher, finish up.

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