The Tipping Point

September 1, 2011

A former boss of mine at a fine dining restaurant liked to remind us in our pre-shift meetings that to work the floor was to act a humble part in a play. Our roles—from sommelier down to busboy—were essential to the narrative we were constructing for our customers. But “it falls to the food and drink to play the lead roles,” he’d say. I may have smiled, but like the greying veterans, immaculate in pressed white shirts, black bow ties, and pocketed aprons, I also nodded. Because it was true.

We were richly rewarded for our performances, in both cash and education. We learned not to blink at a 25 percent tip on a $30,000 bill, not to lift our noses when J.Lo and Puff Daddy exhibited terrible manners, not to tell anyone when the politician’s wife left a makeup bag containing cocaine. We cheerfully added ice to Diane Keaton’s decanted 1975 Mouton-Rothschild at her request (the sommelier being too devastated to do it himself). No two nights were the same, but the service always was. From the way we addressed guests (“sir” and “madam”) to the way we maintained tables, we hewed to exacting protocols.

Those times are largely gone. With financial uncertainty, the HST, and blood-alcohol angst making diners anxious about going out for dinner, high-end restaurant service as we remember it—with its polished black Oxfords, amuse-bouche forks, chilled butter, and such—has gone to ground. There it remains, cleverly disguised so as to appear only half as attentive as it once was. (cont'd…)

*Angus Reid Public Opinion conducted an online survery for Vancouver magazine of a representative sample of 805 randomly selected British Columbians from July 19 to July 20, 2011. The margin of error—which measures sampling variability—is +/-3.5%

SURVEY SAYS:

35% complimented good service; 18% complained about bad service

32% sent a bad dish back to the kitchen

20% have left a restaurant without tipping

41% have left a restaurant after tipping more than 20%

43% are annoyed when servers ask how first bites are tasting

31% report being annoyed by babies or small children making noise

24% of women say it angers them when a hostess dresses too provocatively (7% of men agree)

53% of respondents aged 18 to 34 have photographed, blogged, or Tweeted their meal

 

This change was evident at Hawksworth in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia well before it opened in June. General manager Chad Clark assured me that the atmosphere and service would be informal, as if “formality” were a swear word. Was I really to believe that owner/chef David Hawksworth would abandon old-world conventions? Apparently so, even though the front-of-house crew he’d assembled was made up of fine-dining refugees and Hawksworth himself is one of Canada’s culinary stars.

When the restaurant opened, its clear intent was to be seen as the best and most elegant room this city had seen. The impeccably presented Clark (one of our top charmers) steered my wife and me to a table in the middle of the Pearl Room. We sat under the gawk-worthy chandelier, a short putt from the climate-controlled wine room. Staff were dressed like they’d just sat in judgment of a runway show in Milan, the night’s service being their after-party. I wore a T-shirt, jeans with a ripped knee, and a pair of high-topped Converse All-Stars. (My wife wore a black dress with matching heels and diamonds on her lobes.)

Our server draped my lap with the white linen napkin and my wife’s with a substitute black one, so her dress wouldn’t pick up white lint—a details trick of the old school and an increasingly rare move. During the evening every service protocol—from the pouring of water to the clearing of plates—was met. Was our experience a casual one? Even without tablecloths, no. Clark may have wanted to project informality, but he and his crew just couldn’t help themselves. I felt expertly cloistered and coddled, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Though our city has welcomed hundreds of new rooms in the last five or six years, only nine have aspired to the heights that Hawksworth embodies. Of those, few survive; indeed, the words “fine dining” might as well call forth “Here lies…” Hawksworth is a delightful aberration, an anachronism, a parting gift from a time now passed.

“The market has dictated that we should get away from that [fine-dining] style of experience,” Ed Perrow, general manager at Cibo Trattoria, explained in spring 2010 after enRoute magazine named it Canada’s best new restaurant. Usually, such an accolade would be a blessing, but in the wake of the financial meltdown, critical praise can read to would-be diners as “too expensive” or “oppressively fancy.” Witness Gastropod and Fuel on West Fourth: both closed after winning Gold in the Best New Restaurant category at this magazine’s restaurant awards (in 2007 and 2008, respectively). “We want to remind people that we’re a relaxed trattoria,” Perrow said, adding that “casual” is what they’d had in mind from the beginning.

“The buttoned-up, ultra-conservative dining experience has never really been Vancouver’s thing anyway,” points out Kurtis Kolt, who has many credits on his CV (Aurora Bistro, Salt Tasting Room, The Waldorf Hotel). We don’t frown when served a platter from the right side or grit our teeth when a woman’s dish isn’t cleared before the man’s. That said, we don’t surrender our assumed right to excellence in service, no matter where we dine. “Just because we’re paying less for good meals in more casual environments these days,” Kolt says, “doesn’t mean we expect anything less than we feel we deserve.”

And so excellent service has become a clever hybrid of fine-dining and approachability. When Lumière closed last year, chef Dale MacKay rescued several crew members and opened the more casual Ensemble, serving up spot-on dishes for inexpensive prices ($7-$18) under the glare of Canucks games on flatscreen TVs. The service standard is still there, but free of haughtiness. And thank goodness, in a city where “sir” makes men under 50 giggle and “madam” makes women over 30 bridle.

This service evolution is evident across the city. The staff uniform, even in fine rooms, can now include glimpses of skin, piercings, and the occasional tattoo; the once ubiquitous Vivaldi and Sade soundtrack has been replaced with iPods shuffling Arcade Fire and Adele. But elements of fine dining service are still present—just carefully hidden.

A good restaurant starts with a good team. When poring over résumés, managers look for applicants who show a keen interest in food and drink outside the workplace. Kolt values potential over a lengthy list of famous past employers. “When I see that the candidate has made the rounds of the big name restaurants—a few months here, a year there—I start wondering why.” Some of his best hires have been individuals with little or no experience who signed up for wine courses or travelled to far-off destinations because they loved the cuisine. Mechanics and protocols can be taught.

Good service, whether formal or not, is about really caring. No one cares more than proprietors, and the most respected—John Bishop, Michel Jacob, Pino Posteraro, Vikram Vij, Hidekazu Tojo—are omnipresent in their rooms, hammering their will into every dish and detail by fear, charm, or persuasion. The most exacting owner of all, though, isn’t a chef. Jack Evrensel has four restaurants (West, CinCin, Blue Water Cafe, Araxi) and though little known to the public (he hasn’t done a White Spot commercial), Evrensel is an industry legend, noted for his attention to detail. When service needs to loosen up, you’ll probably spot it first in Evrensel’s rooms.

The next-generation inheritors of that instinct are Karri and Nico Schuermans, owners of the always busy Chambar. Its tagline—“a casual fling with fine dining”—tidily describes the sweet spot between formality and ubiquity. Small wonder their little empire (Café Medina, The Dirty Apron deli and cooking school) keeps growing. Only three other rooms have really nailed that balance: South Granville’s Vij’s, Chinatown’s Bao Bei, and Gastown’s Boneta. Paul Grunberg and chef Lee Cooper’s L’Abattoir aims to be the fourth.

The coming of L’Abattoir, off Maple Tree Square in Gastown, gave me a chance to witness the shift in Vancouver service up close. I participated in the opening and experienced it from the inside as a temporary employee. I was supposed to work four shifts, but I stayed for two months. Grunberg and Cooper confronted the same dilemma as their competitors. On the one hand, if their new restaurant was perceived to be fine dining, it would be relying on three dicey demographics in Gastown: the wealthy; splurging foodie; and celebrants. But if it was viewed as too casual, it would risk getting lost among the scores of rooms crowding that stratum.

Grunberg’s instructions on opening night were clear: “You’re all professionals,” he began.“I expect you to make our guests feel like they’re at home, that they’re being looked after.” Be capable, in other words, but not in your face. “You guys are good at this,” he said. “I expect you to trust your instincts.” I felt under-dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, but Grunberg was adamant about no dress code. We were to show ourselves as individuals rather than automatons. Fine dining, then, but with extraneous flourishes stripped away. Grunberg liked to call it “post fine dining.”

The protocols—serving women before men, maintaining eye contact, pouring from the right, delivery by seat number—were observed, but there was no bowing and scraping, no folded napkins over the arm. Thanks to Lee Cooper’s unexpected takes on ambitious dishes, soon every food writer in town was at the door. The Sun’s Mia Stainsby named L’Abattoir her top new restaurant of 2010; Alexandra Gill commented in the Globe & Mail: “There are some restaurants where you go to taste the new and revolutionary, and others where you go to drink and be fed. L’Abattoir combines the best of both worlds.”

Some things never change. Excellent service, old school or new, is attentive but unobtrusive. It’s usually the last element to be recognized in a good dining experience and the first to be blamed in a bad one. At L’Abattoir, it was part of the background noise; in none of the reviews was it even mentioned. Victory achieved.

For more on how service in restaurants is changing, check out Diner for Schmucks, a scathing review of hotspot M. Wells by GQ's longstanding food editor, Alan Richman, and A Degree of Hospitality By Tim and Nina Zagat.

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