Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Difference Good Service Makes

I have always believed that the quality of service you get in a restaurant affects your enjoyment of the meal more than anything else. Even if the food is only just okay, good service can make or break an evening. I had first hand experience of this the other night in Santana Row, San Jose.

A few evenings before, my husband and I had gone into Maggiano’s restaurant in Olin Avenue just on the off chance of getting a table. They were really busy, but the hostess said that if we waited in the bar for about 45 minutes she could get us a table. We were in no rush and I was very happy to have a cocktail, so pulled up a chair at the bar and settled in for a chat. While we sat there, I noticed plates of food coming out that looked absolutely wonderful. My mouth was watering, especially when I saw a side dish of asparagus that had more of my favourite vegetable on it than I had ever seen in one place before. I was just commenting on it when our pager went off. It was less than half an hour later so our expectations had been managed beautifully.

Everyone was really welcoming as we walked into the restaurant, and our server was with us before we knew it. She was really chatty and informative, and helped us to get to grips with an absolutely huge menu. There were so many choices. She mentioned that “small plates” would actually serve two people, and that we should only order a large if were really, really hungry. As servings are generous in the US anyway, and we had no fridge back at the hotel for a “doggie bag”, we decided to take her advice. So we ordered a small Caesar Salad, a plate of lobster linguini and one of those lovely side orders of asparagus I had seen when I was sitting in the bar.

When it came to the wine list, our server was really well informed, and helped us to choose an excellent wine at the price point we wanted. She did not even attempt to up-sell us, and brought us a really interesting wine with a great story behind it from Seven Daughters Winery. It was a blend of white grapes and my goodness it was delicious – nicer in fact than many other wines I have paid a lot more for.

The Caesar Salad was just right for sharing, and it was beautifully prepared. Our pasta was wonderful, and not only was the “small plate” enough for the two of us, we actually could not even finish that. The side of asparagus was absolutely loaded with beautifully steamed spears that in the end even I - the queen of asparagus lovers – could not finish. Seriously, there were at least three dozen spears of asparagus on that plate. My husband and I were just pleasantly full, and we had brilliant service throughout the meal at just the right speed – not too fast, not too slow.

We really could not manage dessert, and our server did not attempt to push us to have any. Instead she brought us a complimentary plate of beautiful half moon shaped lemon iced cookies – on her! They were light and delicious, and we managed to find room for every single one of them. The whole bill with wine was less than $75 (plus a generous tip) and we had a fantastic evening. In fact, it was so good that my husband, who was in San Jose on business, decided we should bring some of his team to dinner at Maggiano’s when they arrived in San Jose from the UK on the weekend. We booked a table for six people on the Sunday evening.

It was busy when we arrived with the others on Sunday, but no busier than on the night we had come on our own. We didn’t have to wait long for our table, but I was sad to see that our server was not working that night. Never mind, there was a nice chap assigned to us so we were sure all would be well. Unfortunately, he was clearly overwhelmed. He offered no explanation of the menu, leaving our guests a bit bemused when we tried to explain that you really did not need to order one dish each, and that it was better to share. I could see them thinking that perhaps we were trying to be cheap.

We ordered the wine straight away, choosing the one we had the first night we visited. I kid you not, it took nearly thirty minutes for the wine and soft drinks to arrive and the server still had not taken our order. We had to ask for the drinks twice. No one wants to feel rushed, but this was ridiculous. When the server finally came to take our order, he further reinforced the idea we might be trying to be a bit cheap by doing nothing to indicate he agreed with what we were saying about the serving sizes, encouraging us to order quite a lot. It was embarrassing because we knew there would be far too much food, and yet we did not want to appear to be inhospitable to our guests. We had three starter dishes between six people, all of which were very good, but by the time we had finished we were all getting pretty full. The three main courses – large plates this time – we ordered were more than enough food for seven or eight people. They were all well prepared, especially our by now favouite lobster linguini and a dish of steak medallions with garlic mashed potatoes. Sadly the delicious Shrimp and Angel Hair al’ Arrabbiata was barely touched as no one had any room for it. The service was mind-bendingly slow throughout and we were in the restaurant for almost three hours – this on a night when most of party were severely jet lagged and just wanted a nice meal before retiring. It was like pulling teeth trying to get a second bottle of wine as well.

We were so disappointed, and the other members of our party were at a loss as to how we could have raved about our previous experience. Needless to say our bill was expensive, particularly as we left a huge amount of food on the table.

And this is where it all falls down. Our four guests will never return to Maggiano’s again. Although the food was very good, the service was so poor it has put them off completely. It has certainly made us think twice about going back again or recommending it. Although we hardly live locally, we and many of our contemporaries visit the area regularly. The company my husband works for has a base in that area with a huge number of employees – and word travels fast about good or bad places to eat. It’s a bit like the old shampoo commercial – “and she told two friends, and so on and so on”. It’s not like they are going to go bankrupt over it or anything, but they will lose potential business. As for us, we’d probably give Maggiano’s one more try based on our first experience and the quality of the food. But there’s only two of us, and I’d hesitate to recommend the restaurant based on our second experience.

So often there is not enough importance put on the fact that good service can make or break a restaurant. It’s not just about the tip a server gets (or doesn’t get) that night, it’s about whether people tell their friends good things about a restaurant and whether they come back. It’s also about what people say and write. If I had only gone to this branch of Maggiano’s in Santana Row the once it would have made it on to my Recommended Restaurants page no problem. As it is, I really cannot put it there, and it is completely the fault of the server on the second night.

Waiting staff are a huge part of a restaurant's lifeblood. They need to be trained and nurtured, and their performance needs to be monitored if a restaurant wants repeat clientele. Leave things to chance and a restaurant won’t just lose the people who dine there on a particular night, they'll lose future business as well. It’s a timely lesson in these days of a wobbly economy, and one restaurants will ignore at their peril.

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