Tomorrow: Take a bao.
Breakfasting with some former Advertiser colleagues at Big City Diner earlier this week, I was happy to learn that I could order from the keiki menu for just a $1 charge. As the portions at this local food haven are in keeping with the widely held Hawai’i philosophy that bigger is better, I was perfectly willing to fork over the tariff for a mini-moco. (I still brought home a take-out container.)
This kind of thoughtfulness in a restaurant is unfortunately rare. Most places won’t let grownups with small appetites take advantage of the children’s menu. Most places won’t let you do anything that’s not convenient for them (remember the “no substitutions” scene in “Five Easy Pieces”? — it’s an early Jack Nicholson and if you haven’t seen it, Netflix it). Their policies are about making their lives easier.
There’s an old saying in the restaurant business that restaurateurs would do well to take more seriously if they want to build repeat business during these trying financial times: “The front of the house doesn’t care.” (I owe this one to my friend Bonnie Friedman, who offers culinary tours on Maui, has taught menu design and is a my Venice traveling buddy; wwww.tourdamaui.com.)
The aphorism means customers don’t care what the “back of the house” wants, needs or is experiencing. Chef didn’t show up? Put somebody else on the line. Ice maker broken? Call the repair service, send someone out for bags of ice and put drinks on the house for the duration. Customer wants no onions? Eight-six the onions with a smile. No whining. No excuses. Solve the problem, be pleasant and make the customer feel cared about.
I’ve thought a lot about what I’d like to see in a restaurant and I bet you have, too. I’d love to hear your ideas. Here are a few of mine:
• Take a seat. Restaurants should offer a variety of chair sizes and seating arrangements so that exceptionally tall or short people, people who have difficulty maneuvering and folks who are a bit wide in the beam can all get comfortable. Banquettes, though attractive, are the worst. If I ran a restaurant, I’d offer footstools for short folks and cushions to bring you closer to the table or to soften a hard chair and I’d make sure there were some corners where a basketball player could stretch out his or her legs — like the bulkhead seats on an airplane.
• Take the temperature. I have to carry a sweater or shawl wherever I go because restaurants are invariably too cold, some torturously so. Bustling servers may be grateful for the cool but stationary customers (especially if they’re wearing bare beach or evening outfits) don’t fare so well. I’d offer lovely pashmina shawls to ladies, stylish sweaters or jackets to gentlemen.
• Size me right. In my restaurant, every dish would be available in light or more substantial portions, shared plates would be offered without fuss, family-style platters readily arranged. People ought to be able to eat just as they prefer.
• Shhhhhh. Whenever I say, “The food is great but I’ll never go there again,” it’s usually for one reason: noise. I’ve heard this from many other diners, particularly those who suffer from some level of hearing impairment. My husband wears hearing aids, which magnify all the sounds around him so a noisy restaurant is literally painful for him; he ends up removing his hearing aids, meaning we have to shout to converse, or — typical old-marrieds — we don’t talk at all. Not my idea of a great shared meal experience. Restaurant designers should employ sound-baffling techniques; background music should be just that — pleasant wallpaper that doesn’t capture the attention.
Bottom line: A thousand times over several decades of writing about restaurants, I’ve wanted to ask a restaurant owner or manager a simple question — have you ever been to your own restaurant? Have you ever sat in the chairs? Tried to have a conversation over the noise? Negotiated an unnecssarily complex ordering system? Heard the server say “no” when a “yes” would be a simple matter? Visited a messy bathroom? Listened to employees griping or gossiping when they should be attending to diners’ needs? Waited despairingly in line because reservations are not taken?
Seems to me the answer oftentimes would be no. But get a clue: Good food is not enough. In fact, good food isn’t always necessary. We all know of mediocre restaurants that stand the test of time because they have other advantages: location and parking, of course, but also friendly, prompt service or a comfy, welcoming feel. You need all three: Good food. Comfortable surroundings. And diner-driven service.
Tomorrow: Take a bao.