Rude Food: Serves You Right

Most big city restaurants don’t realise that a great restaurant is not one that treats celebrities better. It is one that treats every guest as a celebrity. Vir Sanghvi writes...
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON FEB 04, 2012 07:12 PM IST

It was a conversation with the chef Vikas Khanna (whose Junoon restaurant in New York has a Michelin star but who is probably better known in India as the star of Masterchef) that got me thinking. Vikas wanted to know why Indian restaurants do not bother with greeters.

He told me about experiences he’d had at various Bombay restaurants. He would wander in looking for a table and then hang around waiting for someone to notice him. He was not the only one, he said. He had discovered, while he was waiting, that other guests were receiving the same indifferent treatment.

Vikas’s bewilderment was based on his experiences in New York. In the West, the restaurant hierarchy goes something like this: chef, manager, and then, jointly in third place, the sommelier and the greeter.

The greeter is the person who meets guests at the door, receives them warmly, leads them to their table, asks them if they will have something to drink and then, hands the table over to the serving staff. Because the experience begins the moment you enter the restaurant – and not when you’re seated at your table – the greeter can make or break the evening for you.

Hotels have worked out that the quality of the welcome usually determines whether or not resident guests will like their stay. So, enormous effort goes into ensuring that all guests are greeted warmly – by airport reps, doormen, reception staff, etc.

It should be the same with restaurants. And that, in fact, is the attitude in the West. In India, however, even hotels who understand how resident guests should be welcomed fail to extend this principle to their restaurants. Vikas’s bad experiences related to well-known Bombay hotels and others have similar stories to tell. In my experience, however, the hotels are not the main problem. By and large, they get it right. It is the stand-alone restaurant sector that is the problem.

At most stand-alone restaurants – certainly the new ones, anyway – the job of greeter is given to a girl from the North-East. Usually, the young lady in question has never worked in a restaurant before and has very little to do with the waiting staff. She is given no training at all, is not taught how to recognise guests or how to choose which table to take them to. Frequently, she is paid an extremely low salary and unlike the waiting staff cannot hope to supplement her income with tips. Naturally, she treats the job as a stop-gap and spends her time looking for alternative employment with better prospects.

In the West, greeters are highly paid and restaurants try and steal the best greeters from other places. When a new restaurant opens, it will be at a considerable advantage if its greeter has come from a successful or well-known establishment. The greeter will know how to handle guests, how to welcome them warmly, and how to select an appropriate table for them.

Indian restaurants don’t seem to have worked this out. Partly, this is because there has been such an explosion of stand-alone establishments that nobody has had the time to work out the rules and the techniques required for successful restauranting.

My conversation with Vikas made me think of the other global restaurant rules of which our new breed of dining entrepreneurs seem blissfully unaware. Here are some of the lapses that I have noticed over the last year: Lighting is key to the success of a restaurant. Very bright lighting is associated in the restaurant business with canteens and fast-food places. Very low lighting is the hallmark of sleazy bars and dives. The trick is to find something in between that suits the ambience a restaurant is trying to create.

Most hotel restaurants will now hire a lighting designer to plan the level of lighting and many will have three different light settings for different times of day. Serious hoteliers are obsessed with lights. I was once at Ziya, the Indian restaurant at the Bombay Oberoi at Biki Oberoi’s table. He paid less attention to the food than the lights, making the manager change the levels again and again till he thought the balance was right.

Stand-alones can’t always afford lighting designers so it is understandable that they don’t necessarily get it right. What is unforgivable is that too many of them don’t even bother to experiment with lighting levels.

One simple test of a restaurant’s lighting is this: does the lady dining with you look better or worse than normal? If she looks worse, then the lighting is a flop. If she looks radiant, then your dining experience will probably be superb because the restaurant has been planned by someone who understands the business. There is a second, more basic, test. Can you read the menu? If you can’t then does the restaurant offer torches or little reading lights? If it doesn’t, and if the lighting levels are too low to be able to read, then leave and go and eat elsewhere. They probably don’t want you to be able to look at your plate either. And God knows what they’ll put into it because they know that you won’t be able to see it.

Serving basics There’s a book written by a waitress at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in New York. She explains how the waiting staff were trained for months before the restaurant opened so that not only did they understand every dish on the menu but that they respected ‘the bubble’.

‘The bubble’ is the space that surrounds each guest at the restaurant. The task of the waiter is to provide excellent service without ever entering the ‘bubble’ or invading the guest’s personal space. Diners want to feel pampered not violated; loved rather than raped.

I don’t expect stand-alone restaurants to have the kind of money Keller spent on training his staff. But it’s important to explain the nature of personal space to waiters. All too often servers will lean close to guests, reach around them to clear plates or put their hands next to their faces while putting down the food. Others will hang around the table, destroying the intimacy of the dining experience.

Sometimes, they will forget the basics. Any waiter who does not write down a meal order should be sacked. It doesn’t cost much to give your staff pads and pencils and if they still don’t use them, then they should consider alternative careers. I’ve lost count of the number of times waiters have forgotten dishes, have got the order wrong or miscommunicated the guest’s preferences to the kitchen.

Tables Remember that most Western restaurants are designed for plated service. They are not designed for Indian or Chinese service, where serving bowls also have to be accommodated on the table. All too often, Indian interior designers simply copy the look of Western restaurants without worrying about practicality.

This is why, when you go to so many Chinese or Indian restaurants, you discover that there is no room for the serving bowls on the table. So, waiters will insist on serving you and will try and fill your plates at one shot so that they don’t have to come back. Or – and this is even more irritating – they will put your serving bowls at a nearby counter. So each time you feel like some dal or more fried rice, you will first have to catch the eye of a waiter and then entreat him to bring the bowl to your table. Often you will forget what is still left in the serving bowl and will leave the restaurant with lots of the food you ordered – and paid for – left uneaten.

A corollary of this phenomenon is the reluctance of restaurants to give guests larger tables. It is a rule of thumb that if two of you go into an empty Chinese restaurant, they will still give you a table for two and not one for four even though the larger table will remain unoccupied the entire evening. Why do restaurants do this? Search me. I have no clue.

Snobbery Restaurant menus are great equalisers. The man at the table next to mine may be a billionaire. But he is paying exactly as much for his steak as I am. The golden rule of restaurants is that the rich can’t pay more than the rest of us because prices are fixed. (Which is why foolish, vulgar rich people order expensive champagne or whatever to draw attention to their wealth – the food does not really given them that opportunity.)

Of course, there are hierarchies. Not all of us can afford expensive restaurants. But once we are in such a restaurant, we are equal to every other guest at every other table. Any restaurant that does not recognise this and treats one table like dirt while lavishing attention on the vulgar rich is a restaurant that is not worth going back to.

One of the saddest aspects of the big city restaurant boom is that newer restaurants have not recognised this. They still don’t realise that a great restaurant is not one that treats celebrities better. It is one that treats every guest as a celebrity. We go to restaurants to feel good about ourselves. And any restaurant that makes us feel bad is run by somebody who has no right to be in this business.

From HT Brunch, February 5

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