Edible Asks: How Does Service Impact Your Dining Experience?

Young couple in restaurant

How does the service you receive when eating out impact your dining experience?

Often, the answer to this question begins with whether you are being made to feel acknowledged.

Dashing into Una Pizza Napoletana, out of breath from biking over in a rush to put his name down in fear of the pizzeria’s running out of dough, Mission resident and mozzarella aficionado Aron Hegyi recounts a reassuring experience that made him excited for the hour-plus wait:

“The gentleman who first helped me was pushed out of the way by another gentleman, who yelled ‘Get ’im out of here, don’t let him take your name’ with a fun, playful smirk. I gave him my name, and he said, ‘Aron with an A?’ I replied, ‘One A, if you prefer.’ He responded, ‘Really? I do prefer, thank you.’”

The server acknowledged Aron’s franticness to put his name down. At the same time, he infused humor to ease the tension one can feel when in a rush to get a seat just before closing—or, in this case, before running out of dough.

Other times, it’s about being made to feel special, as though you left a mark on someone’s day, or life. And they on yours. Consider this childhood experience of Andrew Schapiro—now a Cole Valley dweller—whose face and regular order were remembered with delight.

Donning a big smile and sun-kissed cheeks, Eileen, Andrew’s favorite server, would greet him by name, and, when it came time to order, would wink and give him a knowing nod. “She knew I wanted the ribs on every visit, and not having to order them made me feel like a king,” he says. “I don’t remember what made the ribs so special, but I will never forget what it felt like to get that knowing nod from Eileen.”

On occasion, Nob Hill resident Michael Molesky would find himself strolling along 17th Street, nearing the corner of Pond. He’d pop into a favorite restaurant—Frances—to see if, by chance, there would be room at the bar just before the second turn of service for the evening. Often, he’d see a familiar face, outlined in dark, curly hair.

“Great to see you, Michael. Looking for seats at the counter?” At once, he’d recall the joys of being a regular, so aptly described by the New York Times’ former food critic Frank Bruni in his 2013 piece “Familiarity Breeds Content.” When you know what to expect, it properly sets expectations—and allows for informed decisions on where to dine in a city with no shortage of delicious, approachable options.

Whether a regular or first-time diner, feeling that you’re being treated as special, or that the server takes pleasure in seeing your party smile, leaves a lasting impression. At one of her favorite places in the city, says Oakland resident and artist Leah Tumerman, “A server went out of his way to bring us extra sauces, garnishes and an extra splash of wine, encouraging us to enjoy the menu dishes in the way he and his colleagues would during shift meals or when they came in [for a meal] outside of work. It made us feel like family members in on a household secret.”

In contrast, all of us have experienced some type of pause for an eye roll or disbelief in the lack of training of service staff. Tumerman recounts another experience, this time less rosy.

“At one of my favorite places in Oakland, we watched our server sit and chat at the bar with friends between infrequent visits to our table. All the while, course after course was delivered to us without our wine pairing. That evening, we had chosen to dine there especially for the featured wine pairings and spent more than we would have normally for the experience. Though this restaurant is a favorite and I will continue to visit for a fantastic menu and wine list, when it comes up in conversation, this service experience always lingers front and center. We can’t let it go. We’ll never be able to speak about this place without including it in the dialogue, which to some degree taints the establishment for us. That’s so unfortunate.”

Former SOMA residents Rachel Cole and her husband, Justin Hunter, had their first date at a little hole-in-the-wall Laotian restaurant. On their first anniversary, they went back to the same establishment to celebrate; they were surprised to find that the service staff couldn’t care less.

“When we told our server with enthusiasm that we had had our first date there and were back to celebrate, our server couldn’t have been less interested or more in a hurry to get our order in. Had the meal been more expensive we would have likely never been back. Because this is somewhere you go for the food and not the service we let it slide, but whenever we eat somewhere with bad service we joke that they got their training at the Laotian restaurant.”

Curious to hear from the service side, I caught up with Lauren Feldman, wine director at CALA and winery consultant and sales and marketing director for Ashes + Diamonds winery.

“I have a particularly different perspective because of the many roles I play,” she says. Feldman got her start in the industry in NYC. “In a city where there are so many amazing restaurants, the food will be good no matter where you go, so you become
a regular where you enjoy talking to the people. It becomes your reason for returning. Today, I will try new places but won’t return if the service is bad.”

Often, you become a regular at a place you can afford. To that end, Feldman believes we’re in an interesting moment in SF, where mid-priced restaurants are getting priced out. She worries that soon, only fast-casual and prix fixe white-glove experiences will remain.

“Rent is getting more expensive while the cost of living is increasing—it’s all getting more expensive but the customer coming in doesn’t want to pay more. People want organic food, sourced locally, etc., and there’s only one place where that money comes from: the diner’s check.”

Ironically, when restaurants start to cut back on costs, the first thing to suffer is the service, and yet, so often, you return where the service complements—even elevates—the food and beverage experience.

Long term, Feldman feels people will miss the mid-range experience where servers are friendly and take care of you, but short term, “we might end up losing a fair share of those restaurants as it’s becoming so expensive to live in San Francisco.” You expect great service at the Michelin or fine-dining level, and you anticipate less attention to service at the fast-casual level, because you understand the establishment is investing more in the food and less in the staffing.

“I would much rather be able to connect with my server in a restaurant where they can be friendly. [Places where diners] can sit down and just get served. I crave that. People crave that. There needs to be a reworking of how that’s priced, in order to make a fair wage.”

Many of the things we seek and return for in a dining experience happen at the mid-tier dining level. But that’s precisely the level being threatened now because of the economics of dining. I suppose then the service experience really can make or break your dining experience.

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