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Knocking themselves out

From smiling to splitting orders, restaurant managers stress the importance of good service

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 1, 2011

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Zagat Survey recently released its 2011/12 Boston-area guide, offering rankings for almost 1,400 restaurants, derived from the input of about 7,500 people. This year, respondents’ No. 1 complaint was service. Sixty-five percent named it the prime irritant while dining. This is nothing new. In fact, it’s an improvement from last year’s 72 percent. Service is the main complaint in other cities, as well. “I think it’s the weak link in the restaurant industry,’’ says Tim Zagat, CEO and cofounder of the survey with wife Nina.

Those who work at restaurants may beg to differ. But everyone can agree on one thing: Service is extremely important. Diners want to be treated well. And restaurateurs want them to keep returning.

“I think it’s the most important aspect of the restaurant business,’’ says Nicole Bernier, general manager and wine director of Rendezvous in Cambridge. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a small little restaurant or a high-end restaurant, hospitality is key.’’

For Bernier, it starts with greeting people at the door with a genuine smile. “We really, really try to make people happy,’’ she says. “This is a silly thing, but I try to seat incomplete parties. Their friends are probably on their way shortly, and it’s going to be much more comfortable sitting at the table. We treat people how we’d like to be treated.’’

At Bistro 5 in West Medford, chef-owner Vittorio Ettore takes a similar tack. “One of the things I really dislike about restaurants is when they make you feel you’re lucky to be there. I make sure servers understand that here the attitude is contrary. We are lucky to have you here tonight. You’ve chosen us vs. a ton of other restaurants.’’

They demonstrate this attitude by doing everything from altering dishes to splitting orders. And if only one person at the table wants to do a tasting menu, that’s just fine. “If I order six courses and you order one entree, I think you understand you’re going to have to wait around,’’ he says.

When restaurants refuse to do such things, he says, “at the end of day it’s for the comfort and laziness of the chef. I’m sorry. Some chefs’ egos are just too big.’’

Big egos don’t mesh with hospitality. Mark D’Alessandro, general manager of Mistral Bistro, stresses the importance of taking responsibility. “People want an experience where they feel like they’re being treated well,’’ he says. “If something goes wrong, there has to be an acknowledgement from the restaurant. If you make a mistake, don’t try to hide it or make excuses.’’

Even with the most challenging guests, a bad situation can usually be smoothed over. “I’ve stood in front of a guest and said, ‘Why don’t we start over? I know this has not been a good experience for you,’ ’’ D’Alessandro says. “Honesty and sincerity go a long way. The most important thing is listening.’’

It’s one thing to put such principles into practice at smaller, independent restaurants. How does a chain ensure good service — say, one like the Cheesecake Factory, where the official corporate mission is “to create an environment where absolute guest satisfaction is our highest priority’’?

In much the same way, says chief operating officer David Gordon. The Cheesecake Factory has almost 150 locations, and the technical aspects of service have been codified into about 20 steps. “There’s the technical side, the steps of service in the dining experience,’’ he says. “How long it should take you to greet the table, to check back.’’

But hospitality can’t be codified. “Every guest is different,’’ Gordon says. “We empower staff to make the right decision in the right circumstance. If that means they need to skip a step or do something differently, that’s OK.’’

From the smallest neighborhood restaurant to the biggest chain, managers all say the same things are key in ensuring good service.

First: hiring the right people — not always the ones with the most experience.

“I can teach people points of service here if they’re willing and interested,’’ says Bernier. “But they have to have that hospitality side to them. They have to have a warm presence and a nice smile and be a people person.’’

D’Alessandro says he hires for personality over experience. That’s how Chris Rossetti became a server at Mistral. He worked previously at places like Legal Sea Foods and Armani Cafe, but not in fine dining. “Anybody can be taught how to open a bottle of wine, but not everybody can go up to people and tell them about that bottle and have passion,’’ he says.

Second: education and empowerment. Staff members need to know about the restaurant’s food and wine. And they need to be able to make their own decisions.

“My philosophy is to have the server ask me the least questions possible,’’ says Ettore. “We have gnocchi with mushrooms, and we have risotto with scallops. If a customer says, ‘Can I have a mushroom risotto?,’ you shouldn’t have to come to me.’’

Third: training never ends.

D’Alessandro holds daily staff meetings at Mistral to talk over the day’s menu, issues from the previous night, and more. “The most important thing is refining and talking about issues and paying attention to what the staff is doing on a daily basis,’’ he says.

As for Zagat, he has his own ideas about how to fix service.

“There needs to be an effort to develop front-of-house professional education programs at every culinary school,’’ he says. “We’ve seen the rise of celebrity chefs, along with numerous [television] programs to train hopefuls. But the front of the house — hosts, servers, sommeliers — has not undergone the same glamorous transformation.

“People learn to do the job on the job,’’ says Zagat. “A very large percentage of people are putting themselves through college or are out-of-work actors. The front of the house is not terribly respected or professionalized.’’

Perhaps for service to improve, it simply needs an image overhaul. “Top Waiter,’’ anyone?

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.