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Behind the Scenes at Boston Restaurants – What it Takes to Create an Excellent Dining Experience

Posted by Devin Cole  May 31, 2012 12:30 PM

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With its myriad of restaurant options, Boston is a destination for dining. Whether in a casual or formal setting, it is crucial for a restaurant to do whatever it can to ensure an excellent dining experience. After all, restaurants are in the hospitality business. Proper service is a must and is a reasonable expectation for a guest dining in a restaurant. The experience starts the moment a guest arrives and does not end until they are out the door; even a valet can influence the overall dining experience.

I interviewed several chefs and restaurant managers at successful Boston restaurants that I have found to provide top-notch dining experiences to hear what they have to say about best practices and what goes on behind the scenes. Restaurants that act on these tips will only benefit, as they set the stage to exceed guests’ expectations, increase the likelihood of a return visit, and minimize the risk of dissemination of bad reviews via word of mouth or social media.

Both the experts and diners agree that food and service are critical to a successful dining experience regardless of the type of restaurant. Neither food nor service should be compromised, but many actually say service is even more important than the food, because poor service can ruin the whole dining experience even more so than mediocre food.

Good service starts with hiring and training the right servers and continues with constant oversight. A restaurant’s staff is the face of the restaurant, should fit with its culture, and always have a welcoming attitude. Mark D'Alessandro, General Manager of Columbus Hospitality Group’s Mistral, said “You can train someone to be good but you can’t train sincerity and personality.” According to D’Alessandro, hospitality is an important component of a restaurant’s success, and it involves attention to detail and awareness of what is going on from the dining room to the valet.

Michael Schlow, Executive Chef and Owner of Radius, Via Matta, Alta Strada, and Tico restaurants said “Servers and managers should be able to read guests and adapt to the guests’ situations whether it is a business meeting, a date, or an anniversary. They are there to enhance the guests’ experience and transport them to a different place. Servers should be informed and knowledgeable and be given the opportunity to have a voice and be a part of the restaurant’s state of affairs,” said Schlow.

At Columbus Hospitality Group, new staff are required to complete a 2-week intensive training program when hired. According to The Langham Hotel’s Food & Beverage Director, Gaylord Lamy, and Executive Chef, Mark Sapienza, advanced training is necessary, and the Langham’s restaurant staff role play as guests during off hours so they can better appreciate their guests’ dining experience.

Frank McClelland, Chef and Proprietor of restaurant group New France, LLC, whose restaurants include L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre, said “In addition to training, we also have a testing program on four levels of knowledge - food and beverages, ingredients, techniques, and pairings such as wine and cheese.” New France also offers a mentoring program for its staff.

From the restaurant’s perspective, it’s about working as a team to ensure consistency from the kitchen, the wait staff, and the front of the house. The Langham, Columbus Hospitality Group, New France, and Schlow’s restaurants all hold daily staff meetings to review things such as the guests that are scheduled to dine that evening, menu items, and evening events.

Customer feedback cards are used to learn about guests’ experiences and preferences, and restaurants often keep a database of this information for future visits. If a guest had a previous bad dining experience, it provides an opportunity to make sure everything is done well on a return visit. In addition to soliciting customer feedback, the Langham hires mystery shoppers to review its restaurants and give reports on a quarterly basis. It also does internal audits, including manager assessments.

“When guests provide information, whether they have an allergy or anniversary, it is the server and restaurant manager's responsibility to pay attention to this information and act on it,” said Schlow. Special touches such as writing 'Happy Birthday' on a dessert plate in chocolate, giving a complimentary dessert or glass of champagne, or printing a pre-planned special menu with a name and date for a keepsake are impressive gestures that guests tend to appreciate.

Sapienza and Lamy said at the Langham, “we like to surprise and delight guests and give them more than expected. The Langham’s mission is to know the guest and build great memories. If a guest has a special request, it is fine to say how long it might take or what it might cost but you never want to say no.” Schlow said, “If we don’t have a great reason to say no to a guest, you have to say yes.”

Restaurants should always look for opportunities to improve and find ways to set the restaurant apart from other restaurants. D'Alessandro, Schlow, Lamy, Sapienza, and McClelland all agree that it is important to stay current with food and beverage trends, and try other restaurants to see what they are doing. New France takes trends into consideration and even employs a design expert to make sure uniforms are modern and stylish. Schlow said “Never rest and let your head down. Always have a fresh approach and focus on surpassing expectations. Never assume because you were good six years ago you are good now.”

It is good for all involved when restaurants take steps to ensure excellent guest service and focus on oversight. Excellent dining experiences create lasting positive impressions and that is always good for business!

The following are some additional tips that restaurants should consider:

What Not To Do:

  • Never put the guest on the defensive, such as if a guest feels something is cooked wrong. Don’t disagree – just make the food the way the guest requests it.

  • If you are a manager, don’t just walk around the restaurant – stop and ask people how things are going to find out what is really happening.

  • Keep the entertainment appropriate. If there are TVs in the dining area, don’t show graphic crime or drama programs – though popular at home, programs like 'CSI' don’t complement dinner and are not appropriate for children.

  • Don't ignore pests! If there is a pest issue in the restaurant, take care of it immediately. It doesn’t help the situation to ignore it and make excuses to guests about the reasoning behind it.

  • What To Do:

  • “Always make sure guests know they own the space and the experience” said McClelland.

  • Have a host present to greet guests at all times.

  • Keep bathrooms clean throughout the night – bathrooms say a lot about a restaurant.

  • Appreciate both first time and repeat guests.

  • Invest in who you hire – both staff and management. They can make or break the experience, and oversight is critical.

  • If you are lucky enough to hire a good server, do everything possible to keep them. Recognize their efforts and empower them.

  • Solicit customer feedback through surveys, pay attention to the responses, and act on any issues.

  • Be your own critic! Try the food that is being served, don’t just assume it is good.

  • Ellen Keiley is President of the MBA Women International Boston Chapter Board of Directors (formerly the National Association of Women MBAs) and is a Boston World Partnerships Connector. She can be contacted at ellenmkeiley@gmail.com

    This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
    The author is solely responsible for the content.

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