Chris Schlesinger isn't in the business of serving sweet tea on a Southern veranda at his Cambridge restaurants. But somehow he translates his Virginian, bless-your-heart, yes-ma'am upbringing into exceptional service for New Englanders at longtime favorite East Coast Grill and his year-old All Star Sandwich Bar.
"Our restaurants are about welcoming the customer," Schlesinger says. "The hosting of people in a space is a crucial consideration; it's not just about the food. Great service is about genuine hospitality." That said, Schlesinger makes the distinction between service and hospitality. "Service is giving something to someone that they need at a particular time." Like a steak knife to cut into some of the spice-rubbed ribs he serves. "Hospitality is making people feel welcome."
What he demands from his staff to make that happen? Hellos and goodbyes. "Recognizing customers as soon as they walk in is incredibly important," he says. "One of the most frustrating things for a human is to not be recognized. It makes a person feel they don't exist." Schlesinger finds wisdom from one of history's greatest chefs and restaurateurs, Auguste Escoffier. "He said there are not many principles of cooking," Schlesinger says. "Just one: to please the person you're cooking for."
Both chefs and servers are empowered to do whatever it takes (within reason) to make the customer happy. So if a customer wants his rare tuna cooked more, it goes back on the fire, with no grumbling from the grill masters. "We can still make a steak well done and juicy," he says.
Another key to hospitality is allowing servers to be who they are. If you do this, he says, "they find their own way to let you know you're special. An owner can choose to encourage this." In many, more formal restaurants, the ones often hailed for their excellent service, servers follow a type of script; they're not given their own voice. "Hospitality doesn't come through sometimes because of that," Schlesinger says. "Here they can use their own voice to convey sincerity."
Serving people is a humble job. "Not everybody has that gene, to make other people happy," he says. "Some people are able to do that and feel proud of it. You can't make 100 of 100 dishes great, but you can always make each customer feel special."