The Importance of Good Service in the Restaurant & Bar Business

By Patrick O’Neill

Photo courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

Customers love your food and drinks. Your atmosphere is inviting. Your prices are decent. So why aren’t people breaking down your doors every night? And why don’t you see more familiar faces at the tables or bar?

Duh! Maybe your service leaves a lot to be desired? Many restaurateurs and bar managers inexplicably forget the first rule of the business: great service lures customers and bad service scares them away.

Ming Tsai, chef/owner of Blue Ginger ( in Boston and host of the TV show “Simply Ming,” estimates that at least 70 percent of a great dining experience is due to the service, “As a chef, it’s hard to admit. Food is extremely important, of course, but you can have the most delicious food on the planet and if the service is inattentive or arrogant, it won’t matter. Those people won’t be coming back.”

Photo by Anthony Trieuli

“Service comes into play long before the customer arrives,” says Ming. “The person taking phone reservations sets the tone three weeks ahead. If she’s just broken up with her boyfriend and feels lousy, she can’t let it show. And if it’s busy, she should never say, ‘I have to put you on hold.’ You ask permission. ‘May I put you on hold?’ Display a welcoming attitude and the good service has already begun.”

Photo by Glenn Lucci

Bars must foster that service-first attitude too. At Louis 649 ( in New York City’s East Village, bartenders keep a log of what customers drink and talk about. General Manager Gianfranco Verga says the homework really pays off, “If someone comes in again, there’s a good chance the bartender will know what he likes and might refer to their last conversation. You also pay closer attention because you want to remember what you’re going to write down.”

Ryan Thomas Magarian, a Portland, Oregon-based cocktail consultant for restaurants, hotels and cruise ships ( and co-founder of Aviation Gin (, says the stronger the connection a bartender has to cocktail history, the more passion he or she will have for the work.

Photo by Terry McCarthy

“Educating bartenders is part of what I do, not just in the basics of making a drink but spending an hour, say, on the history of the old fashioned or the whiskey sour. When bartending evolves from a job into a profession, the quality of service improves dramatically.”

That sense of pride is clearly evident in both the restaurant and bar areas of Eleven Madison Park (, the four-star New York establishment that is part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group ( As General Manager Will Guidara says, “We start by hiring good people who like taking care of other people. For me, the purest expression of hospitality is taking the time to find out what that individual wants, then providing it. Some want a formal experience. Others might ask a lot about the food and we’re there to supply the information.”

Leo Robitschek, Eleven Madison’s Head Bartender, points out that restaurant bars are often an afterthought as far as the public is concerned. He notes, “Bars don’t get rated, so we have an opportunity and a challenge to define what a four-star bar is. I’d say 40 percent of our business is from regulars because we work so hard to build relationships. At some point, a regular might come in and say ‘I heard about this new cocktail and I’d like to try it.’ It’s very rewarding when you can turn a G&T guy into a cocktail connoisseur.”

Employees at NIOS (, the restaurant in the Muse Hotel (, in New York’s Times Square area, also have a chance to thrive in one-on-one customer contact. The hotel’s former General Manager Thomas Mathes (who now is the General Manager at Kimpton’s newest NYC hotel, Eventi says, “Everyone wants to feel special, so you have to go with the judgment of each employee, who must pay attention, watch the body language, even ask whether it’s a business meeting or a night on the town, or if they’re in a hurry to make curtain time for a show.”

How easy is it to teach new people getting their first taste of the business about the value of service
and hospitality? Jennifer Purcell, Associate Dean of Education at the Culinary Institute of America (, says, “It’s often harder to train a student with some restaurant experience, waiting on tables in a bistro, for example, where there’s a very casual level of service, and might think it’s cool to stick his guest checkpad down the back of his pants.

”When some new students sit down to eat,” says Purcell, “you see them texting under the table or eating very quickly just to get out of there. They’ve never had a fine-dining experience. It’s partly generational. But those who learn good manners at home grasp the service concept much faster.”

It’s an important lesson to learn. As Mathes notes, “In this economic environment, more than ever, people want value and a customized experience.”

And those little extras often make a difference. Cocktail consultant Magarian says, “Everyone who comes in the bar should get a cold glass of water, no ice, since a crucial part of enlightened service is having a sense of responsibility for the well being of your guest. Hangovers are generally linked to dehydration, so water intake is critical and when there’s no ice you tend to drink it much faster.”

Photo courtesy of Eleven Madison Park

At Blue Ginger, when a table orders the tasting menu, Ming Tsai drops by after the meal and signs the menu for them. And one thing is paramount, says Ming, “When you make a mistake, own up to it immediately. If a piece of plastic falls off a container into the food, don’t just blow it off. Bend over backwards to make it right. And if you make a mistake, suck it up and comp the meal. Giving the table a plate of cookies doesn’t do it.”

“It’s all about individual attention,” says Guidara, “and how you enhance the dining experience depends on each customer. When it comes to providing the best service and hospitality environment, we believe that one size fits one.”