What's truly excellent service?

Joined Oct 9, 2008
There have been so many threads lately, long-running in some cases, about awful service and horrible food and people shouting and clapping happy birthday and all that.

Just to change the subject, what about really GOOD service?

I don't mean they did a perfectly nice job. I don't mean you had a nice time. I mean you walked out of the restaurant and one of the things that crossed your mind was, "jeepers, now that is what service is really about!"

I have two examples, to set the bar very, very high:

Roan Kikunoi, Kyoto
An informal, basically lunch-oriented kaiseki restaurant run by Murata Yoshihiro, chef-author of Kaiseki. Bill was $75 per person, plus sake (inexpensive -- maybe $25 for the bottle), tax included, tipping forbidden. I ate with my wife, who speaks fluent Japanese but is blonde and blue-eyed (the point being, everyone assumes we don't speak a word of Japanese).

First, we walk in and are taken to the bar, where twos are always seated unless they request otherwise (if you ever go to a serious kaiseki place, sit at the bar if you can!). I notice that the older chef behind the bar immediately reassigns his guys so that the man standing in front of us is someone who speaks really bad English -- which is more than anyone else behind the bar speaks of English. My wife politely chats, and it soon dawns on them that Japanese is OK, which is a relief.

Food happens quite magically. We finish a dish, and there's a polite pause before the dish is removed, tidily and precisely, by one of the chefs behind the bar. (They seem to rotate stations throughout service.) Note that this is not a sushi place: they do not cut things behind the bar, but only finish plating. Chatting with the chefs happens a lot, and they are charming and entertaining, as well as deeply informative about the food, which is extremely complicated.

When the sashimi course arrives, the very young chef tells us what the two fish are, but we don't know one of the names (it's a local Kyoto term unused elsewhere in Japan). He doesn't know other terms. The older man, down the bar, says, "that's katsuo [bonito]." I remark to my wife, "funny, it doesn't look like katsuo -- must be a different cut."

The same older man, who speaks very little English indeed, pops down the bar and says, slightly flustered [in Japanese], "oh no, sorry, that's not katsuo, it's baby hamachi, which here in Kyoto we call XXX [I forget the local word, to be honest, which only applies in September, so I didn't try to memorize it]." We laugh and enjoy our food. Next course comes, and it's a few slabs of beautifully prepared katsuo. I say in an undertone to my wife, "now that is katsuo," and the older man, back at the other end of the bar, laughs loudly and says, "yes, right, that's katsuo, sorry about that!" I know, you had to be there, but it was funny, and we and he were having fun. So were others at the bar. Note also that he was paying close attention to everything his guests were saying -- every word.

This whole chatting, entertaining, informing, whatever process goes on for 9, count them 9, courses.

We emerge, stuffed, from the dining room. We go to pay the bill in a little alcove for the purpose, and that same older man comes to say thank you and goodbye. It dawns on me that this is Murata Yoshihiro, the 3-star Michelin chef who runs this place. The guy cracking jokes about katsuo and the like. When was the last time Daniel Boulud served your food?

Chef Murata bows us out and politely suggests that we should come back in a few weeks when some more interesting fish will be really fresh.

Kichisen, Kyoto
Same deal -- kaiseki, at the bar. But this is dinner, full-bore, not casual. Final tally is about $350, including fancy sake and a truly epic dinner for two.

Here's a step-by-step description, with photos.

Throughout the meal, we see almost nobody but Chef Tanigawa Yoshimi. He entertains, serves, charms, does everything. He takes our coats, gives my wife a blanket for her knees (it's December), bows us out, calls us a taxi personally, introduces his wife as we leave.

The finest service I have ever had was sitting at bars. The chefs served us personally. The chefs made enormous efforts to entertain, charm, and inform us. They also worked to make us feel that we were honored guests in their homes.

To me, this is what the very best service is about.

Now you tell your stories of good service!
Joined Oct 9, 2008
It's been a long time since I posted the initial starter of this thread. It's mine, I can bump it up.

I find it quite depressing that nobody wanted to pitch in with her or his own great story of wonderful service. Has nobody had really good service?

I have one other example, but it's so long ago I can't remember all the fine details. 20 years ago, I took my girlfriend to the Ritz in Chicago. She liked eating and such, but she'd never been in a really fancy place before, and was kind of intimidated. About 3/4 of the way into the meal, she suddenly says, "hey, where did I get THIS from?" This was really good service, French-style: we honestly hadn't noticed, in any conscious way, things being brought and taken away. Intimidation? From whom? By the time we left, it was like we'd been completely alone in that largely-full dining room, and yet somehow mysteriously we'd eaten. Absolutely magical.
Joined Jun 22, 2010
I've had plenty of good service when I was paying a price that demands it. To me, this is doing your job rather than excelling at it.

The service that has most impressed me recently was actually at an IHOP. No, not the food... never the food at a place like that. Our waitress was something else though; attentive to every need, mistakes with the cooking were taken without question or long-winded apology/probing conversation. My water glass was never empty, the coffee pitcher was always full, the creamer never ran out despite going through about 20 of them inside of 30 minutes. All of this, and it wasn't precisely a slow day. While there can always be better service, I can't think of any way that she actually failed to meet a single standard right down to the fact that her thumb never touched the upper surface of the plate. She was obviously working a job far beneath her; it was like having a professional pianist performing at an elementary school recital.
Joined Nov 6, 2004
   Hi Chris,

  The are many things that I believe constitute exceptional service.  I believe most of the service should be performed without much notice to themselves.  But I look at service also being a coordinated effort between the front of the house and the kitchen.  Many times, timing of the meal seems to be a second thought.


  I've had really good service a couple of times.  But perhaps truly exceptional service operates when there is an element of surprise and something a little out of the norm...or at least outside of the expected.

   A friend of mine and myself make some trips up to Chicago to eat...eat eat.  We'll hit several spots in a days time eating several smaller meals and perhaps one large meal for the day.  

  On one of our trips we were near the end of the day and thought that we would entertain the option of getting the dessert tasting at Tru.  We weren't dressed appropriately, but we weren't dressed like slobs either.  We each had a dress shirt with dress shorts, nice shoes, etc.  But we weren't wearing pants.  We understood that this may be a slight problem and asked the door attendant if our dress would be too much of a problem on that weekday evening.  We stated our intentions of ordering the dessert tasting.  The man came back and said that this would be acceptable, but could only seat us in the lounge.  We wouldn't have wanted to sit in the dining area anyways for our tasting and meant no disrespect to the other diners.

      From the time we were taken through the doors we were treated like we were their special guests.  Now I've eaten at some fine dining establishments before and received pretty good service...but this was something quite different.   We were respectful, polite and showed some interest in the restaurant and the food and drinks that they served.  During our tasting we were greeted with conversation at our table with the mixologist and pastry chef both. 

   We were then offered a tour of the restaurant, we politely accepted. We were shown the different private dining areas first. Next we were able to get a tour of all areas of the kitchen and watch them work for time while a gentlemen explained a little about the history of the restaurant, etc. We met the Chef and pastry Chef again. After this we were directed toward the dining area.   They took time to show us the different areas in the dining room and also pointed out their Andy Warhol.

    I've really got no idea why we received the treatment that we did.  But it was certainly beyond just good service.

Joined Oct 2, 2010
Usually when my mom goes out to eat at this one Chinese restaurant that is no longer in business, she gets harassed by the other waitresses there.  When they see her they go up to her and ask her if she's bought a house yet, she lives in a condo.  But then it's like we usually get recommended a dish that's not on the menu which is pretty cool.  

I also find that private rooms in restaurants are pretty nifty for exceptional service.  There's an over abundance of staff, each one serving a specific purpose to attend to your every need.  I've only been to these private rooms with family but it would be great to get some of my friends to go.  Oh yeah and someone who knows how to prepare live lobster, so good with soy sauce and wasabi but then again kind of cruel.  Not my decision of course.
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Joined May 5, 2010
Being a Chef makes it very difficult to enjoy a great dinner out. Many of us have been there and done that, so "wowing" us is going to take something other than the usual.

In 35 years I can say I have had a few really great dinner, with exceptional service and the "wow" factor.

Some of these meals were not in a fine dining venue but merely great food and service in a nice atmosphere with a small check. Great.

More often then not, it is the other way around.

My favorite memory was while I was in Chicago for the national restaurant show. My GM and I dined at a really cool place that was packed, it seemed, for hours and hours. The line went out the door and down the block.

Our waiter was a short guy that looked like he could be the line guy from Alice's restaurant. The noise level was so great he had to shout at us to be heard.

We told him we were restaurant guys and asked him to "give us your best shot....." He stood very still, clenched his fists and said in a very loud voice..."OK I will!!!"

The food was amazing and came out of no where. Multiple courses of really great stuff.

We left him 50% tip.

Dinner with wine and tip was about $295.00. Best memory.
Joined Oct 5, 2010
Having worked as everything from dish washer to owner, food salesman to bartender and everything in between, I have had the extreme displeasure of seeing too many kitchens that I would never ever think of eating anything from that were still well regarded by the unsuspecting public. There have been a few memorable exceptions. I might add that since becoming seriously ill from bad squid at a new Hyatt that had opened years ago in Baltimore, I won't eat anywhere that I haven't seen the kitchen. It's just not worth it to me.

One place that I do still feel safe, and the service is always world class, is Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baltimore. There are others, and all in safer areas than the one in Baltimore City, but I'm in heaven when we dine there and I don't want to risk lousing up the image by trying another.

They cook nothing fancy. Quite the contrary, it's all quite plain. Baked potatoes, steamed vegetables, perfectly cooked prime cuts of beef...all presented by a professional wait staff that should be the envy of everyone else in a town filled with dirty kitchens, crappy food and cruddy service. Never have I ever noticed or had a reason to look for a waiter there. Never have I ever had a chance to pour my own drink, and yet I have no recollection of anyone having poured it for me. I am convinced that it is magic and that they are all pixies.

Ordering Bananas Foster prepared table side is hardly ground breaking flair, but I still order it every time that we go there just because they do such a wonderfully perfect job of it that it's as great a pleasure to watch as to eat.

The last time that we took someone with us it was my wife's sister and her husband for their 30th wedding anniversary. They wouldn't normally think of going there both because they don't get out much and because they live several hours away in a very rural community. We tied up a sumptuous booth for the better part of the evening, ate too much, drank too much and had the most marvelous time that I can recall. Ever since they have made it a point to patronize the restaurant at least a half dozen times a year, as do we.

The remarkable part is that even though everything is usually ordered a la carte, even with drinks, wine and desserts, it really isn't a whole lot more than what you'd end up paying to be poisoned and ignored at a national chain of boil in a bag venues. All that said, a huge tip is always in order. Relative to the 20% that I've often left for O.K. service, these guys and gals always exceed my expectations, and that is my definition of excellence in any field. It just amazes me that there are so many retarded college kids waiting tables through school that never seem to grasp that there are people who serve for a living and make a damn good living at that. Train all you like, most of them just don't seem to care.

For several years I used to carry an extra $50 in my wallet that got to be something of a joke. I was in sales and used to visit my customers' restaurants weekly. At every one of them, and there were many, I was at least recognized if not well known by the staff. I would offer the same deal to every server that we encountered. I would order two cocktails or beers at a time and put the fifty under one of them. As long as I never had to get up to find them or my glass didn't go dry the $50 was theirs. I even explained that I started with two drinks just to make it easy on them. All that they need do was replace the first as it was emptied even if I still had one on the table. I also explained that this had nothing at all to do with their tip for the meal. Three years and probably over a hundred experiences dining out and no one claimed the fifty...until I went to Ruth's Chris for the first time...and then it didn't seem remotely adequate even though I had never mentioned the deal and our waiter more than earned it just in our drink service.

We've also had the occasional positive experience at a roadside BBQ or the odd family restaurant, but if you have servers that just don't get it...send them to dinner at Ruth's Chris one evening. Maybe it'll shame them into stepping up. Oh yeah...and the next time some chippy little girl or boy whose given me shite service all evening, comes bopping over for the first time since handing me my cold food and a dirty spoon to ask how everything was at the end of a meal (mainly because their shift is over and they want their tip before they leave) I will bury a fork in their head.

What can I say...I just have standards.
Joined Feb 13, 2008
We typically get very good to excellent service from our usual restaurants -- friendly, efficient, unobtrusive -- most all of which are mid or bargain priced, ethnic "holes in the wall."

I tip okay, but nothing special -- around 20% to the nearest round number for table service.  Very seldom more or less.  I'm not sure if it makes sense or not, but it just seems like good manners and good taste to expect people to do their best by me and compensate them fairly for it. 

In the SGV -- which has a large Asian population -- Chinese and Korean restaurants frequently provoke a lot of complaints.  And even though we eat at places with a completely Asian clientele and limited English, the service we get is, as already said, usually very good.  Whatever.  They seem to remember us favorably from previous visits and treat us accordingly -- as guests. 

Maybe we're lucky.  Who knows?

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Joined Aug 6, 2010
The best service I have ever gotten was at Restaurant August in New Orleans. I have taken my fiance for our anniversary twice, and each time, we felt as though we were the only customers there. Each time, we had the five course tasting menu, and both times the experience was great. Very traditional service with a great wait staff that will do almost anything to ensure that you have a good time. But the key to it all was that we never felt hounded by them. Often times it seems like servers try way too hard and end up annoying you. A good server knows when to check on you, when to fill your water glass, and when to leave you alone.
Joined Oct 15, 2010
At some restaurants, exceptional service is expected because of the price you pay. Of all the fine dining places, Guy Savoy in Vegas was probably my favorite. There was just something about the servers and how things were taken care of. I rate the service there over Joel Robuchon (Vegas) and French Laundry.

Then, there are our local favorites. Places where the people are down to earth, proud of what they do and appreciative of your business. Service may not be perfect, but you're always well taken care of. If anything goes wrong, you know it'll be fixed.
Joined May 5, 2010
At some restaurants, exceptional service is expected because of the price you pay. Of all the fine dining places, Guy Savoy in Vegas was probably my favorite. There was just something about the servers and how things were taken care of. I rate the service there over Joel Robuchon (Vegas) and French Laundry.

Then, there are our local favorites. Places where the people are down to earth, proud of what they do and appreciative of your business. Service may not be perfect, but you're always well taken care of. If anything goes wrong, you know it'll be fixed.
I would very much enjoy hearing your comments concerning service at Savoy in Vegas as being better than French Laundry. I have been to both and am curious. Can you give an example?
Joined Oct 15, 2010
I would very much enjoy hearing your comments concerning service at Savoy in Vegas as being better than French Laundry. I have been to both and am curious. Can you give an example?

I think it had to do with the servers. Though the service at FL was excellent (still one of the best), I thought that our server tried too hard. There was this cheerfulness, almost tried to be funny at times, that didn't seem very genuine. Also, when I asked if I could have an alternative to the Oyster and Pearl dish, I was met with some resistance. I told the server that I don't enjoy oysters but he insisted that I try it. I was told that I wouldn't taste the oyster much. I tried it and he was right. But I don't really see the point of an oyster dish when you can't even taste it. Though it's a signature dish, it's not a dish I'm fond of. These were really minor things. But enough to make me prefer Savoy.

At Savoy, everything just seemed to flow so well. It's fine dining, it's formal and everything was done exactly as they should, yet, there was something that made me feel comfortable and at ease. Along with the food, it was an amazing evening.
Joined May 30, 2010
My partner and I took our daughter out to dinner for her 17th birthday.

On arriving she saw a server making a bananas foster at a table.

So for desert my daughter ordered the foster, only to be told, it is only made for an order for two...no one else at the table wanted it...much to the child's disappointment.

But when the server found out it was a birthday...he made it or her anyway, just cut the portion down to a single serving. and he made quite a show out of it.

Our daughter was delighted...and we all enjoyed the show.
Joined Apr 3, 2010
Sorry I don't remember. Have not have good service since the early 70s when I cruised on the old Italian Lines and the France Ships.?????
Joined Jan 9, 2008
I was in Las Vegas on business, and after wandering all over town searching, found a Denny's about a block away from my hotel. It even had lots of parking. It later turned out to be Denny's number 0002.

The server was a friendly, attentive young lady whose service was unobtrusive but indulgent; I wanted for nothing. I usually tip 25% or so to make up for the little old ladies who leave a quarter, but this gal would have snagged a little more than that for spoiling me. After finishing my burger and while enjoying the fries, the server suggested I think about what dessert I might like, pointing to the little flip-chart dessert menu at the other end of the table. I said I would, eyeing the pictured slice of pumpkin pie with its parsimonious tiny dab of whipped cream.

When she later came with my check, she asked if I had decided on dessert, in a tone of voice that sounded like she was suggesting something faintly sinful but vastly enjoyable (i.e., perfect "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" tone of voice). I pointed to the flip-chart, still showing the pumpkin pie, and asked "How much whipped cream can you put on a slice of pie without getting fired?"

She replied, "A lot!", saying it with with a conspiratorial hush, as if she herself was surprised at what she could get away with. So I asked her to bring me some.

She left, then from around the corner I heard this very prolonged "PFUSHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!". Then she reappeared with a plate holding a mound of whipped cream, under which I discovered a nice slice of pumpkin pie. Perfect.

It was apparent that Margaret M. understood perfectly her role as customer advocate, and how to charm engineers out of their cash. Breakfast had been complimentary at the hotel, and the seminar I was there to attend had provided lunch, so I calculated her tip so the check used up my entire per diem. She was grateful. Then I wrote a letter to her manager, telling him what a gem she was. Then I wrote to Denny's headquarters, telling them what a great job the manager was doing and what a gem Margaret was. Of course I'll never know what effect the letters may have had. But I hope that if Margaret stayed in that profession, she is now working somewhere where the checks are bigger and the opportunities better. Even so, when I return to that Denny's next time I am in Vegas, I will hope to find her.
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