Five examples of great service in Denver
Bobby Stuckey, left, presides over service at Frasca while Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson helms the kitchen.
After some service flubs at Charcoal, the subject of my most recent review, I lamented the fact that the quality of service in many of this town's restaurants has not kept up with the ever-improving food turned out by the kitchens. There are exceptions, of course, and those are worth noting because they're also worth emulating.
Here are five examples of excellent service in the metro area, available at several different price points.
Anyone who thinks good service can only be had at a spot with a fine-dining price tag should visit some of the mom-and-pop shops in this city, starting with Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe, a bare-bones spot that specializes in Cuban empanadas, ropa viejo and pork-stuffed sandwiches. This family-run joint features a mix of counter service and table-side care, with owners Sergio and Roxana Negrin energetically involving themselves in their small, casual dining room. They never miss a beat, and they'll frequently bend the rules of their order-at-the-counter model to bring you a refill or coax you into trying something delicious you hadn't noticed before.The food alone is definitely worth the trek, but it's the warm, caring, community-creating service that will keep you coming back.
The key to good service, really, is anticipation: think one step ahead of your guests and you're probably going to impress them -- and sometimes, that means heading off a problem before it's actually a problem. On a recent night at Second Home, the restaurant on the ground floor of the JW Marriott, my party's server had done everything by the books. We'd finished our appetizers and were waiting on our entrees when the manager showed up with a tray full of drinks. "I brought you a second round on me," she said. "The kitchen misfired an entree, and I wanted to apologize for the delay." We hadn't noticed (and since we were sitting in the bar, we probably wouldn't have complained about slow timing, anyway), but that gesture was enough to not only completely frame the rest of our night as a great experience, it also ensured we'd return. Soon.
Yes, it's a chain and a corporate expense-account feeding ground, and if the price tag isn't enough to deter you, the fact that you're not supporting Colorado's independent restaurateurs may turn you off. But this place is a case study in good service that's far from corporate: The steakhouse gets everything right, from the second the valet takes your key to the moment he returns it. The hosts are assertive and efficient, markings are never missed and the entire front-of-house staff is professional, honest and confident. One particularly good example of the thought and coordination that goes into serving each guest? Start with a drink in the bar, and the bartender will introduce himself and ask your name. Move to a table for dinner, and your server will show up calling you by name, too. And though this place must sell a lot of Napa Cabernet, your server will never assume that's what you're after -- in fact, your server will never assume anything at all; he or she will let you set the tone for your own evening while standing by so that he or she can play into it perfectly.
"Casual service is an illusion," I wrote in my rant, and no one pulls off this illusion better than Table 6. Owner Aaron Forman oversees a staff that's quirky, laidback and seriously concerned that each guest have the best time possible -- I once even had a server stop me from ordering a dish, saying, "Honestly, that's not my favorite." They never miss a marking, a pairing or an opportunity to make a joke, and they manage to make every table feel like a regular or friend, regardless of that person's status or situation. And the service is consistently stellar, from the first time I stepped through the door more than five years ago to last weekend, when the restaurant flawlessly handled a brunch party of fifteen without missing a beat. And though Forman is frequently on hand to ensure things are running right, the team works like a well-oiled machine even in his absence, which is a true testament to the power of his leadership.
Of all the exceptions to my statement that unprofessional service is endemic in Denver, the one that was brought up most frequently by commenters was Frasca Food and Wine, and with good reason: Co-owner and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey maintains such a high standard for service for himself and his staff that he's frequently cited on the national level for his work. I've written before about the lessons I learned about service while working under him, and Stuckey remains a pitch-perfect example of a leader. He coordinates the team, he is a wealth of knowledge, and he really, really cares that everyone leave Frasca absolutely ecstatic that they've spent their evening at his restaurant -- and he'll bend over backwards to ensure that. That enables Frasca to make a soaring service promise to every guest...and still over-deliver, every single time.
Want more? Nab a bar seat at Colt & Gray, experience on-point fine-dining service at Flagstaff House, drop into Cafe Brazil for South American hospitality, or witness an exceptional front-of-the-house personality behind a counter at Maria Empanada.
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