Restaurant service is a lost art in Denver

The service at Charcoal is undermining the hard work of the chef -- but it's not the only place with this problem.
The service at Charcoal is undermining the hard work of the chef -- but it's not the only place with this problem.
Mark Manger

Charcoal, I noted in my review this week, has a service problem.

The front-of-house team is generally a good-natured bunch of people. They're friendly, they're eager, and they seem to want their guests to have a good time. But they missed the boat when they ignored the small details, which not only contrasted with the professionalism of the kitchen but actually lessened the quality of the experience.

This isn't a problem unique to Charcoal. While there are exceptions, well-meaning but unprofessional service is endemic in the Mile High City, and it's something we should fix if we want to reach the next echelon of dining in this town. The quality of food has grown leaps and bounds over the past few years; it's time for the service to catch up.

And the whole "but this is a casual town, and people want casual service" argument is not an excuse. Denver might be a casual town, but casual service is an illusion. That doesn't mean every restaurant should adhere to the strict standards of fine dining. In fact, I don't much care whether you serve me from the left or right, you backhand me when you present me with my food or even if you serve me, the lady (ha), first. But I do care that you get the important details right.

What are the important details? The ones that cause an annoyance when they're missed: Once you've delivered my soup, I don't want it to get cold while I wait for you to get me a spoon. If I order a wine pairing, I want to taste the wine before the food, so make sure my glass is on the table before my dish comes out. If I have a problem with my meal, I shouldn't have to track you down -- check back in quickly, after you've dropped my plate. And when I'm ready to pay my check, act quickly. You'd be shocked how slowly time passes when you're waiting for someone to swipe your credit card so you can leave.

(If you still aren't clear on the important details, go out to eat at a restaurant where you don't know any of the staff. In this town, chances are good you'll have one or two of these details missed, and then you'll know what not to do at your own place.)

Getting to that next level of service, though, takes leadership. With the proliferation of chef-driven restaurants, a strong personality in the front of the house has gone by the wayside. That's a mistake. Restaurants used to exist mostly as clubby social gathering spots where the host ruled and the food was secondary. It's excellent that we've moved past that into an era when we care about what's on our plates. But without a leader in the front of the house -- without that host -- restaurants are missing, at the very least, an opportunity to cultivate their own community. More often, they're setting the stage for an entirely mediocre service experience -- and an entirely forgettable dining out experience, even if the food should be memorable.

A good leader does a couple of things.

First, he choreographs. He makes sure the hosts are greeting people immediately, taking care of diners efficiently and acting warmly (on a side note, hosts are treated too secondarily in Denver dining; it's these people who make the first impression and often color the rest of the evening for a guest. Do you really want that person to be a vapid, unsmiling or unknowledgeable human?). Once guests are settled in the dining room, the leader makes sure their needs are met smoothly, jumping in to assist when necessary. I've waited tables, and I know things can go wrong behind the scenes -- but the diner doesn't want to see that. A good leader ensures that the curtain of serene, friendly, perfect world illusion is never pulled back.

Second, a good leader empowers his staff by instilling knowledge. Servers should know the menu. Bartenders should know the drink list. A good leader makes sure his team can answer most questions, while he professionally handles the more obscure ones when he's called on to do so.

Third, a good leader is a lightning rod for handling complaints. When someone is firmly in control of the front of the house, guests have an easy out when they're not having a good time -- they simply voice their problems to the leader, who can then rectify the issue before the guest walks out the door and never returns. This, by the way, is how you change a complaining guest from a bad Yelp reviewer into a lifetime regular: Blow him or her away by dealing with the problem professionally.

And on that note, a good leader makes sure every guest leaves -- both metaphorically and literally -- with a good taste in his or her mouth. Most of the time that's just a smile and a genuine "Thank you for joining us." Close out the interaction with care; that impression will linger longer than the aftertaste of your carefully selected espresso.

Above all, it's worth remembering this: Great service can make up for bad food, but rarely does it work the other way around.

Denver is turning out great food. It's time we stopped getting in our own way with bad service.

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