Have you ever noticed how two people can look the same on paper, but when you meet them you sense that one has what the French would call a certain je ne sais quoi that sets that person apart?
The same is true for restaurants: Sometimes that extra spark comes from presentation; sometimes it comes from subtle touches such as lighting and music. Often, however, it comes from hospitality, which amounts to more than good service. See also: Ten rudest things servers and bartenders do to guests to make them wish they'd never come in.
I've eaten at restaurants where servers did everything right, deftly guiding me through the most esoteric of ingredients and articulately explaining the owners' philosophy on food, yet managed to make me feel like they'd rather be doing anything else than standing at my table.
I've also seen countless missed opportunities to make customers for life, which is what good hospitality can do when things go wrong. Once, a server at a family-run Middle Eastern spot dropped my sandwich on the floor and disappeared into the kitchen without an apology -- then never returned with a new one. Another time, at a thirty-dollar-an-entrée place with staff that should've known better, a server dipped his fork into the dessert I'd already eaten a few bites of -- who does that? -- only to agree that it didn't taste like it was supposed to. He then walked away without offering to bring something else or take it off the bill. Customers for life? Hardly.
Other restaurateurs, however, seem to get the difference. Maybe they've read Danny Meyer's book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, or maybe it's just instinctual. Maybe it's just that je ne sais quois.
Whether the reason, I've eaten at restaurants, including The Abbey Tavern, which I review this week, where the front-of-the-house staff is so eager to make guests feel welcome -- and yes, that includes happily fixing any mistakes, even minor ones -- that the place adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
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Where else do you get this kind of welcome?