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The sign at the front of the restaurant reads "Welcome" — but the host is the one who helps you feel welcome.
The sign at the front of the restaurant reads "Welcome" — but the host is the one who helps you feel welcome.
Danielle Lirette

Stirring the Pot: The Case of the Disappearing Host

After twenty years in restaurant kitchens, Jamey Fader is now culinary director for Marczyk Fine Foods. But he’s still stirring the pot, and will answer your questions about the restaurant business. This week's question comes from someone who just wants a friendly face at the front of a restaurant.

Reader: I'm old enough to remember when the host and GM were the face of a restaurant, people whose names you knew and who were as important as the chef in the kitchen. Is it just me, or is the host (and even the GM) now a forgotten position in restaurants?

Jamey Fader: I’m old, too. I’ve begun to understand that this is more of a mindset than a physical attribute, but it still rings true. While I enjoy throwing myself off cliffs on a snowboard and riding dirt bikes with my daughter, my adventurous outdoor proclivities go counter to my old-man tendencies when it comes to dining out. My discomfort is facilitated by a long list of potential inconveniences, but starts and ends with a lack of service and hospitality standards.

This is the fucking hospitality industry: It’s what we do. We make people’s days, weeks and years in one ninety-minute visit. It’s our juice. Our gas. Our stoke. But we’ve replaced this approach to taking care of people and making that our life’s work with the cliché of overpriced aprons, tattoos that say “Chef Life,” dishes that look good on Instagram (but eat like shit), fancy clogs and drinks with way too many ingredients. We’ve become caricatures of what we once were — more appearance and talk than substance and walk. Taking care of people is our mission, but we've lost sight of that. Hell, we've smashed the compass, turned off GPS and run headlong into the morass of our own personal agendas.

As I survey the view from my lofty, self-righteous vista, I see plenty of room for improvement, but a recent, comically off-the-mark dining experience has my sights set solely on the host, who, in this case, was nowhere to be found when my wife and I visited a busy eatery. This is akin to a lifeguard not being on their stand, or a flight control operator not at their screen. If you bail from this vital post for any reason, someone has to take your place, because greeting the guest and ushering them through a successful dining experience is Hospitality 101.

When the host finally arrived at her station, I inquired about the wait for a deuce, to which she responded, ”I don’t know.” That’s it. Nothing else.

A host not knowing the wait time is much the same as a bus driver not knowing the next stop on the line. The sheer contempt for guests — and for the rest of her team — was almost admirable, but ultimately disastrous, because a keen awareness of the evening’s flow and an intrinsic motivation to be gracious are at the very crux of this role, the top of the list of a host's responsibilities.

Without a good host, there's no organization at the front of the house, so chaos ensues and eventually spreads to the kitchen, because where and when guests are seated defines the pace and flow of each shift for servers, bartenders and cooks alike. This integral position is the first and last personal interaction of the evening for a guest, so the host's skill and demeanor have the potential to make or break any experience in an instant.

After our initial interaction, I asked the host if she would be willing to determine the wait for a two-top, to which she responded “I’ll have to get my iPad,” followed by a long stare and an even longer sigh.

We hated to put her out by asking her to do the most basic part of her job, but our growing hunger prodded us to persist. She walked away, and we stood for minutes like lost puppies before she returned, told us it would be twenty minutes for a table — and then walked off again. Our guide to our table — as well as to our good time — was nowhere to be found; that we were left alone, uninformed and fending for ourselves was a cardinal sin.

A properly run restaurant will always have someone at the entrance to greet you.EXPAND
A properly run restaurant will always have someone at the entrance to greet you.
Mark Antonation

Meanwhile, the manager was too busy flirting with the bartender and hanging out at a table of apparent friends to be bothered with any of the happenings under his watch. Great GMs cruise the room like fun-loving sharks at a baby seal convention. They attend to every enjoyable experience and frustrating folly while fostering fun and enjoyment, but always with a sharp eye on the craft of service. But here, even if we'd had road flares and a set of cymbals, we still would have gone unnoticed.

After a cocktail at the bar, we got a text from the wait-list app that our table was ready, so we set out to find the host once again. But instead of leading us to our table, presenting us with menus and being told, by name, who our server would be (all standard protocol), our host merely pointed to the table and walked off to manage something much more important, without even informing the server that we'd been seated. The app, it seemed, was the only one that cared about us that evening.

In a long-gone memory of what hospitality once was, the host would have also informed the server what brand of bourbon I was drinking and that my wife was sticking to soda water. Had the host asked us what brought us in, she and the server would have known that my wife and I dropped off our daughter at a sleepover and had suddenly realized that, as parents with little time to share as a couple, we had found ourselves with no responsibilities and in need of sustenance on a rare night out.  We had stumbled upon this eatery desperate for some space to share time together, and they responded by blowing the opportunity to craft a once-in-a-lifetime evening.

The host never engaged us, the manager never noticed, the server never came — so we left without anyone even noticing.

We ended up hitting Turtle Boat, one of our favorites, for takeout. The owners, Darren and Jeremy Song, were, as always, helpful, appreciative and grateful for our business. The food was delicious and the night was saved, because all we really wanted was someone to help us share a meal together.

Have a question for Jamey? Send it to cafe@westword.com.

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