Word of Mouth

Lamenting the loss of the professional host

New York lost a legend this year when Elaine Kaufman, of the eponymous Elaine's, passed away.

She was a remarkable front-of-the-house restaurateur, a big personality who made her place a regular stop for New Yorkers despite the fact that the food, by most accounts, was terrible. And without her, the survival of the restaurant is in question.

On my wish list for dining trends in 2011: I'd like to see more Elaines. Or, more specifically, I'd like to see a return of the professional host.

Over the past few years, the restaurant industry has undergone a radical transformation, propelling chefs to the forefront and service to the back burner. In many Denver restaurants, I've seen the front of the house go by the wayside almost entirely, as the chefs who own the places fail to match the stellar quality of their food with equally professional servers.

And that's a shame.

I love to eat well, but as Kaufman's career shows, a great service experience can do a lot to make up for disappointing food -- and rarely is the reverse the case. At one of my most disappointing meals this year, the food was excellent -- but the service was so terrible, I left the restaurant wondering if I'd ever return. Good service simply makes the food taste better. And the right host has the power to turn a disastrous evening into a great one.

Everything starts and ends with the host. That person is a diner's first impression of a restaurant, whether the host is taking a reservation over the phone or greeting someone at the door. And the host is also the person who bids an eater adieu, the last check to make sure everything went right over the course of a meal. The host is what ties the whole thing together.

There was a time when restaurants lived and died by their hosts, a group of people who managed the books, made introductions and set up a dining room to facilitate social interaction -- and keep diners coming back. Those hosts controlled the experience of dining, and their customers were loyal because of it, spending long evenings there -- and lots of money.

There are a few restaurants in town that still emphasize the role of the host, and they run the gamut from places like Frasca and Fruition to Tarbell's, where, earlier this year, I was blown away by the professionalism of the greeting staff in a more casual environment.

I'd love to see the role of the host expand in the new year, reviving one of the most important posts in the dining scene.

We've already got great food. In 2011, let's hope for great hosts, too.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk