The Fine Dining Service Conundrum

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fine dining

I bet I know what he is thinking

Since most of you are not from Kansas City, a bit of background is in order.  The most popular show on our local public television station is called Check Please.  It is a show that allows three people to talk about their favorite restaurant.  Each of the three guests selects a restaurant and all three have a meal there.  Then they get together on camera to discuss them.  You can watch this recent episode online at the KCPT website.

Here is a quick synopsis for those who don’t have time to watch the whole clip.  Two people loved the restaurant and one was not as impressed.  I think this holds true for all three restaurants on this episode and most every episode of the show I have seen.  One line from this episode caught my attention.  The guest who had recommended the home style buffet restaurant said of the classic Kansas City Steakhouse, “For the prices they were charging, I felt like I should have my own server.”

Every since I have made the leap to fine dining, I have postulated that this thought goes through a number of guests’ minds.  This is the first time I heard it actually expressed aloud by a guest.  Her issue was not that the service was inadequate, but rather that it did not meet the level of service she was expecting to accompany the price tag.  This sort of “sliding scale” of service is a factor faced by many fine dining servers.  It is also one of the most frustrating.

While I can’t speak of the service provided at the buffet, I can speak of the service provided at most fine dining restaurants.  Most of the servers in these establishments make it their goal to not be noticed.  Most of them have years of experience at less expensive restaurants that allowed them to move up to a fine dining establishment.  Most of them are armed with a wealth of knowledge about the food, wine, and cocktails they serve.  Most of them can provide you a plethora of information about the local area, nightlife, and romantic spots for after dinner.  Most of them strive to provide non-intrusive service.

This creates a tough standard for the fine dining server.  If 20% at a casual dining restaurant is full drinks and friendly service, what is it at a fine dining restaurant?  There is a limit to what you expect of a server at any restaurant.  Included in the price of the meal at a nicer restaurant are a much more relaxed time frame and often multiple courses.  During that time you receive friendly service and your drinks remain full.  To some people this does not merit the same percentage of a tip as it does in a casual dining restaurant.

This double standard is frustrating as a fine dining server.  I will gladly recite facts about any topic you ask about.  I will present you with specials in a way that will make you salivate.  I will pair the perfect wine with your meal.  I will allow you to relax as I perfectly time multiple courses for maximum enjoyment.  I will patiently refill your drinks as you linger after your meal.  I will not worry when you stay for a meal that lasts three times as long as the average meal in a casual dining restaurant.  During this time, I will be mostly invisible and not disrupt your meal.  My goal is that you do not even know I am there when you do not need me.

At my last restaurant, they had a copy of my “Best Server in Kansas City” plaque in the lobby.  I asked them to take it down.  The owner of the restaurant I work at now offered to promote my book on serving in the restaurant.  I politely declined because I understand the fine dining server’s conundrum.  I don’t sing, dance, lead conga lines, or do magic tricks.  I assume if you are at my restaurant you do not want a server who does those things.  My job is to allow you to not have to worry about a thing while you are at my table.  This is the job of all servers. 

What makes a professional server so valuable is the ability to do this while making it look effortless.  Unfortunately, in the perception of some guests this means they are not earning their tip.  Service standards should not change based on the price of the meal.  We have grown to expect less from casual dining restaurants.  Guests will excuse basic mistakes with less expensive meals.  The standard should be higher for fine dining, but it must still be attainable.  I am not sure what guests who want more than flawless service at a fine dining restaurant are looking for.  I often question whether they know themselves.

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