Last weekend, The Wife and I went out to our Friday night date. We went to a new restaurant in the area, one that advertises that its very name refers to its excellence. We, however, were underwhelmed, and in the process learned something about ourselves.
The food was actually quite good, for the price. That wasn’t the problem. Neither was the beer selection, which was excellent, and the decor, that was interesting and enjoyable. The problem was the service.
The service model appears to be “we will take care of you when it’s convenient for us to do so.” When you show up, you wait in line to get a pager, and once you get that, you have to mill around the sidewalk in front of the restaurant looking at a high-gloss copy of the menu. In this sense, the restaurant resembles nothing so much as the Department of Motor Vehicles.
When your pager buzzes, you are then given the privilege of standing in another line, which takes you to a counter, where your food order is taken and you are given a paper receipt to take with you. If you order a soft drink, they give you a waxy-cardboard container. Now, your experience has been upgraded to McDonald’s.
Then, a hostess takes you to your seat. You are met by a “D&D Specialist,” meaning that she is in charge of bringing you “D”rinks and “D”esserts. She runs a scanner over the receipt and explains that she’s going to bring you your alcohol and later, your dessert. She wants your order RIGHT NOW, even though you haven’t had a chance to look at the drink list yet. If you’re one of those people who always orders the same thing, that’s probably not such a big deal; but if you’re there to sample new beers, the feeling is a bit rushed. The “D&D Specialist” also informs you that even though it’s six o’clock in the evening, they are almost out of desserts for the entire day, so if you want one, you’d better put your order in first.
Meanwhile, expediters from the kitchen run your food out to you. As soon as it’s ready. One dish at a time. The Wife got her soup within sixty seconds of our sitting down; my sandwich came a few minutes later, and the french fries came a good ten minutes after we were seated.
You might take for granted that things like plates, napkins, and utensils were either waiting for us at the table or were brought along with the food. Not so. If you want a napkin or a fork or a plate, you have to get up and walk over to the service station yourself and carry it back to your table yourself. This has some minor upsides — if you are having soup, for instance, you don’t need a knife or fork so you can leave them there. On the other hand, if you’re going to sample your companion’s food, that gets slowed down. The utensils are also stored next to the soda fountains where you pour yourself your soft drinks or water, which are also near the pump stations for ketchup and other “dipping sauces” for your food along with the disposable paper mini-cups in which you are expected to take it all back to your table.
You are charged separately for the drink and dinner tab. No suggestions are offered about the tip — do you tip for the entire meal, for just the drinks and dessert, at a counter-service tip rate for the food and a full-service rate for the drinks? Are the tips pooled for the staff, since a massive number of people have actually waited on you?
This is not done for the purpose of reducing the demand for service. The place is crawling with help — busboys, expediters, “D&D” girls (who are all appropriately hot), hostesses, counter clerks, bartenders, and cooks. If anything, there are more employees working here than at a standard full-service restaurant. No, the customer-operated service stations appear to be an intentionally designed feature of the restaurant.
The Wife later theorized that the idea is to force you to interact with other customers, which might be an advantage if you’re single and looking to meet other single people while waiting in line for a squirt of the pesto remoulade.
I noticed, however, that we were not in the place for very long. Once we were allowed to enter, we were in the premises for not much more than half an hour, pretty much just as long as it took to eat the food. So my theory is that it’s set up this way so that the restaurant can turn the tables around faster and get more customers in. We the customers get to wait outside and not enjoy the ambiance of the place, and in exchange the people who work there are able to perform their jobs more conveniently.
Which is a bargain one can make, I suppose, but not one that sounds so great to me, the one whose role is also to pay for it all.
The result was that we both felt treated like livestock, and enjoyed what we had hoped would be a nice night out together a lot less than we would have otherwise. So what we learned about ourselves is that we have risen above a threshold for service. I don’t mind ordering at a counter and doing some of my own table-bussing at a fast food restaurant, but I’m also paying a lot less, and it’s not the sort of place that I would go expecting to have a nice date with my wife. But at the point where I’m paying ten bucks or so per meal, my expectations are such that I expect to have someone wait on me so that I can relax and enjoy the company of my companions rather than doing the work of enabling a meal to be prepared, served, and eaten.
So this week, The Wife and I drove to Santa Clarita and tried another place that wound up offering a similar service model. If anything, I enjoyed it less, because the quality of the food and the drink options were not nearly as good as what we had available closer to home. However, we found that there were other options available afterwards — not wanting to muscle our way in to a place like a bar at a chain restaurant, we chose to pay a little bit extra to have a drink and dessert afterwards at a swanky hotel bar, which was quiet enough that we could talk to each other and unpopulated enough that we were able to sit and relax easily. We got good service, a good atmosphere, and didn’t have to fight crowds or stand in line. That’s the way to go for a nice night out with your spouse.