If you’re one of those people who like to rant about service, I get it. (Just ask me about Comcast!) But today I’d like to rave — about the restaurant people who keep me coming back for more.
I’m talking about the folks who make me say, “This is why I come in here. This is the face I want to see. This is the person who’s got the goods to make sure my time and money are well spent.”
And if you’re thinking, “Come on, Nance: You’re a food writer, a former restaurant critic, a public personality. They know you.” That’s sometimes true. But I can spot a phony from across the room.
Having spent half my working life waiting tables and loving (almost) every minute of it, I know this: You can teach the tenets of good restaurant service, but you can’t teach someone to love what they do, and for that reason alone to do it well.
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While food and mood play a big part in scoring patron loyalty, certain restaurateurs have a knack for finding — and keeping — staffers whose “love-my-job” attitude is among the reasons we’re willing to put up with no-reservations policies and lengthy waits. (See: Delancey, The Walrus and the Carpenter.) And a keen eye for the right guy is why service is a hallmark of Italian restaurants like Altura (Guy Kugel) and Cafe Juanita (big nod to big Jim Marriott).
But trendsetting décor or an award-winning chef isn’t a necessary part of the great-service equation.
I still recall the smiling waitress at a Korean restaurant in Lynnwood (long since sold and renamed) who wrote down a simple recipe for the souffle-like omelet served as part of a barbecue combo, explaining precisely how she prepares it at home and encouraging me to do the same. Guess whose section I always wanted to sit in after that?
Recently, I ran into my pal Mike at Sushi Land in Lower Queen Anne. He told me he eats there a lot, for the same reason I do: It’s cheap, fast and convenient to our office. And there’s another reason: “You know that guy?” I asked him, nodding in the direction of a slim fellow making sushi.
“You mean the one who starts torching my salmon as soon as he sees me walk in?” Mike replied. Exactly. Yasushi Agata, with whom I’ve exchanged few words over many years, pulls out the uni when he sees me. Unless they’re out. In which case it’s ikura. Sometimes both. He never asks, he just brings. Because he knows. This, at a conveyor-belt-sushi chain.
Whether I’m by myself at Pike Place Market or meeting a friend for lunch, I gravitate to the bar at Matt’s in the Market because the food is superb and because I adore Robbie McGrath, the daytime bartender who caters to the lunch crowd with the aplomb of a careerist. Doesn’t waste a move. Doesn’t miss a trick. Always has a good story. Always asks for yours. In a snit? Robbie’s got the cure: a snit. What’s a snit? Go find out.
When I’m at the Market with my son, now 15, he insists we go to Oriental Mart for chicken adobo, something he’s been doing since kindergarten. But we’re really there to see his Auntie Lei. Sure, she’s occasionally cranky, but you would be, too, if you stood on your feet all day, every day, for decades, cooking and feeding tourists and homesick Filipinos the way Leila Rosas does. After your second visit, she knows your name. After the third, if she’s making herself lunch and it looks better than yours, she’ll share. Because by then you’re family.
For some patrons, familiarity breeds contempt. Which is why my husband grinds his teeth when waiters call him “friend” (when he’s not), fawn over our table and — heaven help them — blab too much (he gets enough of that from me). That’s why his ideal waiter is James Chan, whose elegant, understated style of service was long on display at the late, great Lampreia and, until its recent closure, Rover’s. We can’t wait to see where he turns up next.
Nancy Leson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8838. On Twitter: @nancyleson.