But how to define good service, really, and what goes into it?
The top restaurants say people matter most. "It's all about relationships," says Aimee Olexy, owner of Talula's Table and Talula's Garden. "I consider my dining rooms my home and I want customers to come in and feel warm and comfortable."
"There's a difference between mechanics, service, and hospitality. Mechanics is what we do. Service is what we provide. Hospitality is what takes it over the top," says Dustin Guzman, director of people and training of Starr Restaurants.
Great service anticipates your needs as you have them, appearing to fill your water glass before you realize it's empty, replacing a fork with a fairy-wing's touch. It's magical, almost.
Except it's not. These days, restaurants are using technological tools to keep abreast of what their customers want and expect. Chief among these is Open Table, which many establishments use to accept reservations and maintain profiles of customers, tracking, for instance, a customer's preferred table, water choice, or food allergy. If the guest has been in for a tasting menu, the staff might track the details of the menu to make sure there are no repeats in the next go-round. If it's been noted as a special occasion, they might bring out a special dessert or a glass of champagne. And, if you're the server-abusing type, you might feel a tad paranoid about what's on your dossier.
Friendliness, approachability, recognition are all key. Gone are the days of stiff, snobbish penguin suits - even in fine dining. The goal is a personal exchange that is not intimidating, that feels like gentle guidance with a professional gloss.
"When the menu features unfamiliar dishes in a foreign language, it can be overwhelming and you want customers to feel that they are in good hands," says Melissa Scully, director of restaurants for Garces Restaurant Group. "The server should offer to make recommendations and let them know they're available to explain."
Diners are more passionate about food these days, and so are servers. "As a general rule we try to hire professionals, people who are interested in food and excited by it," says Scully. "We make sure our staff tries everything we serve, from the food to the cocktails, so they really know what it's about."
"We want our guests to feel that there's a sense of control - the staff knows what's going on, and really understands the product they're serving," Olexy says. She hires only full-time servers, and looks for people who really want to be in the restaurant industry. To that end, the interview process might include oral or written tests on things like the flavor profile of a maitake mushroom.
At the Four Seasons, hires go through a four-stage interview process, but the most critical key to winning a position is having a good attitude, says Tomas Vlasek, director of food and beverage for the Four Seasons Philadelphia, who worked his way up from server in his native Czech Republic to his current position. "We can always train people but we can't change their attitude." New hires are assigned a training coach, typically a more seasoned employee, to follow them for two weeks through service.
Most high-level restaurants don't stop training with the initial job prep, which can take anywhere from four days to two weeks. Ongoing training and field trips keep staff informed about trends in food, cocktails, wine, and beer.
And yet there's an equal importance placed on being present, on thinking and listening in the moment, on not being robotic or simply reciting rote facts. "When they deliver the specials of the night, we want servers to make it their own and use expressive words to describe the flavor," Guzman says. "It's also important to understand that everyone is looking for a different experience. ... People think we're a big company and we must have a lot of rules and procedures in place at Starr, and yes we do have some standards, but true hospitality comes from the individual providing that next level of service, not rules."
Listening, really tuning in to customer tastes and expectations, is an oft-neglected skill in service. At Talula's Table and Talula's Garden, Olexy instructs her servers to leave "negative space" to allow diners to ask questions. "Great service is often intuitive," she says.
While some rules are nearly universal (which side to approach the table from, for instance), every restaurant has its own values, with its own set of guidelines. "If the guest gets up to use the bathroom, we make sure their napkin is neatly folded and back on the table," says Scully.
At the Four Seasons, a high value is placed on using the guest's name, Vlasek says. "Name recognition, used in a natural way, gives people a sense of belonging. We also tell our staff that it's important to take ownership if there's a problem and always remain positive."
Of course, there also are plenty of universal recommendations for what not to do. Never auction off the food when you come to the table; make sure you know what everyone has ordered. Never eat in front of a guest. Never lie. Never congregate on the floor and gossip with other servers. Never let a customer walk in without being greeted.
For all the training and preparation behind the scenes, screw-ups still happen, Vlasek says, even at the Four Seasons. The important thing is how the server deals with them. He recounts a story of a new trainee who spilled soup on a guest's tie during lunch. "We offered to launder the tie for him. The lunch manager personally went to the man's office afterward to deliver the tie and the guest was pleased. There are always mistakes, but if you can turn the negative into a positive, you can make a big difference."