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Service above all 

Good restaurant service is scarce; learn from two who get it right

I WISH ALL OF YOU could read the press releases that arrive in my mail, attempting to inveigle a glowing review. Every one of them touts the fact that the restaurant in question is using fresh ingredients. I am waiting for the day when some public relations hack trumpets the use of canned, stale and rancid ingredients. That, I would pay to see.

Until that day comes, I can't help but think that citing the freshness of the ingredients is the best the hired hands can do because the kitchen they have been hired to promote is turning out exceedingly dull food.

Still, that dubious PR slant does not offend me as much as the material I picked up at a Cobb County restaurant a few weeks ago. This palace of business dining has produced a slick brochure -- available in its foyer, no less, so that you, too, can be offended by it -- suggesting that its clientele has a higher income than the patrons dining at its competitors' restaurants. As though that -- even if true -- could ever be the standard of culinary triumph.

The most interesting thing about my mail is that I hear nary a peep from this city's truly great restaurants. Nothing. Ever. It isn't necessary, there being no greater publicist than (ecstatic) word of (satisfied) mouth.

Paradoxically, being a truly great restaurant requires more than making wonderful food, although, obviously, that is imperative. Setting is important as well. It doesn't have to be any particular style or level of decor so long as it complements the food. Although, as it happens, I am partial to the higher levels of both, I am just as content with a meal in a mom-and-pop storefront that delivers on all fronts.

Which brings us to the one thing for which there is no substitute at any price level -- not even first-rate food: gracious service.

Eating out several times a week, every week, year after year, has not numbed me to indifferent service. If anything, I find myself more annoyed by it than ever: servers who do not know what is on the menu, or cannot discuss it intelligently; personnel who seem not to notice their patrons' existence, disappearing when one needs a water refill or the check. And those are rudimentary things.

Happily, there are in this city a handful of professionals who could conduct master classes in hospitality. Two of them are Sergio Favalli of Buckhead's LaGrotta (2637 Peachtree Road, 404-231-1368), and Kelly Youssef of Brasserie Le Coze (Lenox Square, 404-266-1440).

The secret to their success is that both of them treat the people seated at their tables as though they were welcoming guests into their own homes.

Mr. Favalli, essentially, is doing just that; he owns LaGrotta. Ms. Youssef, on the other hand, is an employee, a server at Brasserie Le Coze. And yet, she is every bit as gracious, every bit as knowledgeable, and possesses every bit as much assurance as Mr. Favelli.

(Note to Brasserie Le Coze's famed proprietor, Maguy Le Coze, herself the epitome of chicness and graciousness as she guides New York's celebrated Le Bernardin to sustained accolades: Whatever you are paying Kelly, it is not enough.)

Sergio Favalli is legendary for creating an aura of conviviality, his charm and suaveness carried along enormously by delicious food and carefully selected wines. Maybe you think it goes without saying that a restaurant owner would be nice to people routinely dropping upwards of $100 a person to eat. But that isn't always the case. Beyond that, though, Mr. Favelli is not simply nice. What he does more than anything is share his love of food and wine with his clientele.

Of the two, Kelly Youssef has the tougher job, since she has no choice about which table she serves. She is not there to schmooze, she is there to take orders, deliver plates and generally keep things moving along. This she does with aplomb.

First and foremost, she knows her menu. She knows what ingredients go into each dish and how each is prepared. She knows what goes well with what -- appetizers, main courses and desserts, as well as wines. She delivers this information with clarity and zest. She serves things in a timely manner, and somehow knows precisely when to remove plates that may or may not appear to be finished. She manages this without intruding on the table conversation. In short, her polished professional demeanor is every bit as pampering as the marvelous food she carries out of the kitchen.

This being the season for revelry and reflection, I hereby thank Kelly Youssef and Sergio Favelli for making several of my dinners out this year -- professional and personal -- truly memorable occasions.

Kelly Youssef of Brasserie Le Coze

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