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Hospitality Magic Exists in the Details
What are the moves—from big to small—that make a great restaurant? Blackbird staffers weigh in on what they look for…
The other night, while having dinner with a few work colleagues at Cote, the Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse in Chelsea, a question came up that we discussed for the rest of our meal: what makes a great restaurant? Instead of identifying the type of cuisine or the chef or the cocktail program or the location, we quickly zeroed in on much smaller details, some obvious, others less so. What sparked this discussion—aside from the fact we’re all rather obsessive about dining—was our waiter, who didn’t write a single dish down of our extensive order and never missed a beat. This isn’t an out of the ordinary skill—plenty of top flight servers can keep multiple orders in their head—and yet, as I remarked to everyone ringing the smokeless grill embedded in our table, such a skill never fails to amaze me. Sure, to a guy who’d be lost without a to do list, it’s an impressive talent. But more importantly it’s what this skill says about the rest of the restaurant — if the servers are so dialed in, so is everyone, and by extension everything, else. And so we all began swapping stories about the type of hospitality tells that immediately ensure us we’re in good hands.
In his book “Unreasonable Hospitality,” former Eleven Madison Park co-owner Will Guidara recounts several over-the-top anecdotes, like organizing post dinner sledding excursions for a family who’d never seen snow, or filling a private dining room with sand to console a couple commiserating over a cancelled vacation. But there are smaller practices Guidara instilled in his staff that were also responsible for EMP being named the world’s best restaurant, like how he, “trained the people setting the dining room to place every plate so that if a guest flipped it over to see who had made it, the Limoges stamp would be facing them, right side up.” Guidara’s logic was simple: by having his staff focus on getting such minute details right, they’d get every detail right and, in so doing, create the type of magical experience that EMP delivered night after night. John Tamny, author of “The End of Work,” likens this practice of Guidara’s to the old Van Halen story that for years many people dismissed as an urban legend due to the seemingly absurd nature of such an idiosyncratic request. In their rider, the 80s hair metal icons demanded that every M&M bowl in the green room be purged of any brown M&Ms. Laughable, right? Not quite. Turns out Halen’s madness wasn’t so mad at all, and potentially life saving. "The nitpicky demand about the color of M&Ms was a way to ensure that those the band contracted with read the contracts closely," Tamny explains. "Given the acrobatics taking place on stage, it was important that everything in the arena set-up be done right. Odd demands not met were potentially a dangerous 'tell.'"
So what were the good type of tells we discussed that signify a great restaurant? Answers ran the gamut, from “if they can mix a great martini,” to “having a waiter who can easily answer any question and explain the menu clearly and quickly without looking or reading anything,” to “when I’m wearing black pants and they swap my white napkin for a black one so that I don’t get white linen all over them” (EMP always did this). Harry, one of our engineers, laughed and said, “if the bartender will make me a Grasshopper,” and then tested his theory out — our waiter at Cote ferried the crème de menthe cocktail back to the table within minutes. The conversation spilled into the next day, with other colleagues weighing in. Ally, our intern, swears by good music, a good bathroom, and excellent wine glasses, preferably by Zalto. She encountered this vibes trifecta when working at Charlie Bird, citing the hip hop heavy playlists and the Aesop soap, farmhouse sink, and exposed brick walls in the bathroom. “You're listening to hip hop, while drinking out of the fanciest glasses imaginable, and eating spaghetti, and then later dancing in the bathroom.” Colin, our head of sales, discussed what he looks for in his favorite sushi restaurants, explaining he knows he’s found a winner when, "they put your chopsticks on the correct side, based on if you are right or left handed, and the chef places the fish down angled accordingly."
My tell has a bit more Guidara flair to it, as well as some possible child endangerment. I discovered it four years ago at a hotel in Austria, and while I don’t expect to have the experience replicated, it’s worth briefly recounting here. My wife and I checked into an intimate and historic five-star ski hotel with our then 17-month old son. On our first night, we brought him with us to the hotel’s restaurant before all turning in early. The next morning, the staff—perhaps sensing that we were still a pair of sleep deprived greenhorns, one’s currently deprived of adult time—told us that we could bring our son to the kids dinner at 5 p.m. that night and then later return ourselves for the adult meal at 8 p.m. We thanked them, before saying that unlike other guests we didn’t travel with an au pair (we were, after all, the only guests who’d pulled up to the place in a Subaru). The woman at the front desk laughed and said that wouldn’t be a problem. Simply put your son to bed, she told us, then dial the front desk and leave the phone’s receiver next to his crib — they would monitor him along with the rest of the sleeping children left unattended in their rooms and come get us, either in the dining room or later at the hotel bar, should he start crying. After a moment’s hesitation while swapping guilty looks, we gladly took her up on the offer.
None of these details are more important than the other — rather, they are all vital (well, maybe minus the babysitting by phone) steps to the magic spell cast by a great restaurant. I’m sure there are many more details, some we’ve overlooked and some we’ve never seen. We’d love to hear from you on what those might be, either in the comments below or on our Discord.
Blackbird Labs, Inc.