Side Dish

How much service is too much service?

"The less communication, the better. Customers aren't coming here to talk to us," declares Paul Cerbie, the dining-room manager at Kemoll's. We recently spoke to several owners and front-of-the-house managers known for providing seamless, invisible service. At Kemoll's, Cerbie says, servers maintain a courteous distance but stay in view of their tables so that an inquisitive glance is enough to summon them. Bruce Stigel, director of marketing at the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, supervises the training of restaurant personnel at the hotel. He says that the anticipation of diners' needs allows servers to avoid unnecessary intrusions. "Our guests pay a lot of money to come here, and they expect a certain experience in return," he explains with obvious pride. "People consider it good service when they ask for something and you bring it. That's not service. Service is when you anticipate that need."

"Unless you're serving something, you should never interrupt the customer," says Tom Flynn, owner of Café Balaban. "They're at the restaurant to enjoy the conversation, special event or business, and they should be allowed their space." Buttonholing patrons in the name of attentive service, he adds, is simply unprofessional. At Frank Papa's Ristorante, owner Frank Papa insists that guests should never have to request bread, butter, water or a fresh pouring of wine. If customers appear to have everything they need, is it ever appropriate for a server to drop by the table? "Once," he says. "After the entrée is served, a waiter can ask once if everything is all right, especially if they're not eating something. But you don't want six people dropping by the table to ask if everything is OK. That gets kind of annoying."

Hovering and other indicators of bungling service are becoming more common, according to Flynn. "Service is declining rapidly because of the saturation of restaurants," he contends. "No apprenticeship is taking place. Someone will train at their first job for two or three months and then get hired as a full-fledged waiter at a high-end restaurant." Flynn believes that the manager's leadership role is especially important. "When was the last time you saw a manager on the floor helping to serve? Everything stems from management in a restaurant. If you don't have good management and you have good service, it's just an accident."

Congratulations to Joe Bonwich and Jeannette Batz for their recognition by the James Beard Foundation (, a prestigious institution that celebrates and promotes the culinary arts in America. The 2001 James Beard Foundation/KitchenAid Book Award winners were announced on April 30 in New York City. Joe, happily rubbing elbows with the likes of Ruth Reichl, Jonathan Gold and Alan Richman, was named a finalist in the "Newspaper Restaurant Review or Critique" category. Jeannette won first place in the category "Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes" for her article about organic farming, which appeared in the Riverfront Times on June 21, 2000. You can read her archived article, "Fertile Imagination," at

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