Restaurant Service in San Diego
I think most of us kind of cringe when we see the "San Diego Restaurants Are Bad" thread recycle through every few weeks. But something good has come out of a thread so BAD. The last several posts have not dealt with food, but with service, and include a number of thoughtful comments about why service is often so lacking in San Diego. Since the board mods haven't elected to split off those posts, here's a thread specifically devoted to service in San Diego.
Let's be clear about one thing right up front, this thread is not for bashing San Diego restaurants or the waitstaff that works in them, but rather to discuss the ups and downs, pros and cons, or why service doesn't always measure up. If you had a favorable experience somewhere, tell us why you liked it and what personal service benchmarks it hit. Conversely, if you experienced poor service somewhere why did you consider it to be poor and what service expectations were missed.
For me, the best service in SD that I had in 2007 was at Anthology. It clear from the start that our waitress had been well trained and took her job seriously. Not only was she knowledgeable about the menu but the specialty drink and wine list as well. She made us feel welcome and comfortable and there was no attitude or indifference in her voice, demeanor or service. The only flaw was that she sometimes didn't stop by the table at frequent enough intervals to check on us.
The best service this year in CA was at the MendoBistro in Ft. Bragg where our server, once again was knowledgeable about the menu, but also about the ingredients, the local wines and appeared to have been having fun doing her job. It helped that the owner stopped by our table several times to check on us. Whenever we appeared confused or in need of something either our waitress or the owner was there in a flash; neither was overbearing or over solicitious.
The best service I experienced in 2007 was at Aguilar y Sol in Mexico City. It was almost over the top.
So, if you think restaurant service in SD isn't so hot, why? If you don't think it's so bad, why not?
We just had excellent service on our first trip to Farmhouse Cafe: delivered by the wife of the owner. She was personable without being obtrusive. She made suggestions without saying "Well, my favorite is the. . . ." After she recommended certain wines -- very knowledgeably!-- she accepted our own choices graciously-- then brought us tastes of what she had recommended to compare. She did refer cloyingly to "My husband, the chef," several times-- but that became part of the service, as she was letting us know we were in a family-run restaurant. In the end, her graciousness and professionalism won us over. The food fell short of our expectations, but we'll definitely go back for another try.
And I just have to add that not all of the great service is at high-end restaurants--although those tend to come to mind first. Family from the East Coast out here on vacation and we decided to take everyone to Karl Strauss in LJ as it is so kid friendly. Love the beer and the bar food was just fine for this kind of night. The waiter we had was awesome. He perceived fidgety teens and offered them beverages and crayons (no kidding but it worked!), noticed we loved certain beers and gave us free samples of some other interesting ones, service was perfectly timed, he was attentive and not intrusive. So yah, it worked for us and we all commented how he was one of the best waiters we've had this year. (and we do dine at other places like Tapenade, Oceanaire, The Better Half, etc). Nice to know you can find this in some places like this too. Wish I'd gotten his name...
KS in LJ is sort of our "I'm too tired to cook and too full after that great lunch, let's walk over and go split a sandwich and salad at 9pm on Saturday night place". The kids that work there are generally really efficient and sweet, eat in the bar area on the weekend and you will great service from Julie and Lynn, former room-mates in college and now sort running the joint. Good service doesn't always come in fancy or great foodie places (where it should), and it make meh food much more digestable.
I was a professional server in San Diego for 10 years. The best training tip I ever received was from one of my first trainers back in 1993 at the now defunct Reidy O'Neils. He said, "The best service, is the service that is neither seen nor heard". Not that a server should act like a submissive minion, but rather, approach a guest with a sense of calm.
The best time I ever had waiting tables was at Blue Point (a Cohn house, yes, but they run a good show). Here is why:
#1 Training Training Training. We were trained on food, wine, scotch, cheese. We had weekly tastings of high-end product. I could sell a glass of $15.00-$25.00 scotch, I could recommend good wine because I had tasted these wonderful libations more than once. Knowledge and training allowed me to present in a calm, professional manner, as opposed to a hyped up, marketing, "upselling" way; (how about some sparkling water?).
#2 Commitment to the environment. We were required to provide detailed, fine-dining service, thus, the hostess wielded a certain amount of power over the timing of the seating. Throwing several tables of 4 people at a server was simply unacceptable. The management staff understood that a server in a white tablecloth house needs TIME at each table.
#3 Professional staff. People that were not able to furnish professional restaurant bonafides did not make it to our staff.
The worst restaurant I ever worked in was Reidy O'Neil's (strange that I was able to extract decent advice there!)
#1 No training. New waiters were thrown out on the floor without any training on food or wine. Any suggestion for training or food tasting was regarded as a clever ploy by the waitstaff to get free stuff.
#2 No identity. The owners wanted a fine dining house, but the tables had to be sat ASAP!!! They wanted white tablecloth, but they wanted to bring their friends in, get REALLY loud, disrupt everyone else's meal, AND have everything comped. A high-end house is not a pub.
#3 Beach bum staff. There was a odd mish mash of professional, semi-professional waiters and "whatever dude" types that was inconsistent and made for a bizarre work environment. The result was inconsistent service and mixed opinion of the restaurant.
We dine out frequently; here is a list of things that make for a great dining experience:
#1 Calmness. The calm, "good evening", sets a wonderful tone for a meal.
#2 Knowledge. We ask a ton of questions. We are so overjoyed when a server is able to describe a dish, then ask US questions about our preferences.
#3 Timing. Wine just before the meal. A break between the appetizer and the main course.
#4 Unobtrusive presence. The server that wants to be your best friend is like Kryptonite!
#5 Great food. Great food. Great food.
I forgot one MAJOR thing--TIP WELL if you receive good service. Especially if you plan on being a regular. This goes for any service in which it is customary for you to tip--whether it's your hairdresser, bartender, server, or cabbie. I used to be a line cook at an Italian restaurant in Florida. The servers had a joke: "What's the difference between ______ (insert name of group here), and a canoe? a canoe tips."
The only bad service I've gotten was at a North County Denny's. It seemed we were the wrong color to receive service. The hostess skipped over us to seat a family of another race which had gotten on the waiting list long after we did. We left and went elsewhere. Everywhere else we have eaten, regardless of how busy the place was, or the time of day, the service is pleasant. It may not be fast (but sometimes if it's really busy, that can be because of the kitchen--you can only cook so much food at a time), but the server will generally let you know they haven't forgotten about you. A general rule I have found is that if you treat the server with respect, smile at them, answer them like you would want someone to answer you, then you will get pleasant service.
I have found that my best restaurant experience in recent times has been at Oceanaire. I certainly enjoy the food (love the crab cakes!) but what I really appreciate is the attention to detail and enthusiasm the staff brings to the dining experience. They seem to love what they do and want to make being with them memorable. I hate constantly being interrupted by a server as I'm chatting with my companions but the staff at Oceanaire seems to have figured out how to check in with guests without disturbing them. They often offer little extra treats, maybe an extra pour of wine when just a glass was ordered. I can get delicious meals at lots of places in town, but this is where I turn when I want a happy restaurant experience.
Interesting to read entries from the service side. Especially from juantanamara. Thank you. I always assumed it was a front-of-house problem, not the clientele. But that's an interesting idea. My Chef SO just reported in from his food-tasting junket in NYC that the service has been 100% excellent and that even the late night dive they hit had better service than his own top-rated San Diego restaurant! Well, one thing I can say for posting on CHOW. I'm getting my frustrations out (food therapy) and am more than ready in 2008 to let San Diego be its own casual, no-problem, dim-witted self and accept that that's just the way it is here. (Except, wait a minute. . .I always get incredible service at El Pescador in La Jolla, and the fishmongers there are the cutest, sexiest, surfer boys in town. Hmmmm. Oh well. Go figure. Maybe because they understand their role, know their food, depend on repeat clientele, and love their job?)
I spent a few years in the service industry including full time jobs at two upscale casual restaurants in SD and part-time/ on call positions in some very well known SD hotels and private clubs. Here's my two cents:
1. It's difficult to provide anything resembling formal service in SD because most guests don't know or don't observe the protocol. When diners sit, they move their wine glass from the right to the left, they leave the napkin on the table, they place their bread plate in front of them and leave it there; when wine is presented, they look at you as if you've insulted them; they ignore you or interrupt you as you try to introduce the evening's specials. Don't get me wrong; the customer has the right to enjoy his or her meal as he or she chooses, but I cannot pour from the right and serve from the left if you've rearranged the table.
2. The rate of no shows, late arrivals, and parties with a different number of guests than stated on the reservation is much higher here than in other parts of the country that I've worked in. This makes it difficult to provide smoothe service - if you've reserved for six and nine arrive, you're table is not going to be ready on time.
3. The fact that so few diners go out after 8 PM means many restaurants only get one turn per night, which means servers' income is much lower than other cities where restaurants typically turn the tables twice per night. Lower income equals less incentive for ambitious and talented people to wait tables.
4. The complaints about 'friendliness' puzzle me. In New York City, noone expects their waiter to be their friend; most diners would consider it odd, if not downright rude, for a waiter to act in a familiar way with guests in a formal restaurant- of course neighborhood eateries where you are a regular guest are a different story.
In contrast, San Diegans often expect thier server to carry on conversations not at all related to the business of serving food. This leads to an odd conundrum for the server- do I offend table three by cutting short this discussion of their nephew's fourth grade science project or offend table nine by continuing my conversation while they wait for their wine glasses to be refilled? And no, table three will not accept a simple "Excuse me while I attend to other guests" - trust me, I tried that.
Together, these things contribute to a difficult environment in San Diego for those who would like to provide smooth, polite and unobtrusive service.
That said, as a diner, I haven't experienced anything near the horror stories that some have recounted here, at least not at high end restaurants. I'm not going to suggest anyplace because I still have many friends as servers and managers and I would be highly biased, but there are several SD restaurants where the management and staff try hard to provide knowledgeable and professional service - please seek them out!
"In contrast, San Diegans often expect thier server to carry on conversations not at all related to the business of serving food."
Really? San Diegans, or laid-back tourists? I'm not questioning your, juantanamera, but my impression from this forums (and like forums) is that few of the people here would fit that profile. They might exchange a pleasantry or two, but unless a restaurant is pretty empty they wouldn't want to banter with a server - because they know they are busy and have other people to tend to.
Then again, it has been established over and over again that the SD chowhounds (even unsophisticated ones like me) are not very representative of the typical San Diego diner - tourist or native.
i only lived in s.d. for a few years, but during that time [june 2004- march 2007], the service [or lack thereof] that i received at a few restaurants definitely stood out...
george's la jolla [downstairs dining room]
most unnecessarily [and irritatingly] obtrusive:
george's on fifth [downtown]
gotta say that the service at Currant has been well less than impressive (since my first visit) which is very disappointing as I like the menu, the wine list and the location. best service, for me, has been at Addison, Market and Bertrand's at Mister A's where I have lunch (but not dinner). I get very attentive and friendly service at Guild but I'm kind of a local so I don't think that I can fairly comment on it in a general way. although I haven't been in a while, the service at Vagabond was very inconsistent. Cafe Chloe has been pretty good.
As the General Manager of an high profile restaurant in San Diego, I would like to add my point of view to the conversation...
First and foremost, I do agree that service in our beautiful city, is in general disappointing and inconsistent. I know that I have a zero tolerance policy for rude staff. We train our staff on wine service 2 hours every week. We do a pre shift meeting for 20 mn every day, going over specials and issues that we need to discuss. Every new hire is trained for a whole week before they can even talk to a table. I would like to think that we do have good service at our restaurant and some of us restaurateurs really care. Unfortunately, as a former manager, waiter and sommelier, it is not always the case. Restaurant owners are to be blamed for this. In our restaurant I have full support from the owners to train the staff and it does make a big difference....But here is the key.. .we are a busy restaurant and we can afford it....or at least care enough to do a good job that we do it anyways...
For a small operation, considering the high rents, the high labor cost ( minimum wage here is $8... in NY , Chicago and so on, servers make $2.50 so over staffing is not an issue ), having intensive training is just not an option.
The general public think that restaurants make so much money. It is not necessary true. Sure, if you serve fried calamaries and frozen food and clos du bois chardonnay, your profit might be high... but if you use Chino Farm, fresh ingredients and serve superior wines, on top of a $10,000+ a month rent, high labor and taxes you might sell $2 millions a year and be barely profitable. Remember, we are not in a city that supports its restaurants in the sense that San Dieguans do not dine out on Sunday/ Monday/ Tuesday....I guess that what I am trying to say is that good staff training has a cost that some of the smaller, less busy restaurants might not necessary be able to afford. A city has the restaurant it deserves and this is true. I wish I did not have to drive to LA for a fantastic dinner... but I do... why? Put a restaurant like Sona, AOC or Providence in San Diego and it would not do well. If a real italian restaurant like Babbo, serving true italian food would open in San Diego, it would get a lot of heat for not serving your typical fried calamaris and marinara sauce or tomatoe mozarella salad in the middle of the winter..... I know it is true because I worked in several restaurants that " dared" to be dynamic and different and we got complains all the time for not being like the rest of the mediocre restaurants in town. Of course, a lot of you, foodies, appreciate good food, wine and service but foodies are NOT the majority of our guests.
There are a lot of things happening backstage that you do not see and that sometimes , prevent us from operating as smoothly as we wish we did. I will give you an example....
As a fine restaurant, we decided that in order to properly serve our guests, we cannot accomodate more that 10 covers for each 15 mn... So we book our restaurant accordingly. Our hostesses are trained to do that. Do I wish we could do 300 covers a night? Sure, but it is impossible ! So we limit the amount of covers we do to properly serve our guests... So you might call to ask for a 6:15 pm reservation and we might offer you 6:30 instead in order to not to over book the restaurant. We are getting a LOT of heat from our guests because of it... And some guests will take the 6:30 pm reservation but show up at 6:15 and DEMAND to be seated and are nasty to a 20 years old hostess who is just doing what she is asked to do by management. This is very common....
We also assume that our guests will enjoy their dinner for about 3 hours... Due to high rents and costs, we do HAVE to turn our tables. 3 Hours is a reasonable time... Only in San Diego people are usually late and do not even call to let us know. If a table on the first turn is late, it will push the second turn... We will try to find an alternative table but sometimes, it just is impossible... Let's not talk about the guests who pretend just do not show. New Year's Eve. 4 no shows, 38 cancelations during the last 2 days before NYE...What I am trying to say is that while there is NEVER any good excuse for bad service, it is hard to find professional and career oriented servers in a city that overall has very amateurish dinners.... and in a city where restaurants are only busy 3 days a week and where the costs are similar to LA or San Fran, how is a restaurant supposed to pay competitive salaries for a GM, Sommelier or Chef when most of the money that should be allocated to pay higher management goes to tipped employees? I am lucky to work where I am now but I know that most restaurants in this town will not pay a sommelier or a GM more that 40k a year without benefits for a 6 days, 12 hours/ day work week...Good luck finding a talent at these rates...
Jaysurf12, thanks for posting. You articulated the points much better than I did. The minimum wage is SF is higher than $8/hour I think, their raw food costs are high and rents are probably about the same, possibly higher depending upon location. Would it be accurate to say that because people in SF dine out more frequently (and at higher price points) restaurants can generate greater revenues, enough to cover (entry and on-going) training expenses?
Labor costs are brutal in the State of California, but food costs are going up substantially as are gas prices. Fuel increases are being passed along by vendors in the form of a fuel/delivery surcharge or flat out price increases of the raw goods. All of which eats into a restaurant's net profit.
thanks for the very interesting post. I agree with you that it is a mixture of faults by the owners and the customers. But I am always puzzled to understand why is the typical customer in SD so much different so SF, LA, Boston, NY ? I mentioned before that it might be related to the history of SD but I doubt that everything can be explained by that. What is your take on why SD customers are so "uneducated" in terms of service etc. as juantanamera also mentions below.
It is hard to say... Tonight for instance, our restaurant was full from 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm... people were calling for 7:45 pm reservations and were angry that we could not accomodate them right at that time... we were offering 8:15 and they would not take it. Some people took the 8:15, showed up at 7:45 and then complained that they had to wait 30 mn....
I think that it has to do with culture, being used to higher standars and education. I am sure that SF, LA and other " bigger " cities deal with their own problems though.
An other thing that kills me here is how demanding some people are... when I lived in NY , guests would show up with no reservation, would want a particular table and be rude about it BUT at least, they would always give a nice tip to the Maitre D or the Hostess. Here it never happens. They want and demand in a very rude way but do not seem to think that a tip is expected for this special requests.... So from our perspective, why going above and beyond and change a whole floor plan in order to accomodate a cheap rude customer that usually brings his own $8 bottle of wine from SAVON drugs?
I hate to generalize though. We have some fantastic guests and it has nothing to do with how much money they have. Rude people are rude everywhere. Our good guests seem to be well traveled though.. Perhaps that is one of the reason why SD customers are " uneducated"... unlike SF, NY , Boston ... San Diego is not much of a cosmopolitan city either...
The best service for me in SD this year was 2wks ago at Nine Ten.
We had just gotten back from a long day at the Wild Animal park w. a toddler and they couldn't have been more accomodating.
We were staying in the hotel and weren't planning on eating dinner there that night (especially w. a 3yr old!) but were so tired, we couldn't move and just wanted to grab a quick bite to eat!
Service was seamless, They were very accomodating and made us feel comfortable in a less than child friendly dinner enviroment. They even made my favorite dish which wasn't on the dinner menu! After sending the nephew home, I headed back down to the bar where our waiter had my favorite dessert ( and a fresh lemon drop martini) waiting!!
Nine Ten is consistently one of my go-to places when I'm out that way! I've never had anything but great food and great service!
Boy I can see that every restaurant has bad days and good. We had such terrible service at nine ten for lunch I left a long note on the card they gave us.. I used to love that restaurant and would love to suggest it.. That lunch made me wary.. Just a different staff person Im sure.. We had to ask to get served.. for the sugar we had already asked for.. the bill was brought .. and they left our dirty plates.. with no where to even sign the check.. I will go back.. and hope its not like that.. Someone else had mentioned it being off too though.. Glad you had a good time.
Going to agree with DD on Anthology, the service was refreshing and this was at a sold out show, it was packed! Our server was attentive, great attitude, could still hear us while Big Head Todd was at their loudest and knew what was on the menu and wine list! We will definitely go back for wine/apps and a show, what a great venue.
Worst service this year: Vivace at the Four Seasons. I was really appalled at the level of service that we received on a night that had five tables occupied. The service should be outstanding considering their reputation. We had our water mixed with another tables brand. Utensils were dropped on several occasions when our plates were removed. Champagne glasses were empty at several points through the evening. We asked about an item that was on the tasting menu and were flat out denied by the waiter because we were ordering ala carte. He didn't even bother to ask the chef. Where I was trained (SF), NO was not an answer in high-end establishments, you did everything to accommodate the diner that was humanly possible, even if they wanted ketchup on their truffles and ice in their champagne. And the final straw, the wrong bill arrives at our table. We won't be returning any time soon.
Finally, the most consistent quality service in SD for us has been at our regular sushi bar: Kaito in Encinitas, excellent food and treated like royalty every time, no wonder we never go anywhere else!
On christmas day we checked out a few hotels, we ended up eating at el bizcheco. we did have some apps at the del mar grand. this was around 3pm. so addison was not open yet. the service for the apps and a cocktail was excellent even on christmas day. we drove over to addison at about 4pm. again it was not open but the door was open and so we went in, we were warmly greeted by the host. a waiter gave us a tour of the place and some menus to take home. They were professional without be cloying or condesending. They could of easily blown us off with the " we are not open yet" line but they did not . I know that this place is pricey but we are definitly going back to try it after the holidays have settled down
DD, you mentioned a pleasant experience at MendoBistro, that should be the 'baseline', for service and quality of product, at any moderate to better quality restaurant.
The 'Management' should make real sure that servers are well versed in the product (also by tasting) and accompaniments, ie wine paring etc. If I don't receive that level of service and quality of food, keeping in mind that the tab was a healthy one, I will comment to management. I'll give it another try and see if it was just that particular experience or a permenant problem. There are many places to try and life is short.
I just gor an email from the mods that they can't copy some post from one thread to the next one. To get the discussion started in this post I thought it might a good idea to copy some of the post from the "San Diego restaurants are bad" thread because they are a good starting point:
I never thought I would write something again in this discussion but finally I have to write some comments about San Diego restaurants. I still don't think that San Diego has bad restautants based on the quality of the food but more and more I think San Diego really lacks in term of service. I always hear the excuses that the owners/waiters are more laid back here and that this is "california style". That is complete BS. Why is it possible that I can go to LA, SF, Napa, LV, Carmel, Olema, Cambria, Santa Barabara, Boston, Maine, Portland, Europe (add any other place you want) and get mostly good and knowledgeable service but in SD it is just an exception to get reasonable service. I can go to upscale restaurants or hole-in-the-wall places or somewhere in between but I will get most of the times a bad service. Service is not only bringing food to my table but knowing how to interact with customers (and my wife and I are definitely not very demanding customers) and having some knowledge about the food you are serving. In SD there not many restaurants where you feel welcome but it is more the case that you should feel happy that the waiter is willing to talk to you. Even at small hole-in-the-wall places they treat you like they don't want to have any customers. And also as part of the service why are waiters are so uninformed about the food they serve ? Why is it possible that I go to a small Italian cafe in Boston and the waiter is happy to talk about the bread/coffee etc ? Why is it possible that I go to restaurants in Palm Springs and have fantasic discussions about their food resources ? Why is it possible that I have better service and knowledgeable waiters in Olema (100 residents) than in SD ? Why is the service in LV great ? And why isn't it possible to ask any waiter in SD any question about the food they bring to your table without getting an irritated look and a reply that he/she is only working here and why should they know anything about the food but if I really want to know (and now it is an annoyed look) they might ask somebody ? No, San Diego restaurants are not bad and you can get really good food but the service is nearly everywhere way below average. It looks like the food gods had to decide on one city on this planet where everybody has to suffer because of lousy service and unfortunately they decided Sa Diego is a "lucky" city.
I hate this thread but it came to mind over the recent Xmas holiday. I was in Mendocino and had dinner at the Mendo Bistro in Ft. Bragg. We were a party of 5, the restaurant was probably about 75-80% full; we were warmly greeted (by, I'm pretty sure, the owner) and seated promptly. The meal was very good, but what struck me most is exactly what Honkman has just mentioned. The service, in a tiny little town in Northern Califonria, was far and away better than anything I've experienced in San Diego during 2007.
Our waitress had, clearly been well trained. She could answer any question we had about the menu, and we had many because there were quite a few interesting options on it, as well as the small wine list that focused mostly on local producers.She was aware of how the kitchen made each dish (including desserts), what went into it, and which wines went better with which entrees. She was friendly without being insincere or a pest and made the whole dinner a delicious experience. Additionally, the owner stopped by a couple times to check on how we were doing and both made it a point to say good bye and thank us for coming in for dinner when we left.
Halfway through the meal a thought went flitting through my brain ab out this thread and how it was too bad that the service in most SD restaurants wasn't very comparable...
Is it possible though, that some (not all) restauranteurs don't bother to put knowledgeable servers on the floor or provide a polished, welcoming atmosphere for diners because they think the majority of San Diego diners don't care or won't notice? If not, what do you think is the reason for this problem?
It definitely seems to me that there's an apathy on both sides and a hostility there, more of an "us vs. them" mentality than you see in other cities. I see both sides of this issue, but from a restauranteur's point of view - how can we expect restaurants to cater to our every whim and provide spot on service, when we don't provide the customer base they need in order to thrive?
Incidentally, this could almost be a new thread, since it dwells on service in San Diego restaurants - maybe we should start one, I'm not crazy about this one myself.
This is of course a very complex issue and an online discussion not the best way to solve it but just to mention a few points: I am sure that every customer would recognize it if there would be a better service in SD. Everybody I talked to in SD (foodie or not) mentioned without an exception how much better experiences they have with service outside of SD. It is simply a matter of what level of professionalism the restaurateur is running the business. I think SD is lacking owners who fully understand all aspects of the business of running a restaurant. If you read books as “Culineary Artistery” (which is about high-end cuisine but the rules are the same for all restaurants on all levels) you understand that in SD there is a lack of understanding that going to a restaurant is not only about the food but much more (and it goes far beyond just good service). And it is not about money because to improve your service you don’t automatically need to spend more money but increase your knowledge/understanding and also passion of what your are doing.
I also made the experience that SD in comparison to other cities as SF, Boston, LV etc. has a relative small percentage of people (waiters/owners and customers) who traveled/lived outside of the US. To be more openminded (not only about food but in general) I think it is essential to experience other cultures/countries. With the history of SD which is much more military based and more conservative this city is lacking this openmind spirit.
These are only some issues which just scratch the surface of this problem and it is hard to discuss it on a MB in more detail. In addition, this is a problem which has parts of its roots in politics and social issue which can’t be ignored and if I start to discuss these things my post will most likely be deleted.
To Alice - No, I don't think restauranteurs are not putting competent waitstaffs on their floors because they don't think San Diegans wouldn't notice or care. I think, ultimately, there are quite a few factors that go into the service issues here in America's Finest City. Training costs money and turn over is high, meaning you're always expending $$$ to train staff rather than having it fall to the bottom line, which could be looking rather anemic after rent, utilities, food, insurance, etc.. I suspect too many waiters and waitresses get their training on the fly. Indifference is an attitude and as long as the floor manager, general manager, chef and/or owner is willing to accept that and not willing to take action to change that, the attitude of indifference remains.
Also, don't forget, a large majority of the local waitstaff are not professional staff, they are part timers, students, or simply "between jobs" and earning the rent money before the "next best thing" comes along. No one in this town views waiting tables as a profession. I suspect that the stigma of the service industry in a tourist town is probably going to have to change some in order for service to improve. There's a big difference between working to pay the rent and working at a profession.
My nephew has a cousin who went to UNLV and obtained a degree in Criminal Justice. In college he began work as a busboy at Delmonico's (yeah, Emeril's place in LV). He worked his way up and became a wait captain. He was pulling in well over $100,000/year. He did that for several years, banked a huge chunk of it and finally became a police officer in the high dessert of CA. That type of salary is also not unusual in SF by any stretch of the imagination. But along with the promotions and tip salary came a heck of a lot of training. Realistically, would a waiter at George's, Bertrands at Mr. A's, 1500 Ocean or Addison haul in a six figure income? I don't know, but I would tend to doubt it.
Everyone wants to move to San Diego for the "lifestyle" and perceived easy way of living. It's kind of like they check their expectations at the county line and settle for a "less than" mentality. Restaurant service in SD has gone over the same precipice and into the same abyss as the Chargers ever winning a Super Bowl and the Padres every winning the World Series. As a city we have the attention span of a gnat and are more than wiling to move on to the next best thing to soothe our wounds. After all...we live in America's Finest City, don't worry, be happy. We simply don't care since the next wave or convention will be along soon.
To Honkman - Yes it is true that SD has a strong military presence and an even stronger conservative background. But the military hasn't been the primary employer since the early 90s and the conservative orientation has been substantially eroded over the last 10 years at least. With the influx of technology and biotechs came hundreds of thousands of people with more diversity and spending cash than military personnel. Not to mention they tended to be better educated, more sophisticated and less conservative than many already in SD. I also can't buy that San Diegans don't travel very much and thus don't have the same experiences. I've run into San Diegans all over the world, and my parents - 2 conservative kids from Iowa - were traveling internationally with their friends from the late 70s on. I'm not so sure the issue is lack of exposure to great service as much as it is a willingness to simply accept lower service expectations. Why I don't know, the best I've come up with is that it's in the water...drink it once and with all that heavy metal you'll never worry about service again ;-)
I think you are, however, right on when you say that many people don't understand or realize that dining out is about more than the food. My question is do they even care? And if they don't why? Too many people have over-scheduled lives and meals and/or dining out has been reduced to getting refueled in the shortest time possible with the least amount of hassle and as cheaply as possible so they can get on to the business of checking off the next task on the daily "to do" list. And then there is, of course, the whole slice of the populace for whom food is just fuel for the body and they derive little or no pleasure from it. There are some social changes that are going to have to happen first before the mindset and food culture changes in this county.
I often dine out with a former fine dining waitress who worked for several German chefs in LA (not not Wolfie) during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Those chefs ran their kitchens with an iron fist and were structured, deliberate and demanding about how they wanted their businesses run. My friend has a ton of stories about the hard work and exacting standards to which they had to work, as well as the fun they had. Of course, many things have undergone tremendous transformation since the 60s and 70s and almost all processes are much less structured than they used to be, including the service industry.
The best service I had this year was at AnthologySD. And yes, this discussion
about service in SD should be a separate thread.
I can understand some of your points but can’t always agree with or have at least some questions:
- You mention training costs money but why are restaurants in other cities are willing to spend this kind of money (And their rents, utilities etc are not lower) ?
- Most waiters in other cities (Boston, LA, Palm Springs, Napa, Carmel etc.) I met this year were also not professional staff but often students, jobless actors etc. So why were they trained properly and simply better waiters ? You describe the situation in SD with a lot of not professional staff as unique to SD but I don’t think that it is unique to SD. Only the quality of training this not professional staff gets in SD in unique for this city.
- You write about “…the influx of technology and biotechs”: Here you are talking about the field I am working in and I can only tell you that biotech (and also parts of technology) in SD are dying. Ten years ago everybody talked about the three biotech hubs in the US: SD, SF and Boston. Nobody is talking about SD anymore. The majority of mid to large size companies closed their sites over the last ten years. And very often these companies complained about the conservative way of thinking in this city and missing openmindness. SD might not be as conservative as 30 years ago but hasn’t moved far. One might say there is no connection but for me also small things show sometimes how people feel and think and so far example why is it so hard to find a restaurant open after 10pm in this city ? Why is it so hard to find restaurants who are willing to use unusual (?) but authentic ingredients (e.g. I have problems to find an italian restaurant in SD who uses chicken liver, something which you find in Italy at every corner and which I hadn’t problems to find at one random italian restaurant in SF during a conference this year) ? No, I still think this city is lacking this openminded spirit I found in other cities.
- You wrote “Too many people have over-scheduled lives and meals and/or dining out has been reduced to getting refueled in the shortest time possible with the least amount of hassle and as cheaply as possible so they can get on to the business of checking off the next task on the daily "to do" list”.
That is true for every city in the US but somehow other cities don’t have a problem to have a great restaurant scene with great service but why is SD different ?
I do agree that service should be it's own topic, but I also see a lot empathy and excuses, in this thread about why SD has this problem. If waitstaff want to make a decent living, there should be no room for poor service. They also should know their menu and be able to explain and make recommendations. If they convey an attitude, it's usually the beginning of a bad experience.
I'll give you a small simple example; on week-ends I usually eat breakfast at the Broken Yolk in PB. No matter what I order or request the answer is never NO. The waitstaff are always pleasant cordial and smiling. The service and refills of water coffee etc. are very timely, and the quality of food is very good, they use fresh ingredients and the prices are reasonable. (the owners philosophy)
The result from me, I tip the waitstaff 'well' and they appreciate it.
Note to honkman: I agree on the Italian restaurant seen, it's pretty basic stuff (in some cases pathetic), not sure why. My same feelings for LI in general.
Honkman, this is exactly one of the reasons why having this discussion is so difficult on-line, the medium is too flat <sigh>. I don't disagree with any of your rebuttal comments. The population from which the waitstaff is hired is not unique to SD, and I would probably agree that in very few cities is waitstaff a viable profession, although I do think there are some cities that *do* have a much more established service tradition. I am aware that SDs biotech industry is sputtering and though you'd probably call me on it :-D, but I don't think you can ignore the impact it had, and perhaps that is one of the reasons we "have" begun to see improvements in restaurants in general, not just service. And if you think SD is conservative now, thank you luck stars you didn't live here in the 60s and 70s ;-). The last time I check, tho', conservatives were still going out to eat, still dropping big bucks on meals (not in SD, of course) and were some of the pickiest diners in terms of demands.
As for training, menu prices in SD are still lower (as they should be for the quality and creativity of what is served) than many other cities, while costs are at the same - or higher levels - than many other cities. As we've all seen, real estate prices had an extraordinary run up over the last few years and it wasn't limited to home purchases, rents went up as well. We also all know that SD has some of the highest, and occasionally the highest gas prices in the nation. Most vendors are just passing along the gas prices in the form of higher prices, or fuel surcharge, to the restaurant who may or may not pass along the increase to we consumers. Profit margins may be lower in SD than some other mid-tier cities, but probably not the SFs, CHIs or NYCs of the world. There may or may not be as much money left over for training in SD as in other cities. There is, clearly tho', no emphasis on it. But even if there is money for it, if the owner/management has no clue about decent service and is willing to accept the status quo, then no training happens. I wonder how many owners/chefs/managers really know or understand what great service is. And here's another question, does excellent service make diners in SD uncomfortable because they experience it so infrequently that they don't know how to behave appropriately? (Rhetorical, I may be all wet on this on)
Now, in defense of the often beleaguered waitstaff, I think we also need to consider the number of tables they are asked to cover. How many tables does a restaurant assign to a station? And how many potential guests would be in that station? No matter how much training a waiter has had, if s/he is asked to cover too many tables or guests, the service will suffer. This is often a result of scheduling too few people to cover the floor, or too many people calling off sick or simply being no call/no show for a shift. I think all of us have observed or been victims of a waiter or waitress with too many tables, too many guests and too little help, resulting in shoddy and indifferent service.
The apprenticeship and guild programs in Europe immersed young trainees into the business at an age where they absorbed a lot by virtue of having to learn the business from the ground up while satisfying a tough task master and achieving some set standards of competency. In many U.S. culinary schools the least favorite requirement has often been to work the floor as a waiter (hopefully this attitude is changing), but they'll apply for an executive chef position straight out of culinary school with little experience. Whether waiting or cheffing, it's a process to get from entry level to experienced provider. If a culinary school grad doesn't understand the front of the house and the guest, how can s/he understand what to put on the plate? (Another rhetorical question, I may be all wet on this one too). And conversely, the kitchen can be turning out extraordinary food, why should it be short circuited by inept service staff? The front of the house and the back of the house have to be working in concert for the whole experience to work. The kitchen fails if their are no servers to serve. The servers fail if the kitchen sends them nothing to serve. Each enhances the other.
There can be no argument that San Diego doesn't have that "beach casual" mentality. And that often does extend to the service we experience. I think the biggest difference I've experienced is that when I've been on the receiving end of excellent service, it was all about me the guest and not the waitstaff, restaurant or chef; there was an honest and sincere desire to please and to please me specifically. I think it's the desire to please the guest that is so lacking here in SD. It's not about the restaurant, or the chef, or the waiterstaff, it's about the guest and satisfying the guests needs, not the guests satisfying the needs of the business.
These are just ideas and thoughts I'm putting out there. I'm not married to any of them, except maybe the last one. I can be persuaded by alternate arguments or POVs. I've spent a lot of time over the last few years wondering about service and the lack thereof in this city. Over that same period of time we've seen improvements in the food, but service seems stuck in that same old dusty rut. So have at it folks, if you don't agree with me, so be it, but please advance your own theories. Service in SD sort of feels like trying to find the end of the rainbow...
Dining Diva please start the service thread! We had excellent service at AnthologySD a few weeks ago and a completely opposite experience at Vivace at The Four Seasons - it was appalling!
Only replying to the cash issue--as a former hostess, cocktail waitress & server in several fine dining restaurants in San Diego I can attest that the servers in my restaurants and bartenders were making well over $100,000 and are there for the career and are also well trained and worked their way up to their current positions.
Just out of curiosity, can you tell us at which restaurants you worked ?
Just a thought, but since San Diego seems to be so far behind (but we're getting there!) on the truly fine restaurants, would it stand to reason the service will improve as well? One can only hope. I have to believe so much of it has to do with the laid-back quality of this city. People who visit often describe it well: a big city with a small-town mentality. Not that it's a bad thing, but I think it's a valid description in many cases. People don't come here to take advantage of what we tend to call "culture" but rather the scenery and weather. DD described it well: "beach casual". I just think we're lagging where most cities shine, and yet we do "tourism" pretty well. People will visit other cities to dine at a specific restaurant. I have friends who have flown to SF for the evening, just to dine at a favourite spot. I doubt you'll hear anyone venturing to do that here. They'll come to relax, hit the beach, visit Baja - not dine.
As I said, I think we're evolving, but the service won't reach measures held in other cities until people realize there are some damned fine restaurants here and cease to line up for two hours for a table at Olive Garden. As stated above, it's not just about being courteous to your customers, but knowing the menu, the ingredients, the wines, etc. That said, I can say I've had some outstanding service at a few spots in town - Linkery being one of those places - and only hope other places will realize the need to train their waitstaff to do likewise.
>> People will visit other cities to dine at a specific restaurant, I doubt you'll >>hear anyone venturing to do that here.
I have to post and let you know that is NOT true. I live in Las Vegas, but visit SD 3-4 times a year. It's my DH and mine's favorite place to escape to, and food is a big, big draw. I'm not here to get into an heated discussion, hearing that some locals look down their nose at where we love eating. (I know they do, it's been discussed before!)
As for service in SD, I have to admit it's got a very casual, laid-back attitude. Not extremely horrible, or we'd never go back! Just.....like the concept of caring 100% about the customer and their needs are an afterthought to whatever else they are doing.
Honeychan, that's good to hear! Like you, I may not be qualified as a "discerning foodie" - I eat what I like, and could care less if anyone thinks it qualifies as "good" or not. I will say, however, that I've ordered carry-out or simply not gone back to a few places where the service has been terrible. Having grown up here, I think it's wonderful to finally get some finer dining places here in town, but it doesn't keep me from hitting up my old stand-bys.
I asked the mods to move the posts from the other thread to this one. We will see if they will do it.
Best service in SD this year was at Cafe Chloe and the Linkery. In both cases it is not outstanding but pretty good for SD and it also helps that we are regulars there and the people start to know us.
Worst service in SD was clearly Currant. Food was ok but service was unbelievable bad.
Best service overall is very hard to choose because we had many outstanding service moments but highlights might be twice at Blend (Palm Springs) (at one occasssion the waiter organized an additional duck course for our tasting menue because we discussed about it, very knowledgeable servers, very interested in food). Ad-Hoc in Yountville has fantastic, very young waiters which are much better than anybody in SD. It doesn't happen very often that you want to go to a restaurant again not only because of the outstanding food but also to have the chance to meet the waiters again.
Gotta agree wtih Mikec on this one. The food has always been quite good but the service, not always. I've only ever been there when they've been very busy, service has been mostly so-so/okay to perfunctory with far too little attention from the server once the initial orders have been taken. My biggest complaint about Cafe Chloe certainly isn't the food and it isn't even the service, it's the noise. On every occasion that I've been there the noise level has been so great that table conversation was rendered virtually impossible. That's really too bad because it's got a great vibe and good food.
I agree that service should't only depend how well known you are at a place but I had never the feeling that serivce was that bad at Cafe Chloe especially for San Diego. We never had any serious service issue from the very beginng (and the food is some of the best in SD for that price level).
I have to agree that we had some great service at Anthology. Aside from the fact that they somehow managed to serve three courses throughout a performance without distracting at all, they were very friendly, never patronizing, and happy to hand out bread! I don't have a problem with served bread vs bread baskets, but sometimes I feel like I'm asking too much for another piece of bread. Since Anthology had 3 different breads, I definitely wanted to try them all, and our server was happy to come back a few times, even giving us 2 corn muffins because he said they were his favorite.
Maybe they're getting better, but our worst service was at Stone Brew's World Garden. Always a wait (even with reservations) and the last time we were waiting for our meals and the server came over and said "Gosh! Where is your food?" Um, isn't it your job to know where our order is and if it's ever coming back? Maybe they're trying the Southwest Airlines approach where servers are trying to be your buddies - you know, the kind of people you forgive for talking back to you and joking about how your order got lost?
I have to say, though, there are only a few places where we've received awful service. I've had worse experiences while on vacation in other states. I think we're doing just fine... I've made my peace with the fact that I don't live in a "culinary hotspot". As long as I can find a good meal with friendly service (sometimes even in the same place!), I'm a pretty happy camper.