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Dec 31, 2007 01:50 PM

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?

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      5 Replies
      1. re: honkman

        > Best service in SD this year was at Cafe Chloe

        Not my experience. But maybe we had the same ditzy waitress that Mang had.

        1. re: mikec

          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.

          1. re: DiningDiva

            We are there pretty often and I guess when you start to know the server you get better service. I am surprised by the problems with the sound level because we are most of the times at Cafe Chloe on Friday/Sat. evenings and never felt that it was too loud.

            1. re: honkman

              That's a pet peeve of mine... service should not depend on how well you know the server (or owner) nor should good service only go to "regulars". How do they know we wouldn't become regulars if we enjoy the food and service?

              1. re: leanneabe

                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).

      2. 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...

        Alice Q:
        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.

        5 Replies
        1. re: honkman


          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 ?

          1. re: honkman

            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.

            1. re: phee

              >> 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! the concept of caring 100% about the customer and their needs are an afterthought to whatever else they are doing.

              1. re: Honeychan

                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.

            2. re: honkman

              honkman--thank goodness for "cut and paste!" :-)

          2. 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.

            1. 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