Boston restaurants with a service shtick?
- MC Slim JB Aug 30, 2011 04:00 AM
Another recent thread on this board got me thinking: what Boston restaurants have a front-of-house shtick, a kind of house style among servers that the place is known for and perhaps deliberately trains its staff to affect?
I'm talking about a kind of cultivated theatricality of one kind or another. One classic example is the old Durgin-Park, which had the "sassy, pushy, beefy old washerwoman in a beehive" thing going for decades. This went from being genuine, to being played up a bit for the tourist crowd, to being retired when the place got bought by a chain operator of historically-themed restaurants a few years ago.
Many touristy Italian-American restaurants feature waiters who are locals but affect thick, phony Italian accents. I ran into this most hilariously at Strega Waterfront not too long ago: our young waiter had a mamma-mia-datsa-spicy-meata-balla accent at our table, actually referred repeatedly to Mrs. MC as "bellissima", almost certainly unaware of the old SNL sketch. He then reverted to a working-class Revere lilt with his co-workers the moment he thought he was out of earshot.
Many Hounds have commented with bemusement and/or disgust about the dining room service at Craigie on Main, which I'd describe as "Allow me to educate you as to how lucky you are to be dining at our fabulous but not frou-frou temple of gastronomy" hauteur. (Doesn't bug me: I think Maws's food deserves a bit of snotty pedantry, but I prefer dining at its roomier-feeling bar anyway.)
L'Espalier's servers tend to be very understated, almost hushed, speaking in reverent, awed tones about "Chef's" food, but otherwise I'd say there isn't really a house style; I've encountered a wide range of personalities and approaches among the servers there. (Goes without saying that they're tremendously skilled.)
And there are ugly tourist-trap joints like Dick's Last Resort, which seems to think that servers who act like obnoxious pricks is a cute gimmick.
Then there's the diner / neighborhood bar archetype of the no-nonsense, gruff, "What yiz want?" server, like the lifer ladies at Victoria's Diner, or the older gent with the young-Elvis bouffant at the Eastie Santarpio's. But this maybe doesn't quite fit what I'm going for here. Those folks genuinely are what they are: it's not an act designed to be part of the experience, though it certainly adds to the ambiance.
I'd deliberately exclude the "Brian from Chotchkie's in 'Office Space'" chirpy, flair-bedecked, fake-fun persona of national casual-dining chain hellholes like TGI Friday's and Applebee's as unworthy of inclusion; I'm more interested in Boston-local restaurants.
774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02199
Boston, MA, Boston, MA
Craigie on Main
853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139
379 Hanover Street, Boston, MA 02113
I think the staff at the original Regina's play up their bit on purpose.
I can't think of any others that consciously cultivate a certain attitude, however many restaurants do naturally develop certain staff attitudes (e.g. the combination of fanboy foochbaggery and amateur service at Craigie; or the outright d-baggery at Neptune as pointed out in the other thread).
Your observations are pretty acurate. As I've said many times dining out is the new entertainment. However, I don't think anyone "deserves a bit of snotty pedantry", even if it is Tony Maws. A fun post.
About 8 years ago I remember going to the Excelsior restaurant (now closed) on Boylston Street and noting that the service was unbelievably pretentious. For example, at the beginning of the meal they asked us if we wanted Italian bottled sparking water or "the house flat" for the table. When we asked them what they meant by the "house flat", the waiter explained that it meant tap water.
My one experience at Salts made me think they also specifically train their staff on the same "Allow me to educate you as to how lucky you are to be dining at our fabulous but not frou-frou temple of gastronomy" hauteur. Every course came with a 10 minute description of where every ingredient had been sourced, down to the garnish! While the food was lovely and I am actually a big proponent of supporting local agriculture, this jumped the shark to almost a satirical level. When the waiter, with a straight face, started waxing poetic about the "hand foraged mushrooms" and how they had their own personal forager for the restaurant...all to describe the 2 chunks of mushroom in the veggie loaded stuffing, I had to suppress a case of the giggles.
SoundBites in Ball Square used to be well-known for the owner's "breakfast nazi" schtick. Grabbing menus out of people's hands while they were looking at them, telling people they were taking too long to eat and rushing them out to make room. Then they remodeled, doubled their space, and the owner relaxed... it was common for him to give people free food, hug them, that sort of thing. Then the Breakfast Wars started with Ball Sq. Cafe, and things got scary again. More than once I've sen the owner run out of his store and start shouting in the face of the Ball Sq Cafe owner, who has a habit of standing out front and inviting people into his restaurant.
Lineage on Coolidge Corner seems to have an attitude screaming: "We're not like the low-brow surroundings, we're so much cooler! Look, we've got white tablecloths". You can feel it seating in the bar eating oysters and having a drink. Have not tried the dining room, but it looked no different.
The attitude is worse than Neptune, certainly, as Neptune seems to be genuine in their "we don't care if you come back" attitude (and I live 3 minutes' walk away from it, so the experience at Neptune is both fresh and old and anything in between).
Actually, a funny story about Neptune's attitude. I've never eaten oysters in my life, couldn't even look at them. First time I was there a few years back the four of us went for a friend's birthday. We were standing in line for a wile outside, waiting. Finally, we're the first in line, table opens up... suddenly a couple walks in. They hug the front staff, the owner and are seated at what should have been our table. With staff almost physically pushing us out the door in mid-step. OK, we wait a bit more, get in and are seated at the long table next to the couple that "cut in". Somehow we start talking to them and they turn out to be Barbara Lynch and her husband. Nicest people you care to meet. Made me try my first oysters that day. Talked to me through the entire dinner about food, traveling, oysters, etc. Boy, you should have seen the change in staff's attitude when they saw me talking to Barbara and her husband. I have not seen them be that nice and if not for that experience I wouldn't know they were physically capable of that.
I haven't encountered anything annoying (and really, that's what would make me remember it) recently, but years ago, I remember getting some serious attitude at Icarus in the South End. We ate there enough to notice that it was just their thing.