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Aug 30, 2011 04:00 AM

Boston restaurants with a service shtick?

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

Victoria's Diner
Boston, MA, Boston, MA

Craigie on Main
853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

379 Hanover Street, Boston, MA 02113

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  1. 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).

    3 Replies
    1. re: Gabatta

      I always put the Regina folks in the same category as Santarpio's, I think that's just who they are: a bit cold at first, perhaps because they are always slammed, but completely nice as soon as you show them you are not going to be annoying.

      1. re: hckybg

        Yeah, I've always found the Regina's staff to be businesslike but perfectly pleasant, and I've watched them dote on small kids in the restaurant any number of times.

        1. re: hckybg

          I've cultivated quite a rapport with the Thatcher St. staff - i would attribute any "gruff" to 25% show and 75% being constantly slammed with lots of tourists. As the other poster stated, they soften up right away. So sit back and enjoy the show.

      2. 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.

        1. Friendly Toast may be an example, certainly appearance wise -- plaid shirt, lots of tats, scruffy -- even if not in attitude or personality.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Blumie

            Yeah, FT's schtick is mainly about the ambience, not so much about the actual service, because they hardly have any.

          2. 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.

            1. I used to love the maitre'd in the colorful tuxedo at The European on Hanover St. A bit over the top for basically a red sauce pizza place, but he was very good.

              1 Reply
              1. re: pemma

                oh! he was a wonderful caricature. i brought my mom there many years ago specifically to see him and just have a drink at the bar. he was somethin'!