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Speed! Is there some contest to see how many times a restaurant can turn a table?

Just back from a five-day trip -- our third. Something has changed over time. My biggest take-away from our dining experience is that NO restaurants serve meals faster than restaurants in any city I've visited. I can get fast service in my hometown if I tell our server that I have theater tickets and need to be out the door at "something" o'clock. But I've never had dinners served so fast so consistently. We ate dinner at Emeril's, Cochon, August, Stella's, and Galatoire's, and each one served a meal with a break between courses lasting no longer than two-three minutes. At least the successful restaurants pulled off their gastronomic sprint without overlaping the courses. Unfortunately, at both Cochon and brunch at Luke, we were presented with our main dish while we were still eating our first course. (In both cases, we refused the second course. We also made it clear that we didn't want the food to wait under a heat lamp until it was eventually served to us.)

Will someone with some experience in a NO restaurant tell me how the kitchen gets the word to fire up the next course? Does the server monitor the table and send word when diners are nearing the end of a course? Does the server put the entire order in at the same time and someone in the kitchen uses some rubric to pace the meal service? All I know is that the elegant plating and the army of servers and the attentive behavior of the captain at both Stella's and August wasn't enough to establish a gracious experience. It was a delicious experience. It was an impressive experience. But it wasn't the same experience we get when we dine in equivalent restaurants in DC or San Francisco or NY.

Is the business model of NO restaurants to serve lightning fast meals to turn the table more often? Is the business model of NO restaurants a consequence of the huge numbers of visitors to the city? Does a restaurant simply accept the losses that come when the kitchen miscalculates and presents the food very, very quickly because speed pays?

Luke was particularly fouled up. I've already mention our issues. The table next to ours was served their main dish without ever having received their first course. Since a runner brought the food, the diners didn't alert the waiter to the missing grilled oysters persillade for a few minutes. Bringing the problem to the waiter's attention didn't bring about timely results. Their meal was almost finished and one of the guests told the waiter to cancel the order for the oysters. He replied saying the oysters had been prepared. Really? If that's so why weren't they on the table? When we left the restaurant five minutes later, our neighbors still hadn't received their oysters. Was the waiter afraid he was going to have to pay for the mistake at both our table and the neighbor's table and he was sweetly trying to coerce them into accepting the oysters?

And finally, what kind of training are the runners receiving? Do they get penalized if they bring food back into the kitchen? I don't want to have to tell the runner the obvious: that we're not ready to have the next course crammed onto the table to get cold while we finish our first course. (Or, equally unacceptably, that we interrupt our first course to eat the second course when it is optimally hot and fresh.)

I haven't seen anyone write about this overly speedy trend -- one that we did not see on our first or second trip to the city each spaced about three years apart.

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  1. My wife and I travel to New Orleans at least once, often twice, a year -- and have since before Katrina. I can't say I have EVER felt rushed dining (or "lunching") in New Orleans, whether it was a table at Galatoire's for Friday lunch -- where we *know* there is a second seating -- or Cochon, or Lüke, or August, or Stella, or . . . or . . . or . . . heck, not even Café du Monde, and you KNOW they want a fast turnover there!

    Now I live in Berkeley, and dine out in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area* frequently, and often visit Vegas, NYC, Chicago, DC, and New Orleans (in fact, I've leaving for New Orleans in less than 48 hours as I write this), and -- yes -- I've certainly had meals in my life where I felt rushed. But it's never been as consistent (and conspiratorially widespread) as you describe.

    Generally I find it takes place during an "off night," when the waitstaff and the kitchen aren't communicating effectively, and the result is that dishes get fired too quickly and brought out too soon.

    $#|+ happens, and I guess we'll shortly see if our experience† is similar to yours . . .

    __________
    * Say, from Manresa in Los Gatos to the south, to Sonoma and the Napa Valley.

    † On the schedule is Bayona, Cochon, Commander's Palace, Coquette, Galatoire's, Herbsaint, Patois, R'evolution, and others TBD.

    4 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      I adored Cochon's wood-fired oysters with Chili Garlic Butter, but be warned. The recipe involves liberal sprinklings of chili flakes. It was right at my tolerance for chili heat, but that was part of the success.The mild oysters were a particular treat once the incendiary flame of the chilis faded away.

      I made a meal of small plates whereas my husband ordered the signature cochon dish for the second time. The shrimp and tasso and the brussel sprout salad rounded out my meal. The dressing on the salad was amazing and the crisp freshness of the raw brusses sprouts was a delicious alternative to the rich dishes. (Not as much of a fan of the dried chick peas in the salad, but those were easily pushed aside.)

      1. re: zin1953

        And on the issue of speed...

        I certainly don't think we were being pushed more than other diners. The brisk/efficient pacing was the same for diners who were seated close enough that I could easily notice their progress.

        1. re: zin1953

          Zin1953, I am so jealous as I said in another posting.

          OT: Going to Revival Bar + Kitchen in your hometown tomorrow night. Any thoughts?

          1. re: karendor

            RBK is doing some very, very good food (and cocktails). We like it, but I'll confess it's one of those places that we mean to go to more often than we actually do. One note of caution: it can get rather noisy . . .

        2. My dinners at non chain New Orleans restaurants usually last 2-3 hours (with a rare 4 hour on occasion). Some visitors are used to 1 hour meals and since visitors do make up the diners at good New Orleans restaurants you may have to identify the type diner you are..

          When the server first asks for your app order and you may have just gotten your cocktail, that is the time to explain that you are not in the race. But I'm sure you know that.

          Now at some chains such a request will drop you out of your servers cycle and you may have to remind them that you still exist and are ready for a second drink and your apps.

          1. Never had this problem, Indy, but did have no personality /slow/spacy service at Luke and Booty's late last year. Other than those two instances, I find the New Orleans service to be engaging, smart, responsive and rarely rushed.

            Someone on this board suggested not even *looking* at the food menu until AFTER the cocktails arrive.. maybe that is the key to slowing them down.

            6 Replies
            1. re: karendor

              At Stella's, one couple who was already eating their appetizer when we sat down, dined at the same efficient pace, and finished well before we did had a different slow-down strategy: They just sat there and lingered over multiple cups of coffee. In fact, they were still lingering when we got up to leave.

              The longest meal of our trip was the one we ate at August and that lasted somewhat longer than 2 hours. That meal included drinks, starter course, main course, dessert, and coffee with a plate of confections. (We did two wines by the glass to match our two separate courses. When the two of us order a bottle of wine, we usually linger a bit before the dessert course finishing that last bit of wine.)

              When we didn't order coffee or receive after-dinner confections (Cochon, Emeril, and Galatoire) we left the restaurants in less than two hours.

              Admittedly, there was a small part of me that admired the highwire performance of the restaurants that succeeded. With such a small gap between courses, the point at which the restaurant begins cooking the next course leaves little margin for error. Too soon and the food loses quality under a heat lamp or makes for an awkward transition as used plates cutlery get collected from one side of the table while the new food arrives from the other side.

              Of course, we could have slowed down the service, but I'm essentially surprised that the restaurants where we dined like such rapid transitions between courses as part of their identity/culture.

              Unfortunately, even August's efficient service didn't enable us to make it to DBA in time for the performance we wanted to see. We couldn't snag a taxi and, even if we had, I doubt the taxis could have negotiated the traffic resulting from the many, many St. Joseph and St. Patrick's Day parades in the CBD and the FQ.

              1. re: Indy 67

                the art of effective cab-catching in nola deserves its own post? or board? me I love those pedicabs the way they dart in and out of traffic.

                1. re: Indy 67

                  so 2+ hours? not exactly break-neck table turning...?

                  1. re: kibbles

                    Ah! But it's the pace and not the total I'm reacting to.

                    There's a fair amount of time spent at the beginning of the meal -- settling in, dealing with the water question and receiving all the necessary menus -- that's just boilerplate. Then there's time spent looking over the cocktail menu and the wine list. Finally, the cocktail/aperatif order gets placed, and there's a bit of time spent waiting for the drinks to appear. So, the clock is running and we haven't even talked food with the waiter. The amount of time needed to accomplish this will vary considerably. High end restaurants often have cryptic menu entries. On August's menu, for example, there are quotation marks around the word "courbouillon." This means that anything I might know about the recipe for the traditional poaching liquid is probably irrelevant. (Definitely! The menu never even lists aioli, the wonderful but assertive ingredient that, frankly defines the dish more than the actually mentioned courtbouillon.)

                    The more cryptic the menu, the more time needed to discuss it with the waiter.

                    Now, all this conversation is interesting and enjoyable. It definitely adds to the over-all dining experience, but the clock has been running and we haven't begun to eat. When our order is placed and the menus disappear, amuse arrives and eating begins. But we're still walking out the door at the 2-hour point, so we're dealing with a considerably narrower dining window. What had begun as a leisurely start to a meal, becomes a rather rapid succession of courses.

                    As other have said, there are definitely strategies to slow down a meal. That's not my point. I'm saying that I'm fundamentally curious why a restaurant that puts so much energy into its decor, into developing a professional staff, into creating a place that requires -- even values -- a thorough conversation about the food changes it tone so dramatically as the courses come out at a very rapid pace.

                    1. re: Indy 67

                      i thought August was somewhat longer than 2 hours? still, i can understand that being on the shorter side for 3-course + amuse + digestif. but given the amount of time in the beginning of your meal, IMO i dont think it's their business model to serve lightning fast meals to turn tables (your question). were that the case they would have asked for app orders before letting you settle in w/ drinks and questions. thats what i see at non-local chains (such as an unfortunate meal we had at Morton's, the only option available to us not long ago. they wanted to rush it big time..) most local dining here is known for its leisurely pacing. in fact when traveling to acclaimed spots in chicago i had to slow things down, accustomed to taking things slower here.

                      not sure why the courses at August came out too close to each other, but IMO it's not typical...have never noticed it before.

                      at more casual places ive seen this, such as Stella's casual offering, Stanley -- it's more of a diner catering to tourists on jackson square and they do drop the entrees on top of the apps. depending on what i ordered or who im with i may send it back or whatever, but i have noticed it at spots like that.

                2. re: karendor

                  ive done this -- kept the menu closed until after our drinks arrived and we had time to settle. if they ask we say we havent even looked. then when getting the second drink/wine we order the apps. then we know we're leisurely diners.

                3. The way we do it in places where we want to linger is We order our drinks and then dismiss the waiter. when he comes back we order another drink and tell him we'll order an appetizer and then begin to look at the menu for dinner.

                  When he drops the app. we order dinner

                  we're in charge not the waiter. (PS. We tip 25%)

                  1. I've seen restaurants elsewhere that were lightening fast but they were always the ones that would give you a 6:00 reservation with the mandate that you be gone by 7:15. I don't eat at those places of my own volition. But turning tables has long been practiced here if the waiter doesn't have any reason to plan otherwise. All my waiters know I am not going anywhere anytime soon (unless, e.g., I have to catch a plane) but I have seen expert work at all the old line restaurants. One of my old Galatoire's waiters, Bill Bordelon, was the acknowledged master. I once saw his colleagues challenge him to break his previous record (whatever it was) for turning a single table, a two top on the right side wall. None of his customers there were locals. I personally saw him get a couple in-and-out in 35 minutes by the clock, including dessert, coffee, and Cointreau. I don't recall what the turn-tally was that afternoon but it must have been close to ten.

                    The rest of us, of course, tend to be much slower. They know I will be back tomorrow or the next day so it is not really a lost revenue question.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: hazelhurst

                      Damn! Thank heavens our waiter is Billy (Fontenot), and not Bill . . .

                      ;^)

                      1. re: zin1953

                        Bill was very good and would accommodate your style--if he knew it. He was very good fighting for you in the kitchen. He retired in I guess the early 80s and died about 15 or more years ago,

                        Billy, of course, is Harold's son and was born knowing how to do it.