When it comes to eating out, times have changed.
Veteran restaurant servers used to be able to spot long-married couples because they barely uttered a word to each other during their meal. These days many first-daters also scarcely talk to each other, but for an entirely different reason. Often they are busy texting or scrolling through email on their smartphones.
A more knowledgeable dining public that eats out more often is also taking advantage of technology, using online reservations, food blogs and dining sites that enable them to view restaurant menus before they have stepped through the door and critique their meals across a variety of social media platforms as soon as they leave.
Of course, information technology isn’t the only factor shaping a bold new restaurant world. A more casual culture and a move to less formal dining have also had a dramatic impact on diners’ overall expectations.
Phil Vettel has been a restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune for 23 years. He recalls a time when restaurateurs would upgrade stemware, dishes, napkins or even the thread count of the tablecloths in hopes of being considered for an additional Michelin star. But he points out the awarding of Michelin stars in the United States is now based only on food quality.
The country’s recent economic downturn forced many well-known chefs to drop their prices by getting rid of multi-course prix-fixe tasting menus and white tablecloths.
“Everyone was doing what they had to do to survive,” says Howard Hanna, chef/owner of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. “But it’s sad to see how far it has gone. There are very few high-end restaurants left. That style of service is practically lost now.”
Hanna has observed a seismic shift away from the formal and traditional in favor of the fun and funky — and sometimes loud.
Vettel insists restaurant service is as professional as it has always been, despite being much less formal. But as diners become more knowledgeable about food and drink, servers also must know the products they are selling inside and out.
Chef innovation — whether the use of a unique, locally sourced ingredient or time-consuming preparation technique such as sous vide — can make a meal distinctive and memorable in a way that it wasn’t a mere decade ago. “The intricacies of the menu, especially in terms of the novel sourcing that chefs do now, have to be drilled into the waiters,” Vettel says.
Meanwhile, sommeliers at the finest restaurants are more a luxury than a staple, pushing those duties to the servers, who must speak fluently about wine and beer, as well as the handcrafted specialty cocktails that have become an integral part of the dining scene.
It’s all about training, Vettel says, and that starts with the chef/owner investing time and effort to make sure waiters do what they must do and know what they must know to create the desired dining experience.
When hiring servers, the Rieger’s general manager, Tony Glamcevski, looks for the ability to react to unexpected situations. He refers to New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer’s book “Setting the Table” as a bible of sorts for waiters, and like Meyer he thinks it is more important to be hospitable than to have good technical skills.
“People go to restaurants for the food,” Glamcevski says, “but they come back for the service and hospitality.”
Service doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to the 21st-century diner that it once did.
Open kitchens are all the buzz these days. And so are communal tables. Diners are willing to dish out big bucks for a participatory experience.
The Rieger is one of a growing number of Kansas City restaurants that has an open kitchen and a chef’s counter, where diners can take in the ballet between chefs and servers while taking in the food. Blurring the line between kitchen and dining room has also played a role in creating more teamwork among the staff.
“Servers are more respectful of what goes on in the kitchen and how hard it is to produce a quality product in a timely manner,” Hanna says.
At the same time, chefs are more empathetic toward servers, seeing firsthand how they must juggle multiple tables with high-maintenance guests demanding modifications or substitutions to dishes, or so-called special orders, at a higher rate than ever before.
Jenny Vergara, a marketing consultant and the founder of an underground supper club known as Test Kitchen, is concerned that diners are increasingly treating restaurant chefs as personal chefs. “The substitutions, food allergies and laundry list of will-eat, won’t-eat absolutely plagues a restaurant’s kitchen,” she says.
But Vettel argues that consumers are simply exercising control and are less willing to fall in lockstep with whatever the restaurant is pushing. “They want the meal on their own terms,” he says.
And that can make it more stressful for the chef.
Cooking is two parts: technical know-how and the melding of flavors to create a delicious product. “When diners alter a dish with substitutions or changes, it can be disheartening to a chef,” Vergara says.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of food bloggers and online reviewers means that restaurants get more feedback online, perhaps more than they get from diners while they are still seated in the restaurant.
This is frustrating to the restaurant staff because real-time feedback allows a server or chef to correct problems or concerns.
“If a guest doesn’t like something, we want to replace it so we can give them a better experience,” Hanna says.
David Hayden, a local server-extraordinaire who works at the Majestic Steakhouse, authored a book and maintains the Hospitality Formula Network (hospitalityformula.com), observes his guests critiquing every element of the dining experience, from soup to scenery to service.
And there’s simply no longer a break-in period for a new restaurant. Diners are tweeting with the very first dish served, and then it’s a game on the blogosphere to see who can weigh in next.
“People see Gordon Ramsay on TV going into restaurant kitchens and dressing down the chefs, so diners feel empowered to do the same,” Hayden says. “It’s almost as if sophistication is defined by sarcasm and snarkiness.”
Vettel finds that good restaurants empower servers to do whatever is necessary to make the customer happy at that moment, including taking the dish off the bill.
What an amateur online reviewer focuses on can, to say the least, irritate a restaurateur. “I can’t believe that, out of all the things that went into your meal, you write a review based on the lint from the napkin that got on your pants,” Hanna says.
Hayden wonders about motive.
“When someone chooses not to say anything to the manager but will broadcast it to as many people as possible who cannot correct the situation, it makes me question whether they truly wanted the problem resolved more than an opportunity to dispense ‘justice.’”
Vettel doesn’t think the job of a restaurant critic at a local newspaper is likely to become obsolete. “I can convey the nuances of a restaurant in a way that a 140-character tweet can’t,” he points out.
He also is convinced that diners often reserve judgment until a professional critic weighs in. And professional critics will typically wait to write a review of a new restaurant until the initial kinks are ironed out.
Online reviews are often accompanied by photographs of dishes. Or diners sometimes post pictures to their Facebook pages or in an Instagram.
With more diners snapping shots of their meals, the subject of photography in restaurants is increasingly controversial. Some high-end restaurants in New York City have banned photography, while other chefs invite lay photographers to take their pictures in the kitchen where the lighting is better.
Taking photos of each dish might be a bit annoying to nearby diners, but food blogger Vergara says it’s shortsighted for restaurants to ban the practice. “They need to harness the power of social media” she says, “because it drives demand, is great publicity and honors what the chef is doing.”
The use of mobile phones, not for picture-taking but for talking, has sparked an entirely different diatribe. “I don’t ban it at the Rieger,” Hanna declares, “but it’s rude.”
Too often Rieger manager Glamcevski has to wait to take an order until a diner gets off the phone, and he has had to ask a guest to move a phone so he could put down a plate. “We make a joke about it; that if they put away their phone and started talking to each other, he and his companion could have an actual dining experience.”
Restaurateurs do appreciate modern technology when it comes to diners making online reservations through Open Table, a real-time reservation network. But the convenience comes at a cost. Open Table receives $1 per diner from the restaurant for each reservation made through its system (but only 25 cents if booked on the restaurant’s website).
Hanna says it also enables the restaurant to send an email response to every diner that offers feedback on Open Table.
“Even if the comments are positive, it allows us to build a rapport with our customers,” he says.