Palate Pleasures – Better service in the USA?

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Having just returned from a very relaxing and enjoyable trip to the USA, I am still in holiday mode.

Dining out in the States has given me lots of “food” for thought, and has provided a different slant to this month’s column …

Instead of the usual focus on particular ingredients, this month I will share my thoughts on dining out itself, and the differences between Australia and the USA in terms of the overall customer experience.

You notice the difference as soon as you walk into a restaurant over there. And it doesn’t matter what kind of restaurant either – fine dining, steak house, fast food with table service – you name it.

Table service is the norm too, even in bars – which to me is the way it should be! After years of living in London and queuing up in heaving pubs during my valuable down time, only to reach the bar and be ignored while all the more attractive female specimens are attended to by testosterone fuelled barmen … need I say more?

When you arrive at a restaurant you are acknowledged immediately and seated. Drinks and menus are offered as soon as you sit down. Water is brought to the table straight away (and refilled regularly). Your drinks come out FAST – even the most elaborate cocktails on the menu.

Your waiter introduces him/herself, explains specials and can answer all your questions fluently and knowledgeably. Nothing is too much trouble and in my experience the person serving you will be pleasant, friendly, earnest and eager to please. Or at the very least, courteous and super efficient.

The food comes out fast. Everything you ordered arrives at the table – and at the right time. And the portions are BIG!

One word of caution – in most restaurants beware of ordering a starter and an entree (entrees being what we know as mains – confusing I know!) as you will not be able to finish them. In most cases you only need one course.

As soon as you finish, the empty plates (or not so empty if you ordered two courses!) will be whipped away. Dessert/coffee will be offered, and if you decline these, the bill (check) will be presented without you having to ask for it.

This was a particular feature of service that I liked – no fuss trying to attract someone’s attention to pay up, no having to ask at the counter. A seamless transaction occurring without further ado. And they are not trying to rush you out either – you can sit as long as you like and change your mind and order more if you so wish.

All this just takes all the pain of eating out away. No wondering if someone will actually come and take your order, or if the food is going to arrive at all. No waiting an eternity for your drink. No stressing out or misunderstandings about the bill. Wherever I went in the States the dining experiences I had were more or less of the quality I describe.

As a restaurant owner it is generally difficult to relax and just be a customer, as you are constantly analysing every aspect of the ambience, service and food quality. But after a few experiences over there it became possible just to switch off and enjoy.

So what’s the difference?

In Australia the service experience lacks consistency. Sure, it is possible to get fantastic service. But in my experience it is equally or more possible to get terrible service, and the norm to get average service.

Your waiter could quite possibly be very young and inexperienced. You may have several different staff attending to you, none of whom have communicated what your status is to the others. There may be a fuss over getting the bill paid – dishes might not have arrived and haven’t been taken off.

Although fine dining restaurants in Australia tend more towards experienced staff and more seamless service, it is not unknown for serious glitches to occur in even high calibre establishments.

And you come across attitude too – bored waiters whom you know would rather be washing their hair than serving you. Lack of care, no attention to detail, no menu knowledge and unwilling to go out of their way in general.

Why the huge discrepancy between countries? One big reason – financial incentives.

In the States, restaurant staff earn the bulk of their wages through tips. Hourly rates are much lower than here (approximately $8 per hour), but average tips per table of around 15% of the bill total bump their takings up considerably.

Therefore, good service will directly influence the waiter’s bottom line …

It is in their direct financial interest to learn the menu, to smile, to get things right etc.

Here in Oz, staff receive their hourly rates regardless. Tipping happens, but it certainly isn’t consistent or expected.

The restaurant experience is not just about food. It is just as much about entertainment and service. The person who takes your order and brings your food can make or break your enjoyment of the experience and it makes sense to me that they are specifically acknowledged in a financial sense …

By Lou Perry of The Stunned Mullet

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