In eating at restaurants frequently, one can see which restaurants work and which don’t. It is not the food that is usually the problem, but the ‘weakest link’ that can prevent a restaurant from making the top grade, such a shame when the front of house team can destroy the good work of the kitchen team. Where the two are in harmony, it shows, and these are the ones one returns to and recommends. These are our experiences of some ‘weakest links’ we see regularly:
* The telephone answering service is one of the biggest problems, either the phone not being answered at all, and going through to an answering machine, or just ringing. Restaurants closing on Mondays are not good at having an answering service, preferably ‘live’, on such days. Others have only two lines, and when these are both occupied, the call goes to an answering machine, which calls can take up to six hours in our experience to be returned! Should one be lucky enough to have someone answer the phone, the restaurant person is usually a very weak link, either jumping into Afrikaans without also speaking English (in the Winelands), or speaking in a poor quality English (a cleaner, a waiter, etc – we have had them all). When I have to start spelling my name it is a poor reflection of the quality of the restaurant.
* The confirmation call on the day of booking is done for two reasons, it comes across – the restaurant suffers from no shows, or is fully booked and is looking for a table for a new booking. No shows are a shocking form of bad manners, but a reputable loyal client should not have to be burdened with this procedure, as it questions one’s honesty and ethics. Even worse is when a guest house is called to confirm a guest booking which the guest made directly with the restaurant, because the restaurant does not want to call the guest on his/her international mobile number! Restaurants are unhappy when we tell them that we cannot confirm such bookings.
* Restaurants on wine estates usually have booms, and these are operated by outsourced security companies. They are poorly trained in customer interaction, they do not welcome the clients to the wine estate, and their English usually is poor. They are the first point of contact of the restaurant experience, and a very BIG weak link in many instances. As they work shifts, the quality of the interaction varies, depending on who is on duty.
* Restaurants are a breed on their own, and those that close one or more days per week, especially in a city like Cape Town, should not complain about poor business. It is hard for guest houses owners to book restaurants for their guests in Franschhoek, for example, when very few of the better ones are open for dinner on a Sunday evening, or open at all on a Monday, even if a public holiday falls on a Monday. My recent ‘best’ blond reply to enquiring to a restaurant’s offering for New Year’s Eve was when I was offered the 1st or 2nd of January instead, the (blond) restaurant manageress not stating that they are closed on Mondays and therefore will not be open on that evening!
* We all have our favourite restaurants we enjoy going to and these are the ones we recommend to our guests. A fair proportion of restaurant bookings come from guest houses. It is very easy to set up a guest house address book and notify them if a restaurant is closed for a function, so that one does not recommend it to guests. This past weekend Franschhoek became ‘Weddinghoek’, and it was almost impossible to find a restaurant that was operating on a wine farm on Saturday, as many had been booked out. One of my favourites was booked up 24 hours in advance for the set up, and had its gates wide open, inviting one to enter through its signage outside, which they did not remove! Restaurants could Tweet if they are closed for private functions, but that is not a foolproof method of communication.
* Restaurant staff who turn guests away, especially when recommended by a guest house, because it is an hour before their closing time, should not be operating. One can always offer the guest a glass of wine, a coffee, or a light tapas meal. Surely the kitchen cleaning should happen after 17h00, and not while the restaurant is still open! Usually it is the waiters who are at fault, wanting to go home as quickly as possible!
* Stretching from the right across the guest in laying a fork on the table on the left, or the other way round for a knife, is the biggest service issue we see amongst restaurant staff, a sign of lack of training. Poor English pronunciation is another irritation, when one cannot understand the waiter. The waiter is not only an order taker and a plate carrier – he/she is the ambassador and relationship builder in most restaurants, making the difference in one coming back again or not. Restaurant Managers should be doing a lot of relationship building too, and not do the job of the waiters in bringing out the food.
* Restaurants without a staff dress code seem blind as to what their staff are wearing – we have seen restaurant managers and hostesses in low cut dresses, in knickerbockers, and clothing in colours that do not match the restaurant interior, or the traditional black and white, one not knowing what position the staff member holds in the restaurant. Visible piercings, rings, studs, tattoos, and in-grown earlobe discs are off-putting!
* Most chefs do not venture out of their kitchens, which means that they never receive compliments or even feedback first hand. The more top notch the restaurant is, the more the chef’s visit to the table is a bonus. Chef Reuben Riffel used to be excellent at this, but rarely is in his restaurants, and if he is, he escapes out through the back entrance. Only Chef Ryan Shell at Haute Cabriere and Chef PJ Vadas at Camphors at Vergelegen do this as a matter of course. Being invited to see Chef PJ’s kitchen was an absolute highlight!
* Typing errors on menus, especially of French terms, is an obvious no no, as is getting wine brands wrong on the winelist! Most waiters are not able to pronounce the French terms, nor do they know what they mean.
* Restaurants unable to graciously accept feedback of poor food and/or service, or who sit in other restaurants while they have clients in their own restaurant and then complain about their evening being spoilt due to the feedback, without consideration of the poor evening the client experienced at their restaurant, as well as managers who have no authority to deal with a guest complaint then and there, should not be in business! Banning guests due to not being able to accept feedback, such as at Le Quartier Français, the Caviar Group (Beluga and Sevruga), and the ex-Caveau group (Sotano) is an absolute no-no!
* Removing one’s plate when one has not finished eating, especially if one is Tweeting and eating, is a sign of poor training. The cutlery lying at an angle to the right of a plate which still has food on it is not an invitation to remove the plate.
* Asking for the bill is NOT a request to clear the table! Increasingly one has to wait for the bill, and then for the credit card machine to be brought to the table, as the table is cleared first.
Restaurants one enjoys going to know one’s preferences, make a plan if one arrives without a booking, ask if one is having ‘The Usual’, check at numerous stages of the meal if everything is to one’s satisfaction, connect one to other clients one may have wanted to meet, and show their appreciation for business and referrals received. A joy to experience is the hands-on owners and GMs, even if they are not in their restaurants, whom one can sms or call if a problem arises, and react immediately and fix the problem. Chefs and managers requesting feedback from their customers proactively, and acting upon it, win the first prize!
POSTSCRIPT 19/12: Just to add the absolute weakest link of all, which I was reminded of at Casparus yesterday, the second time running, and that is the Tip question – how much should the waiter add!
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage