Working a Dining Room

20 Oct

I was at a blue-and-white-checkered table towards the back of the dining room of Maialino – the hottest new restaurant in NYC – when I realized what it meant to work a dining room.  It was the third night of ‘friends and family’ at the new Roman trattoria in Ian Schrager’s ‘Haute Bohemian’ Gramercy Park Hotel and absolutely frigid outside, but the dining room was filled only with warmth as Danny Meyer walked from table to table greeting his guests.

I remember the moment very clearly.  I sat with two buddies/coworkers of mine, Charles Leisenring and Naum Shuminov, and we stared with open eyes and even more-open mouths at our table full of entrees.  We had already put away a selection of cured Italian meats (portioned for 6), a round of 5 appetizers, and a glass or two of surprisingly delicious white wine.  The entrees arrived and there were even more than we had remembered ordering.  The three of us looked at each other, picked up our forks and started digging.

During the entree course, I saw Danny starting to work his way across the room.  He has this aura about him, almost magical.  When he walks into the restaurant, you know.  He doesn’t have to say anything, but you know he is there.  And so I saw him towards the front of the restaurant and he made his way through the middle area where the fresh bread and salumeria is located.  He stopped at a table about fifteen feet away from ours and spoke with the guests for a minute.  As he turned away from the table, he caught my eye and headed right for our table.  He smiled as he walked to our table and greeted us all with a handshake, a thank you, and that was it.  He was gone.  Off to thank his next table of guests.  It was magical and a moment I will always remember.

Now, at this point in my career with Blue Smoke, I had been there for about six months as a manager.  In a company of about 2,000 people, there were many, many people with more important and higher-ranking jobs than mine.  But Danny remembered my name after the first time he met me.  Not only that – he greeted me and called me confidently by name as if to say that I was important to him.  He didn’t stay long at the table.  What he did do was make me feel like he was on my side.  It is one thing to make a guest feel welcome in your restaurant; it is another to make them feel like a king.

Danny once told me that he feels that the one thing he can do better than anybody in the world is work a dining room.  He proved it to me that night at Maialino.  What he also did was inspire in me a confidence that I could one day soon make people feel that great.  Now, I won’t go so far as to say that I can work a dining room better than anybody in the world.  Not yet.  But I think I am on my way to that point, and that is certainly where I will soon be.

What, then, does it take to work the dining room?

A Genuine, Caring Nature

This tenet is multi-faceted:

  • On one level it is about simply caring for others.  To care for someone is simple.  See every guest as a person.  A mother, father, child, grandparent, friend.  We often forget this principle in business or outside of our homes.  Everybody means something to somebody.  Treat them accordingly, how you would want your loved ones to be treated.
  • On another level, it is about truly caring about how your guests are enjoying themselves.  To be the best, you must get to the point that if even the slightest thing goes wrong with your guest’s meal, it strikes pain in your heart as an owner/manager.  It is about pride.  Even the slightest of mistakes, that is a personal shot against you.  You must internalize that and use it as your motivation to make the guest experience perfect.

A Deep Appreciation

The words of Alan Wong that will forever resonate with me are: “Every guest that chooses to eat at your restaurant had a thousand other places to choose, but they chose you.  It is your obligation to do everything in your power to go above and beyond and show them that they made the right choice.”  While working a dining room, it is imperative to show your guests that gratitude and appreciation not only through your words, but through your manorisms, gestures, and warm smile.

No Set Plan, Be Yourself and Gauge Your Guests

This tenet has three pieces:

  • You can’t have a plan when working a dining room.  Enter with a clean slate and no preconceived route.  Work like Danny did at Maialino; he caught my eye after speaking with another table so he came to greet us.  It is not genuine and not personal enough to walk from table to table based on the floor plan.  Working the dining room is as much about ‘feeling’ the dining room and guests as it is touching the tables.  That is what helps generate that magical aura that Danny has.  He is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in touch with his surroundings and can function much better than somebody who is relying on his thinking as opposed to feeling.
  • Can’t stress this one enough.  You’ve made it to the point where you’re working a dining room.  That either means that one or more of your superiors trusts you enough to be on the front lines or that you somehow snuck through the metaphorical barricade and are jumping right into enemy fire.  More often than not it is because you’re ready for the job.  Now, not that this should be surprising, but I find it is one of the things managers/owners screw up the most – Be Yourself!!  Chances are you’re a genuinely good, caring person.  If you weren’t, you probably won’t last long in this industry.  So just be yourself with nothing added or fake about you.  Smile when you want to smile.  Feel it.  Enjoy it.  This is your life and guests can quickly tell if you’re starting a conversation because you feel you need to or because you actually want to.
  • One thing I learned very early from one of my mentors, Mark Maynard-Parisi, is that not every guest is looking to chat, regardless of who it is with.  It is important to remember that you are greeting the guest and welcoming them, and therefor are playing by their rules.  Be sure to touch every single table and every single guest, but judge the situation on an individual basis and adjust accordingly.  Some guests will talk to you for hours.  Others just want to eat their meal.  Both are equally fine, and they will all respect and appreciate a visit – even if just a quick hello – from a manager/owner.

Eye Contact, Posture, and a Firm Handshake

This goes without saying.  All the things your parents taught you when you were a little child.  Stand up straight.  Don’t slouch.  Exude confidence.  Look people in the eye not only when you’re speaking to them, but also try to make eye contact from across the room and flash a smile at a guest.  That is above and beyond and that is one of the simple tricks to working a dining room.  When you shake a guest’s hand, make sure it is a firm handshake.  And on the topic of shaking hands, if you introduce yourself to a table, make sure you shake all of the guests’ hands and not just the person you are closest to.  A handshake is a very simple way of gaining somebody’s first level of trust.  Without it, you are just a person at their table.  With it, they feel like they know you.  They’ve touched you.  They can relate to you and will remember the handshake after they leave.

A Sincere ‘Thank You’

One of the simplest things you could ever do.  Relating back to Alan’s point about the deep appreciation you must feel towards the guest, nothing is better and more powerful than a sincere – I’m talking cocked head-shaking, clenched hands, nearly-Japanese-bowing –  ‘Thank You’ — but just make sure it is right from your heart.


Like I said, I’m not there yet, but I will be there soon.  I’m ambitious and competitive beyond belief.  I want to be the best at everything I do.  No doubts.  No equivocations.  If I could say that I truly believe that I can work a dining room better than anybody in the world, that would rank as one of my greatest professional accomplishments in what I hope to be a long life in restaurants and hospitality.  I’m confident that I’ll be able to say that one day soon.  I’ve learned from the best so far, now it is up to me to put my spin on and become the best.


One Response to “Working a Dining Room”

  1. Bridget Falco October 20, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    I am so proud of you guy’s, you two together will make an amazing restaurant. I can not wait until this place opens it is going to be the best. I love you guys can’t wait until i can go there and have some amazing food and drinks =) Good luck with everything and i hope all works out

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