HTX Tastemakers 2015
Tastemakers 2015

What makes great restaurant service? Tastemakers nominees provide thoughtful touches

What makes great restaurant service? Tastemakers nominees are special

Pax Americana dining room with crowd
Pax Americana's front of house staff manages the crowds.  Pax Americana/Facebook
Provisions of The Pass & Provisions
Provisions may be casual than The Pass, but the entire restaurant delivers a high level of service. Photo by © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Uchi, Exterior, July 2012
Uchi's servers can lead diners through custom tastings.  Uchi/Facebook
Dinner Crowd at Triniti Restaurant
Triniti's fine dining atmosphere means guests arrive expecting to be spoiled. Courtesy of Triniti Restaurant / Facebook
Oxheart Restaurant interior diners kitchen
Meeting people's sky-high expectations is Oxheart's biggest challenge. Photo by © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau
Pax Americana dining room with crowd
Provisions of The Pass & Provisions
Uchi, Exterior, July 2012
Dinner Crowd at Triniti Restaurant
Oxheart Restaurant interior diners kitchen

When it comes to service, certain stock phrases indicate that a restaurant may be going through the motions or, even worse, indifferent to the satisfaction of their patrons.

"Are you still working on that?"

"My name is Jim, and I'll be taking care of you tonight."

"My pleasure."

 If bad service is defined by false efforts at hospitality, then one sign of good service is sincerity. 

First of all, dining should never be "work," even if a few people are lucky enough to be able to make a living by dining out and sharing their experiences. While it's nice to put a name with a face, telling me your name is a false attempt to build a personal relationship where a professional one will suffice.

The same attitude applies to "My pleasure" instead of "You're welcome" as a response to "thank you." We all take satisfaction in a job well done, but "my pleasure" is an attempt at false levity — particularly at the counter-service and corporate chain restaurants that train their employees to use it.

If bad service is defined by false efforts at hospitality, then one sign of good service is sincerity. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, but, at its core, is expressed by sensation that the staff is truly excited that a diner has chosen to patronize their particular establishment.

Team effort

Yes, the entire staff, from hosts to servers to managers to valets, contributes to a diner's perception of service. Which is why the CultureMap Tastemaker Restaurant Service of the Year nominees are all restaurants, rather than individual servers or managers.

Establishing and maintaining a culture that promotes a welcoming atmosphere and not saying no to any but the most absurd requests is a restaurant wide-ethos. Collectively, our nominees set a standard that more establishments in Houston should strive for. 

 Collectively, our nominees set a standard that more establishments in Houston should strive for.  

Not surprisingly, most of our nominees are at the expensive end of the dining spectrum: from white-hot fine dining destination BCN Taste & Tradition to dual restaurant The Pass & Provisions, New American restaurant Triniti and all-conquering meat temple Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. After all, increased spending brings increased expectations, but these nominees still stand out with thoughtful touches and an air of comfort that reassures customers that the cost of a visit is, fundamentally, worth it.  

Uchi and Pax Americana are a little different in that the servers at both establishments act as guides to the menu. Their goal is to clarify unfamiliar ingredients and deliver diners both items they'll enjoy and maybe an item or two that will push a person's culinary boundaries. That both restaurants are consistently packed only underscores how important the front of house staff is in helping maintain order.

Oxheart forgoes some of the traditional trappings of service; diners reset their own silverware from drawers embedded in the tables, for example. Also, customers only choose from either the vegetarian or non-vegetarian menus. Still, the staff offers important guidance when it comes to pairings and helps manage the sky-high expectations of patrons who have read the enthusiastic praise the restaurant has received since it opened three years ago. Also, few would deny the charm of one of chef Justin Yu's cooks explaining a dish he or she has spent hours preparing.

Of course, our limit of seven nominees per category means some worthy nominees have been omitted. Classic Houston destinations like Brennan's and Tony's have taken excellent care of generations of Houstonians: many of whom couldn't imagine celebrating a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion anywhere else. Brasserie 19 and La Griglia deserve recognition for carefully managing the competing interests of the various members of Houston's social scene. Counter service spots like Blacksmith and Paulie's may lack servers, but they still understand the importance of good service.

Now, if only we could get "Are you still working on that?" banished from our collective vocabulary.