The Four Mistakes Every Restaurant Makes

The Jerk restaurant scene
The Jerk, Carl Reiner, 1979. Click here to see the unforgettable scene.

#1. BY THE GLASS SADNESS

Problem: Far too many restaurants’ by-the-glass poured wines are geriatric, oxidized sadness. They’ve been open for days, and taste like the vinous equivalent of a balding dowager. Why should not investing in an entire bottle (the time-tested solution to the issue) always lead to the tragic contents of a lukewarm bottle that was stored aside a bar cash register or — conversely — an unreasonably chilled, glacial runoff glass pour of wine that somehow still lacks freshness?

Solution: At such extreme by-the-glass markups, restaurants should be able to convert leftovers into cooking wine once they’re tired, particularly once less than 25% of the bottle remains and oxygen dominates the bottle’s contents. Just store open bottles in a small, dedicated 55° F fridge after recorking them. Forsake your profit and loss obsession long enough to serve good wine.  And none of those stupid Vacu Vin / penis-pump wine stoppers — they’re a waste of everyone’s time; just recork it.

#2. THE HAND SOAP THAT WORE A BOTTLE OF COLOGNE

Problem: Look, restaurants: we understand you want to exude LUXURY in your bathrooms. Flower arrangements; pyramids of rolled, single-use white cloth hand towels which patrons throw into a wicker basket; and hand soaps that help evoke a luxury spa with “luxurious” scents.

But if your hand soap is strongly scented, for the next 15 minutes or so until my olfactory receptors ignore the signal, every time I lift my stemware or silverware to my nose, guess what my food and wine smells like ? It’s the hand soap equivalent of ‘that guy who wears an entire bottle of cologne to a wine tasting’.

This is pure idiocy. It’s tantamount to cleaning stemware with scented dish soaps: imagine to what ends the winemaker went to master the universe of subtle scents in this tiny globe of wine — this self-contained universe of aromas. Then, imagine an army of 40 foot tall alien herbal aromas or perhaps a battalion of asteroid-sized coconuts rolling in. Not okay.

Solution: Buy unscented liquid hand soaps: done. This is my personal vendetta, as it’s so damned simple to remedy. And it doesn’t take Ferran Adrià to figure it out.

#3. SHITTY COFFEE, EVERYWHERE

Problem: Why is coffee so damned hard for restaurants to get right? It’s the baffling breakdown of nearly every single restaurant I’ve tried, regardless of Michelin rating. It’s not just the aroma of burnt Arabica emanating from the mediocre espresso you were coaxed into buying by either the waitstaff or your European dining partners; it’s even more pervasive. Often, the smell of the coffee machine — burnt coffee residuals, from the knockbox where the would-be barista is clearing portafilter handles of spent coffee — wafts over the dining room floor like some alertness-inspiring, bowel movement-inducing spell.  For every one person who ordered espresso, there are typically five who didn’t, and don’t necesarily crave this aromatic voyage.

A knock box for espresso portafilter handles.
A knockbox for emptying espresso portafilter handles.

Solution: Three steps.

Step one: Isolate the espresso machine and grinder, and above all, do not use an open-air knockbox which “communicates” aromatically with the dining room floor. Nevermind the aroma, even the sound of coffee grinders and portafilters colliding with knockboxes is harsh, and should be excised from any serious dining experience.

Step two: Go out of your way to source better beans. It’s not that hard. Don’t simply rely on existing food providers who are selling you mediocre coffee.

Step three: If you’re a two or three star restaurant, and sell a fair amount of coffee; get dedicated human staff who know how to make proper coffee! How the hell can Bareiss (a three star restaurant in Germany’s Black Forest) have waitstaff trained as water sommeliers, and yet coffee remains a complete mystery in terms of quality — relegated to a fast-moving, full-service robot that allegedly solves their problem of producing coffee quickly enough for breakfast?

#4. LET MY PEOPLE GO

heston moses
Problem: No one wants to wait an eternity to first simply get the check, then for a waiter to return and take away a credit card, and then — finally! — arrive with printed slips and pens of freedom.

skeletons tableEven the three-star dining room of  Paul Bocuse’s Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon felt like some abandoned chamber of a royal palace after dessert, with waitstaff rushing to other rooms faster than Olympic sprinters to presumably do closing tasks. You’ve just finished a giant tasting menu, wherein 4 different unannounced courses (amuse bouches,  palate cleansers, “intermediary” desserts, etc.) which came compliments of the chef have you feeling like a sleepy blimp who can no longer fly.  Trying to get the attention of any member of the waitstaff was like trying to grab a bird in flight.

Look, restaurants: the meal was great. But now I’m full, tipsy, and I want to leave.  It’s as though every single restaurant in the world assumes it is my utmost desire to sit unmolested in their empty dining room floor — as terribly noisy metal and porcelain clanking sounds rise from their kitchen, that sound as if their chefs are battling a Transformer — staring into my lover’s eyes, sighing, and thinking what a great meal this has been.

No one wants this. What everyone wants is fresh air and a head start on the journey to their bedroom.

Solution: Train your waitstaff to be attentive to freeing diners promptly. It’s not hard, but for some reason it seems that way. Thankfully, a handful of startups are perfecting an easy solution that allows diners to pay using their smartphone (Cover, Dash, TabbedOut, OpenTable), and it should simply be a question of time before one or two players dominate the heap. Actually, here is a  pretty impressive list of NYC restaurants already using Cover!

Until then, we’ll keep wondering if waitstaff actually do see us in their peripheral vision, but simply prefer to ignore us as other apparently more urgent tasks beckon (like watching the battling Transformers duke it out in the kitchen).

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