Over an excellent FT lunch at London's River Café, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer expounded on a topic that never appears on menus or bills but has been a vital management credo in running his five successful restaurants for the past two decades. The topic is love.
"Since I began in this profession I have always tried to instill in my staff a quote from the late James Beard who, whenever he was asked which was his favourite restaurant, promptly replied that it was the one which loved him the most."
Beard was easily able to engender such emotions. He was a large man with a gargantuan appetite who was writing in an era when people made time for their meals. Is it possible or even worthwhile for restaurateurs and their staff to try to engender such emotions when everyone is seemingly in a hurry and grazing is the order of the day?
Meyer certainly believes it is - and I believe that there are no shortage of other like minded practitioners worldwide - and his current management preoccupation is how to instill this approach into what will be his largest restaurant, the 220 seater dining room inside New York's Museum of Modern Art due to open in late 2004.
Size is, of course, an issue. The smaller and more intimate the dining room the easier it is offer a personal service but larger spaces tend to generate a better financial return and allow customers the opportunity of seeing and being seen. But sheer size is surely not an obstacle to common sense.
A recent meal at The Savoy Grill was much better than one a few months ago but marred as we left by a comment from a waiter whom I had just rewarded via the service charge. My main course and coffee had not been as hot as they should have been but my helpful (sic) comment to that effect was greeted by a stony, "That's impossible, sir, the kitchens are just over there."
The plethora of restaurants is another obstacle to greater understanding. Three of the finest British exponents of customer management in my experience, Annie Schwab at Winteringham Fields, Elena Salvoni, the 83 year old doyenne at Elena's Etoile and Sian Cox, once a teacher now in charge of staff at the Oxo Tower, all maintain that what is an intrinsic pleasure of their job is not only establishing regular customers, but looking after them time and time again until ultimately, in the case of Salvoni, she is looking after their children and their children's children.
What distinguishes these exemplars, as well as others such as London's Chris Corbin, Jeremy King and Silvano Giraldin, is that they are, regardless of their uniform or the fact that they are continually on their feet, their customers' equals, free to establish and develop their own identity away from the publicity seeking grasp of 'celebrity chefs'. Respect, if not love perhaps, can only flourish if the customer and the waiter are on a reasonably level footing.
As a result, and much to our childrens' embarrassment, I now make a point of shaking hands with the restaurant manager and waiter before sitting down. It may not be highly significant but it does, I believe, at least instill a sense of respect into a relationship, which however brief, I do want to be beneficial.
And while I feel comfortable about this, I have to confess that this approach is not always effective. At one of Paris's most renowned brasseries my outstretched palm was greeted with such disdain by the manager that I should have followed my instinct and left immediately. But the Belon oysters looked too good to miss which was just as well as the service of the rest of the meal was truly dreadful.
Conversely, waiting staff do have to put up with some pretty awful behaviour. Rudeness; clicking of fingers; no-shows (which naturally affects a waiter's earnings); customers booking a table of four when they are only two to secure a larger table and those unprepared to leave their cares and woes outside the restaurant are their major complaints and are not just confined to amateurs. I know of one restaurateur who has banned a restaurant critic from his premises because the latter's boorish behaviour reduced two of his most seasoned waitresses to tears.
Anyone who has complained about poor service should have the courage to track down a copy of Bruce Griffen Henderson's "Waiting: Waiters True Tales of Crazed Customers, Murderous Chefs and Tableside Disasters" to see the other side. This includes the unforgettable report of one set of customers vociferously complaining about the slow service of their food while right in front of them a customer had collapsed on to the floor and was being attended to by a team of paramedics.
An American website, www.bitterwaitress.com, records the most recent waitresses' encounters and now includes, much to its members pleasure but less so for restaurant goers, a new and self-explanatory feature entitled STD, a shitty tipper database. But the site does make the very important point that waiters, however professional and well meaning, can often be the innocent victims of underperforming and understaffed kitchens or mean, under-capitalised 'restaurateurs' more interested in glamour and short term profit.
As well as a better balance in the customer/waiter relationship, there is a need for customers to spell out their requirements more clearly. Waiters are employed by restaurateurs who either by their own example or via a waiters' manual set out the role they want their waiters to perform. But this may not necessarily coincide with how you want to be served. If you are in a hurry, do say so at the beginning of the meal; if you want to pour your own wine or mineral water, do so and say so; and, above all, do make it clear if you want to be left alone during your meal.
Love from a restaurant may not always be possible. But, judging by the excitement with which the French waitress at the River Café recalled her only meal at Meyer's Union Square Café a few years ago together with her chef/boyfriend, it may not be impossible either.