Tough Love: Denver Service Needs a Kick in the Pants

February 20 2014, 10:30 AM

It was one year ago last week that 5280 posted the job opening of Restaurant Critic. While my byline didn’t run until the July issue, I’ve been eating and drinking my way around Denver to pen this magazine’s reviews for nearly 12 months.

It’s a fun job, especially in a town where the food scene is changing rapidly. And the lineup of new 2014 eateries, some from Denver’s very best talent, indicate there’s no sign of this energy dissipating. While no one (not even 5280’s Editorial Director) expects our food landscape to ever match that of New York City or San Francisco, my meals both here and away leave me increasingly convinced that Denver restaurants are every bit as exciting as those in some of the nation’s more celebrated cities. But there is one important caveat: service.

In recent reviews, you’ve seen me criticize local servers for forgotten orders, plates cleared too early, poor pacing, dirty tables left unwiped, missing flatware, dishes delivered without explanation, and uninformed waiters faking their way through answers. In more extreme cases, I’ve written about things like audible server tiffs, a barman who was too glued to his laptop to know we needed his help, and a waiter who delivered our entrée while on a phone call. 

Such mishaps are not new. Area professionals have two things in common when I've asked about our city’s service landscape over the years: First, they ask to speak off the record. Second, they admit that Denver’s front-of-the-house experience leaves a lot to be desired. Where industry veterans differ, however, is this: Some surmise that because we are a chef-driven restaurant landscape, owners who are chefs first don’t give the waitstaff the attention it deserves. Others blame it on Colorado’s laid back and casual culture. Many theorize that our servers see restaurant work as a means to some other end, not as a career of its own. I say, what difference does it make? It’s time we stop obsessing about the root of the problem, and instead start a dialog about the solution.

My single most memorable meal of 2013 was not in Colorado. Nor was it in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Minneapolis, or the other major destinations I travelled to. Instead, at a James Beard-recognized restaurant called Cúrate in tiny Asheville, North Carolina, I experienced that elusive trifecta of flawless food, space, and service. That dinner in a city of just 80,000 people made me realize that if stellar service is more common on a trip to North Carolina than it was on an adjacent trip to New York City, there is no reason why Denver can’t also attain service excellence.

Whether you work in a white tablecloth establishment or a more casual one, here are some service tips that might help us get there:

• Know your subject matter. If you don’t, be willing to dash to the kitchen for answers.

• Present dishes concisely but thoroughly, don’t just toss them on the table and run.

• Pace meals properly, don’t rush guests or crowd a table by firing orders too soon.

• When you are unsure whether a customer wants a collection of items to come out as one course or two or even three, or whether a plate is ready to be cleared, just ask.

• Know your beverage offerings, but don’t fake it when you don’t—grab another staff member who can help.

• Whether your guests are 20 minutes late because of a babysitter snafu or need to add money to their meter mid-meal, graciously help problem-solve if you are able.

• Make every customer feel like a regular.

• Read Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table. Then reread it.

• Above all else, even if you have other aspirations, be proud of the job you are in.

The list of suggestions is, of course, longer than this and I invite everyone in the metro area to add ideas. When I first moved here seven years ago I discovered that there was very little dialogue at neighboring tables about the food itself. That has long since changed. Now, it’s time to add service to our dinner conversations. For our city’s food scene to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be taken, it's time for a service revolution.

Join in: Please join me as I start a conversation on Twitter about service hits and misses. Beginning with my next meal, I will tweet about small service moments (the good, the bad, and the ugly) using the hashtag #DenService. To preserve my anonymity while researching restaurants for reviews, I will do so without revealing my location. I invite you to use the same discretion. For now, it is less important where a particular restaurant is on the service scale and more valuable that we simply start a dialogue—one where we’re all working together to elevate the Denver dining experience.

Follow Stacey Brugeman on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter @denveromnivore.

 Image courtesy of Shutterstock