Day 1,878 – Ken’s, Northampton & West
Back East (and maybe as far West as Chicago and environs) “steak house” is more a cultural symbol than a dining establishment. That’s why last night’s dinner brought constant thoughts about the implosion at The New Republic precipitated by yet another pissant creation of the social media elite.
Ken’s was one of those rare old-school eateries that transcend merely serving food. There are lots of such places on the East Coast and, seemingly, fewer out West past Chicago. Servers play a much more important role in the steak house than in just about any other restaurant. Steak houses have wait staff… with each person playing very specific roles. One of the best examples of this was Murray’s of Minneapolis, another institution I can only hope is still in operation and as grand as the one time Annette and I dined there. The waiters wore white jackets, the servers red jackets, the bussers black. The sommelier wore a dark suit with various openers and other accoutrements in the jacket pockets.
This is the difference between dinner and dining. This is a ritual, there are rules: The hostess brings you to the table and possibly takes a drink order, or sends the barman over if you ask for a cocktail. The waiter arrives and explains the specials, addresses any food questions and takes the food order. The sommelier then arrives to discuss the wine and engages the patron in food and wine pairings. Given the wine list this is where the real money is made. The appetizers, brought by a server, arrive just as the first round of cocktails are finished. “Would the lady like another Manhattan?” See? Upsell!
The wine arrives just before the dinner, brought to the table by the sommelier or his/her assistant. Dinner, or the first course, arrives just after pouring the wine and simultaneously for everyone at the table. For larger tables the waiter should supervise so the servers know what plate goes where and to immediately address any kitchen fuck ups. The water glasses are never empty. When the first bottle comes to an end the sommelier or assistant appears to ask how it was with the dinner. This is key both for customer service and research. If a cohort of patrons order the duck and the same wine and all report it is an excellent pairing, “yeah, it tastes good,” it could be reason in the future for a special paring menu, or information the wine staff uses for clueless patrons, or provide feedback to the winery or at least the distributor.
At Ken’s we were in the hands of Dominique, a young woman for whom waiting tables was a means to fund her education. She had server support, but nothing else. Annette asked her “what wine do you think is the driest?” Dominique was unable to answer the question. She didn’t get all deer-in-the-headlights, but gracefully escaped the question. Annette then pointed out “one of Mike’s servers would never be unable to field such a question.” And of course she was right.
Mike, a friend from, believe it or not, high school, is one of those people who epitomize the meaning of “service.” He would never let a server out on the floor without making sure they could, if not completely answer a patron’s question, at least foul it off so the patron felt adequately addressed. And here’s the thing, had Dominique been coached, hell if she’d been given an index card, she could have answered “Oh, the Barbera is by far our driest wine” and closed a sale on a bottle for which the house charges $50 and paid, maybe, $25. This is why steak houses in particular have a full staff including a sommelier; maximize every opportunity to upsell.
Why am i going on about this whole dining thing? It’s because last night at Ken’s there was ample evidence a “restaurant consultant” had hacked the menu, streamlining past minimalism for an old school steak house. But here’s the thing: the new biz plan calls for cutting headcount and going cheap on the meat, whereas had they invested a teeny bit of time in their staff they could have turned a buck fifty table into a two buck table. Do that a couple times a night to a couple tables and by the end of the week it shifts the bottom line. Not to mention it makes patrons feel special. You know, so they might return and do it again.
Random notes as it’s feeling like an increasingly random day:
- I’m now in Amherst while Annette does her stalking and interviewing over at the VA in Northampton. Amherst Coffee, unsurprisingly, provides, by far, the best wifi i’ve encountered.
- Seeing home heating oil being delivered brings back a slew of memories of Sea Cliff.
- Driving out here Annette correctly, and rather randomly, pointed out “this really evokes the meaning of that line ‘all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray’.”
- When i thought earlier i’d have the opportunity to look at pretty coeds i was just musing. Turns out there are some in here, the fetching lass at the end of the bar, for instance.
And now, back toward Boston!