I had a great lunch at R bistro the other day, but it wasn’t just because of what I ordered — although the brisket panini with kale and a horseradish sauce was over-the-top good. It was the perfect choice for a wicked cold day, and my server knew it. And recommended it. And was happy when he saw that he was right.
Now admittedly, the server in question, R.J. Wall, knows food, knows me and knows that I’m likely to appreciate braised Indiana beef brisket. But he also offered another recommendation, the Thai shrimp curry, just in case I wasn’t in the mood for a hearty sandwich. Now I don’t doubt that anything I picked would have been good. But I asked for a recommendation, and he knew the menu well enough to make informed suggestions — and I’m sure all of the servers at R bistro can do the same.
But he also had an air of confidence and competence. It was his job to represent R bistro, chef/owner Regina Mehallick and her food, and he did it well. He was in charge of my dining experience, and I didn’t doubt that he would handle any question or concern that I might have. And that’s what you want when dining out — someone who will take care of everything.
Have a question? Need a recommendation? A good server can handle it with confidence.
Know just what you want and don’t need any input? A good server makes sure you get what you want when you want it, without intruding.
I still remember a dinner more than 15 years ago at the restaurant at the old Adam’s Mark hotel. It had been a tough day, it was cold out, I had a headache, but I still needed to get out for a restaurant review for NUVO. A friend and I arrived, were seated, and our server said, “You ladies just relax; we’ll take care of everything.” And they did.
I’ve been thinking about the level of service at Indianapolis restaurants, which many diners see as a perennial problem here, one that I think comes down to problems of consistency. While some restaurants can be counted on to provide excellent service — like my recent experience at R bistro illustrates — sometimes it’s hit or miss even at our best restaurants.
So I was happy when a chef visiting this weekend from Cleveland, Steve Schimoler of Crop Bistro & Bar, commented about the quality of service at St. Elmo. “They’re pros,” he said.
I was glad to hear that the quality of service at Elmo’s impressed a visiting chef, and I asked him how he handled training at his restaurant.
“Service has to be consistent,” he said. “It’s the foundation of everything. We have tests constantly. Menu tests, wine tests. You have to have deep menu knowledge, deep wine knowledge — no bullshitting.”
I’m interested in how Indy’s top restaurants train their front-of-the-house staff. Do any local chef/owners give written tests on their menus or wine lists? Is training on going?
Ivy Tech Community College Thom England, who has been a champion of improving service at local restaurants, commented on a recent Facebook post when no Indianapolis restaurants were included on AAA’s four- and five-diamond ratings list.
“Service at 4 and 5 levels require a degree of knowledge that is professional,” he said. “Knowledge of food, beverages, and social etiquette. Given this, restaurants need to support on going training for staff that builds knowledge, as well as increases moral. In turn, this increases sales and tip wages. I know most places are just trying to make it through the week and don’t spend much time on professional development. But this is important to long-term viability.”
What do you think about service in Indianapolis?