It’s a well-agreed-upon fact that Charlotte restaurant service, overall, is less than optimum. In the way that, say, traffic at 6:30 p.m. on I-77 is less than optimum.
Yet when it’s good, it’s very good, and I’m thankful for these seven concepts in particular:
1 Discretion. Servers who know ingredients, where they come from, how a dish is prepared – then don’t bludgeon you with it all at once on every dish. It’s hard, when you know all that, not to want to blurt it out. But those who gauge diners’ interest, letting them lead by asking a few questions before launching into the full low-down, are a blessing. I’m thinking of everyone I’ve had at Heirloom, chef-owner Clark Barlowe’s place, where there’s a lot to explain in the first place.
2 Honesty. If something’s second-rate on a menu, I appreciate a server who tells me so.
As a diner, I routinely ask, “What’s the kitchen most proud of?” which tells you two things: What are the place’s signature dishes – and has management bothered to identify them to the staff? (You’d be surprised, maybe, how often it has not.) It also lets me avoid asking a server I’ve never met, “What’s your favorite thing?” If I know nothing about their tastes or standards, how would their favorite thing help me decide?
(I’ve never understood that, or its corollary: the habit some servers have of saying “Excellent choice!” after any diner orders. Both rely on a relationship, some degree of shared standards, and are meaningless when tossed out blindly.)
It’s Thanksgiving, so I won’t tell you the place I’m thinking of.
3 Field vision. You know the servers: The ones who can glance across a crowded room, meet your eye and nod slightly to tell you they’ll be there as soon as they can. Be the diner who gets that, and gives them a moment to get there.
4 Owners who get it. Two leap out from my meals this year: Chi Zhang at the tiny and very casual Persuasian in Dilworth, and Jon Dressler at the sizable new Dogwood Southern Table & Bar at SouthPark. Each patrolled the dining room with an eye on every detail, talking with diners and watching service, and – not coincidentally, I think – servers at each place were gracious and warm. Zhang told me his goal: “a place where I can say, ‘You guys know me. You guys will always know you’ll have a great time here.’ ”
5 Crowd control. True Crafted Pizza, on a busy night, is hard to navigate, since you order at a counter, then try to find a seat. But I was impressed by staffers who guided diners to open spaces, monitored those getting up and helped get everyone comfortable. Smart.
6 A long goodbye. Lulu announced, way back in mid-October, that it would be closing after New Year’s Eve, giving its many longtime fans time to get in a last meal and chat. While most close more quickly, often because of financial necessity, many (even popular ones) close without a pre-peep. This is a nice way to bid farewell. Says GM Emily Holtzclaw: “We wanted to announce our closing ASAP so the rumors wouldn’t start flying, so we could give all of our regulars the chance to dine with us again and also to give those who had never been to Lulu the chance to try us out. We also wanted to give our longtime staff members ample notice before having to find employment elsewhere... (Over nine years) we’ve seen first dates turn into marriage and children (and sometimes divorce), we’ve seen children of regulars grow up, go on to high school and college, we’ve seen the passing of a number of our elderly guests and so on. It’s been really nice to be able to say goodbye.”
7 Sheer enthusiasm. At the Flipside Cafe in Fort Mill, S.C., we had a bubbly server tell us not only what the kitchen was most proud of, but the educational and professional background of chef-owner Amy Fortes and the rest of the staff (which now includes her spouse and former executive chef at the Harper’s Restaurant Group, Jon Fortes, who just won the championship of the statewide Got to Be NC competition dining series). The server waded into that slowly (see No. 1), but when we encouraged her with our interest, she just glowed. Yep. That’s all we want.