The Perfect Restaurant Pt 5 - Guest Experience

Mark McCabe

Mark McCabe

Chef Patron 1st December 2023
Mark McCabe

Mark McCabe

Chef Patron

The Perfect Restaurant Pt 5 - Guest Experience

It was the first few mouthfuls of a meal we’d been waiting a long time for. It was good. Complex and slightly overwhelming. That stage of a menu when you’re dying to see what’s next but conscious you also need to savour the moment. Excited and a little disbelieving that you’re actually there at all. 

 We were discussing the dish when I casually said to the friend I was with, ‘oh, I could eat that salsa verde all night.’ Within a minute, a server appeared at the table with another pot of sauce. I didn’t even know someone had been near enough to hear what I’d said, let alone act upon it. It was seamless, natural and cost the restaurant pennies. Yet it’s the bit of that night I talk about most when someone asks me how it was - because it made me feel special. 

 Last in my series about The Perfect Restaurant is guest experience. Repeat custom is what keeps any business going so it’s imperative that we get this part right. Without customers it’s going to be impossible to implement all the other important changes we want to make, and largely pointless too. 

When I go out for a meal, particularly one where my expectations about the food are already high, the thing that I look for most is warmth of service. I want to feel like I’m more than a customer. I want to feel like I’m genuinely welcome and that the team are as excited to see me as I am to be there. Because guest experience is about so much more than a nice plate of food. 

 I’m lucky to have eaten at some amazing restaurants and I’ve had some really delicious food, but the meals that I remember the most are the ones where I felt like I’d made a new best friend from whoever served me. Genuine warmth and the ability to make each interaction feel natural and unique, particularly if the dish description is scripted, is one of the greatest skills someone working FoH can have. And it can be surprisingly hard to achieve in an industry (ironically enough) called hospitality. 

 Getting good people to work Front of House has always been tricky. In this country it’s rarely been seen as anything other than a student job and unless you work in the very top restaurants, there is little in the way of training or job progression. Today it seems even harder, as many people have decided that the low wages and long hours are not enough to compensate for the unsociable hours and so many have retrained and left the industry. 

 But Front of House staff will make or break your guest experience. They have the power to make someone feel like they are the most important person in the room. They have the skill to read the room and see who needs a little more attention, or who would rather be left to interact with their companion. They should be able to tell whether a table is really interested in the complex minutiae of how the dish was made or whether they just want to eat and enjoy it. 

The best bits of great service though are the unexpected touches. These are the moments that really stay with people long after the meal.  Will Guidara, writes incredibly well on this subject in his book “Unreasonable Hospitality”, which charts the way he and Danial Humm turned Eleven Madison Park into the world’s best restaurant. 

The book is replete with anecdotes about the ways the team there made guests feel unique by pulling off elaborate stunts that included taking guest sledging in Central Park and going round to someone’s house to retrieve a forgotten bottle of Champagne from the freezer. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read but almost certainly out of reach to all but the very top restaurants in the world. His point is universal however. Find a way to make your guests feel special and they will keep returning to you again and again. 

 There are many little touch points over the course of an evening that take nothing other than a bit of intuition and attention and can make someone feel seen and appreciated. Like remembering whose coat is who’s or welcoming a guest back when they have dined with you before. Or acting upon something overheard at a table and bringing a little extra sauce or even packing up some for someone to take home with them. 

 One story Guidara tells in the book epitomises this approach for me. It’s not extravagant or expensive, just clever and something that many restaurants could easily implement.

At EMP, guests who drove would mostly end up parking on the street outside the restaurant. After 3 hours they would have to go out and feed the metre to avoid getting a ticket. One days a guest mentioned to the server that they were just popping out to do this and he offered to go and do it for them. This then became part of the procedure at the restaurant. When a table arrived, they would be asked how they got to the restaurant that day. If they had driven, the server would ask where they parked and then just as the meter was about to run out, they would go and put a money in for guest. 

It’s a simple enough thing, and in the grand scheme of things cost the restaurant very little but that little touch was guaranteed to stay with the guest for a lot longer than the memory of the meal.  At the best restaurant in the world the food is always going to be exceptional, but after a few months there might only be one dish that sticks in your head. The overall feeling of inclusion and being welcomed into something magical for the night however, of feeling special and seen and appreciated - that will last forever.


 So there is it. The 5 things that I feel the Perfect Restaurant must get right. From the get-go I said I didn’t think it was ever possible to get it all right and i still don’t. There is so much against our industry at the moment that it seems like survival is pretty much all anyone can think about. And that’s without even mentioning the obvious fact that my idea of perfect might be very different from yours.  

A restaurant can, however, be so much more than the sum of its parts. It can be a force for good in its community, a hub for creative people who are passionate about solutions to improving our food system and creating less waste. It can be a viable career choice for people who want one, with a stable and transparent wage and flexible hours for those who need them. Mostly it can be a place where people feel welcomed and nourished and like they belong. 

 Restaurants shouldn’t have to be perfect. I know I’m asking a lot. Of course, no one and nothing is. But why shouldn’t we try? So much is made of chefs seeking perfection in their food. Of them moving mountains and working the most insane hours to find the best ingredients and produce the best food they can. So why can’t we ask for the same dedication to be shown to all the other aspects of the industry? People who work in hospitality are some of the most creative, driven people around. Why not let them loose on some of the bigger problems and see what happens? 

 (photo taken by Iain Pennington.)

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