What Makes a Great Restaurant?

A whole leg of Prosciutto ham at Greenhouse, The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore

A whole leg of Prosciutto di Parma at Greenhouse, The Ritz-Carlton, Singapore.

Ok so you run a restaurant that is always fully booked, is that good or bad?

That depends on a number of factors.

If you run a very small restaurant with only a few tables and you open for business only if you feel like opening for business, and close when you feel like closing, of course you’ll be fully booked. But does that make yours a great restaurant?

I know a small tiny little restaurant here operated by an Italian cook and his local wife, and they seem to open or close depending on their mood; no wonder it is so hard to get a reservation, so word goes around saying that the restaurant is always  fully booked. To me that’s bullshit. That’s not knowing how to do business, that’s pissing off your customers, and in the end, customers are going to find you unpredictable, unreliable, untrustworthy and ultimately – you will lose some customers you would rather have. When I phone to make a reservation at a restaurant it doesn’t impress me at all when I’m told “Oh, sorry but the next available table is in November” or something like that. I say “Screw you!” because there are so many other places I can take my VIP guests to; and trust me; I’m a big spender and a big tipper when I dine out.

There’s a restaurateur in Vietnam whose default telephone-answering mode is to say “Sorry we’re fully booked, but let’s see if I can squeeze you in…” and then makes a big show about what a big favor he is doing you by finding you a table. I won’t name this asshole; there’s nothing even remotely redeeming about this person, so I shall say no more about him. This is one of the rare occasions when I will heed my late mum’s advice not to say anything if there’s nothing nice to say.

elBulli in Spain, three Michelin starred restaurant run by chef Ferran Adrià,  has a limited season from June until December; bookings are taken on a single day the previous October. It accommodates only 8,000 diners a season, and gets more than two million requests. (Even then the restaurant has operated at a loss since 2000.) Despite dabbling with molecular cuisine and such crap, the restaurant serves great food and wine, with an outstanding service to match.

Which brings me to my next point – what makes a restaurant great?

The first point of contact a restaurant has with its customer – the first so-called “moment of truth” – must be a pleasant one, whether the customer makes a reservation by phone or online through the Internet.

The second point of contact, when the restaurant phones you a day before the reservation to remind you is another moment of truth. Hardly any restaurant does that. This is a golden opportunity to ask if there’s anything it can do for its customers. The restaurant can find out if the reservation is to celebrate a special event, if it can order flowers for the host, if there are special requests for a particular type of wine, etc. It is also during this call when the restaurant can alert the customer to its seasonal offerings such as truffles, white asparagus, shirako, hairy crabs, whatever.

The third moment of truth is when you show up at the restaurant itself, how you are being greeted, how you are being led to your table, how the day’s specials are being introduced, how initial drink orders are taken, how the menus are presented – you’ll be surprised how badly done this is. It doesn’t help when we have so many mainland Chinese working in the F&B business today who are unable to communicate effectively with us, and who possess not an iota of service-mindedness in their collective psyche.

The restaurant’s ambience is important too. Some people say it is the food that matters and not the ambiance. That’s not true. Ambiance adds to the whole experience. This includes the lighting, the temperature, the background music, etc.

Finally the food – ultimately going to a restaurant is about eating and if everything else is in place, but the cooking sucks, then there’s nothing else to talk about really.

Whether the chef comes out and PRs with you is immaterial, whether you get freebies from the chef, is immaterial, whether your tea comes with a little cookie is immaterial, at the end of the day, the food has got to be good.

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