March 1, 2024

You’re the Boss: Rethinking 100 Restaurant Rules

Start-Up Chronicle

Southfork Kitchen has been open for almost six months. Sussing out a summer season that looms large, I thought it might be instructive to a look at my 100 rules to see which ones were pie-in-the-sky and which ones still hold water, which ones were idealistic foam and which ones have stood up to the reality of Saturday nights.

Truth be told, the 100 rules were, in large measure, a response to gauntlets thrown down by readers. In the very first blog post, I blurted out that, in addition to no meat and no loud music, I had a 100 other rules for my restaurant-to-be. Readers were sharp and took the boast literally. Cornered, and eager to please even during those elongated and halcyon days of construction, I came up with 100 rules.

They were based on what I considered the paradigm of all rules, the Golden Rule of Restaurants: treat guests as you would want to be treated.

It was no big deal. I thought each rule was reasonable, as helpful to servers as eaters. When guests are greeted warmly and seated promptly, when staff members can answer questions graciously, when the bread is fresh and warm, when good food arrives on time, when glasses are clean and magically refilled, when plates quietly appear and disappear, guests tend to leave larger tips. Unless there is a secret formula that eludes me, the happier the guest, the larger the tip. The larger the tip, the happier the server. The happier the server, the less frazzled the owner. Such is the merry-go-round of restaurants. Cue the calliope, please.

I thought the 100 rules would be accepted on both sides of the aisle with equal enthusiasm. Politics is apparently not my calling. There was blowback. Katrina-style. Half the servers considered me the sadistic cousin of Muammar al-Qadaffi; the other half thought I was stating the obvious. Diners were kinder. Especially those who had suffered at the quick hands or severe apathy of servers near and far, who had stewed over hot soup with no spoon in sight and watched their server vanish before they could speak up. Or maybe they did speak up but were drowned out by Radiohead, or maybe even Spoon.

Now, a half-year in, I took another peek at the 100 rules. Nine, by my count, need amending or clarification or adjusting according to our circumstances and our chef’s choices.

16. If someone requests more sauce or gravy or cheese, bring a side dish of same. No pouring. Let them help themselves.

Our clam chowder preserves the integrity of its vegetables — baby Tokyo turnips, heirloom carrots, celery root, organic celery, pearl onions, baby potatoes and English peas (when in season) — by having the creamy bacony broth poured at the table. Also poured tableside by staffers is the yuzu vinaigrette for the day boat fluke and the Meyer lemon sauce for the pan-roasted rainbow trout.

19. Offer guests butter and/or olive oil with their bread.

On the table goes a wheel of house-churned organic butter with honey in the hub and sprinkled with spiced paprika and sea salt. Olive oil is delivered by request only. And that happens rarely.

23. If someone likes a wine, steam the label off the bottle and give it to the guest with the bill. It has the year, the vintner, the importer, etc.

We can make this easier for everyone: give us your e-mail address and we’ll send you all the information — this goes for wines, recipes and sources.

32. Never touch a customer. No excuses. Do not do it. Do not brush them, move them, wipe them or dust them.

This is more complicated than I thought. We stick with the notion of never touching a guest flirtatiously or to elevate a tip, but when a long-lost cousin or an old friend from New Zealand arrives unexpectedly, hugging may be spontaneous and appropriate. When a guest is thrilled with his meal (and slightly inebriated) and tries to hug a server or hostess before she even knows what’s happening, this gets, pardon the term, touchy. The best response is to back off politely and explain: “Thank you, but you don’t want to get me in trouble. House rules — no hugging.”

55. Do not serve an amuse-bouche without detailing the ingredients. Allergies are a serious matter; peanut oil can kill. (This would also be a good time to ask if anyone has any allergies.)

A better time, I have learned, is when someone makes and/or confirms a reservation. The chef has time to prepare a dish without shellfish or peanuts or mushrooms. We still announce the ingredients of each amuse-bouche and should ask again at the table; the person making the reservation may not be aware of the allergies of his first date or a prospective mother-in-law.

57. Bring the pepper mill with the appetizer. Do not make people wait or beg for a condiment.

We do not bring pepper mills to the table unless requested. This is not to protect our pepper mills, but our kitchen staff, who believe they have seasoned everything perfectly. Salt and pepper will be delivered when asked for, and that should happen after a guest has had a chance to taste the dish, not before.

68. Do not reach across one guest to serve another.

As we have discovered, when four people sit in a booth, reaching is necessary. We apologize and explain at the start of the meal and hope everyone understands the physical limitations, as well as the charms, of a booth. They are the most requested seats in the house.

70. Never deliver a hot plate without warning the guest. And never ask a guest to pass along that hot plate.

Additionally, be twice as careful when children are at the table. They have been known to make sudden and unexpected moves. A small incident with an adult can turn into a major mishap with a small child.

100. Guests, like servers, come in all packages. Show a “good table” your appreciation with a free glass of port, a plate of biscotti or something else management approves.

Now that we give every guest petit fours with the prix fixe, we are already painting the dessert lily. Still, the owner does like to pour a little late harvest wine from local vineyards, one of the pleasures of Long Island about which too few people are aware.

(The next post offer additional rules, submitted by readers and deserving serious consideration.)

Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen, a restaurant in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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