Restaurant service: do women do it better?

Date:15-10-2013 07:58:18 read:5

Restaurant service: do women do it better?

A new book dishes the dirt on the tricks of the restaurant trade, but a new breed of female maitres d' could change all that

For Xanthe Clay, good service can matter more than the food Photo: Alamy

As a food writer, this is probably heresy. But (deep breath) when it comes to restaurants – the service matters more than the food. Think about it. Even if the food is great, but the waiter is offhand and slipshod, you're likely to have a miserable meal. But when the service is fabulous, the kind that makes you feel like a film star, then you'll have a brilliant time and probably return again – even if the food was so-so.

But if you believe newly published Restaurant Babylon, the latest industry-excoriating schlocker from Imogen Edwards-Jones, author of Hotel Babylon and Air Babylon, the staff aren't entirely on your side. The waiters at the fictional Le Restaurant spin out the guests' waiting times to suit the kitchen and aren't above fiddling the bill if they think you've had so much to drink that you won't notice. Don't even ask what the chef does with the steak that's ordered well done.

The front of house at Le Restaurant is run largely by men, which is a fair reflection of the average British eating house. While there are plenty of women clearing tables, the high-level staff, the ones that choreograph the smooth running of the restaurant, are still mainly male. That's even though the job demands high levels of multitasking – something that females are said to excel at.

True, there have been some hugely successful husband-and-wife teams – him in the kitchen, her out front – some of which, like Jill and Rick Stein and Clare and Claude Bosi of Hibiscus restaurant in London, even survived the breakdown of the marriage. Yet for decades there was one famous female maître-D who didn't have family ties. Elena Salvoni even had a restaurant, Elena's Etoile, named after her, before reluctantly retiring in 2010, age 90.

But maybe the male dominance is receding. More and more women are rising through the ranks to take charge of the restaurant floor, or work as general managers (a more senior position with responsibility for the business as a whole).

The Gilbert Scott Restaurant in the magnificently restored Renaissance St Pancras Hotel is managed by one-time chef Chantelle Nicholson. The restaurant manager at River Café in Hammersmith is Vashti Armit, and at Angela Hartnett's discreet Mayfair delight Murano, Odessa Mostacci is restaurant director. The general manager of Scott's in Mayfair – the scene of the Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi fracas – is former genetics student Danielle Thompson.

And the sister restaurant to Scott's, Restaurant 34, another celebrity haunt, is run by two women, Gina Glennon, as maître d'hotel, and Laura Montana, as general manager. So what is it about the atmosphere they create among the wood panelling and discreet lighting that attracts the likes of Michael Caine and Bill Wyman? It might be the restaurant's lobster macaroni cheese, a dish of such voluptuousness that it ought to have an 18 certificate.

Grabbing a quick glass of water in the restaurant, Laura agreed with my theory on service. "The reason you go back to places you love is not necessarily just about the food. It's about the company, the wine, the way you were greeted at the door. Does it make you feel a hundred million dollars?

"Those are the restaurants that are successful, that continue for 25 years, 30 years," she says

Both Laura and Gina came to restaurants after taking part-time jobs while studying. Gina, a dapper 40-year-old in trousers, a smart riding jacket and not a scrap of make-up, lied about her age to get her first job at her uncle's favourite restaurant in Dublin. "It's a bug, restaurant life," she admits. "I got a scorching case of restaurantitis. And that was it."

She moved to London in 1998 and started as chef de rang – not a chef's position, but the name for a waiter in charge of an area of the restaurant – at the newly opened J Sheekey's, part of the same stable as Scott's and 34, then progressed up the ranks.

Laura, a slender, dark-haired 42-year-old from Battersea, studied modern languages before running her own café bar for seven years. She took a temporary job as a waiter at the Ivy restaurant while looking for a new site for her café, and ended up staying.

But isn't front-of-house work notoriously badly paid, so that many don't see it as a proper career? Not that bad, says Laura. "You can do quite well out of it." But, they both admit, it's hard work with long hours, which may be why in the past so few women have stayed the course into management.

So what is the secret to great service? "You can learn where to put the right spoon or the napkin, but you can't learn how to be naturally hospitable," Laura explained. "And that's really important. To want to please someone, to get everything for them right."

Judging the amount of attention customers want is key. "It's the fun of being a waiter. It's quite psychological. If they ask you a question and they don't look at you, you automatically know they don't want you – they want the food, the wine and that's it. But if they look up at you and go 'hello how are you?', you know that they want lots of you."

And if something doesn't go right, what the right way for customers to complain? "Definitely say something," Gina explained, or you aren't being fair on the restaurant or giving them the chance to make amends. She admits it goes against the grain for Brits. "It's a difficult thing, complaining. You don't know what the answer is going to be and you think, why waste your breath?"

It's worth going straight to the top, added Laura. "Sometimes customers will complain to their waiter which is all well and good – but if that waiter is incredibly busy looking after lots of tables, that waiter might not pass that message on to a manager or head waiter for them to deal with appropriately." Maybe the waiter doesn't want to pass it on? "My advice is to call over someone who looks like they are in charge, and complain to them."

Even in the capable hands of Laura and Gina, things do go wrong. Gina recalled how while working at Scott's, "I knocked a whole tray of fruits de mer down a customer's back." What did you say? "We apologised profusely, picked up the bill, found him something else to wear."

At another restaurant, a man arrived with his wife – his second wife, as it happens – to celebrate her birthday. The cake was duly sent out, but "the name piped on it was the first wife's name." Gina visibly shudders at the thought.

Of course, more recently the service at Scott's was criticised for not coming to Nigella's rescue when Charles Saatchi seemed to be attacking her at an outdoor table of the restaurant. Laura conceded, "For anyone running a restaurant there may be occasions when you need to speak to a guest – maybe they are being too loud. The trick is to sort out any problem when you spot it without ruining the evening for other customers."

I wonder if Saatchi would have got away with it on Laura's watch – she's no pushover. Justin Bieber allegedly stormed out of 34 on his birthday after the manager refused to move other guests to accommodate his bodyguards. Which, frankly, is the kind of service that will have me coming back for more lobster macaroni.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013