Don't Stiff Servers--Snitch on Them

Four customers showed up last Saturday at an Italian restaurant in Van Nuys for a quick bite on the way to the airport. When the waiter finally arrived at their table, one of the diners said, "We know what we want and we're ready to order."

"Well," the waiter insisted, "I'm going to tell you the specials anyway," and proceeded to recite the list. Then when the customers again tried to order, he walked away, ignoring their request. "I'll be back in a few minutes," he said, "when you're ready to order." Later, when he eventually cleared away the dishes, he dropped a dirty knife on one of the diners and headed back to the kitchen without so much as an apology. Opting not to make a scene in the tiny restaurant by complaining to the manager, the customers vowed never to return.

Chances are this would never have happened at a restaurant owned by Michael Franks and Robert Bell. The partners--who own the successful South Bay restaurants Chez Melange in Redondo Beach; Fino, Misto, and Depot in Torrance, and the newly opened Descanso in Hermosa Beach--telephone customers the next day for feedback on the dining experience. They initiated the policy over a year ago. Every morning they call three or four lunch and dinner customers from each restaurant to see how everything went, and then post the comments on a board for employees to read.

"I work the dining rooms all the time," says Franks, "but after a while I realized that most people are just very nice and don't want to tell you if anything's wrong. The next day when they've had a chance to think it over and aren't going to upset anybody, then they'll give you a fair critique. If there is something negative, it's better we know about it."

According to a recent study conducted by Yankelovich Partners for MasterCard, 60% of restaurateurs surveyed reported diners are becoming more vocal in their criticism of service. But although customers may be complaining more, it's not all downhill. Twice as many felt that service on the whole had actually improved as those who didn't.

Fred Eric, chef/owner of Vida, which recently opened in the former Duplex space on Hillhurst, is usually too busy in the kitchen to spend much time in the dining room, so he has had cards printed up and placed at each table asking to be rated on everything from reservation handling and service to the quality of the food and wine.

"It's a way (customers) can leave comments," he says, "and I can get some direct feedback rather than just wait and wonder why the restaurant closed. Plus, it allows the public to say something if they need to without having to confront a server."

Joachim Splichal uses a similar system to get customers' comments at both Patina and Pinot. At Arnold Schwarzenegger's Schatzi on Main in Santa Monica, general manager Mark Ehrli says they will do practically anything to please a customer, from preparing a dish differently than the way it is described on the menu to running out to get cigarettes or putting a quarter in the parking meter. "Our guests come in and ask if we can do this or that, and I always say we can," says Ehrli, "because a lot of other people are saying no."

Whatever happened to the notion of just leaving a bad tip for bad service? "What does that say?" responds Vida's Eric. "It says you're cheap."

OPENING WINDOWS: Joe Baum, co-owner of the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center's General Electric Building, will soon be running another massive Manhattan rooftop space: Windows on the World at the World Trade Center, closed since the February, 1993 bombing. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the building, invited 35 restaurant groups to submit proposals to run the landmark restaurant, which had been operated by a division of Hilton International. But, according to the New York Observer, only four bothered to compete: David Bouley, chef/owner of the top-rated Bouley; Alan Stillman, owner of five restaurants including the popular steakhouse Smith & Wollensky; Warner LeRoy, owner of Tavern on the Green, and Baum, who was responsible for the original look of Windows and supervised its operation until 1978. At one time the largest-grossing restaurant in America, Windows on the World is set to reopen in late 1995.

CHEFS MOVES: Peter Raub, the former chef/owner of Santa Fe Market in Santa Fe, is now cooking at Cobalt Cantina on Sunset Boulevard. . . . Mark Wexler, formerly at Schatzi on Main, is now in charge of the kitchen at Roxxi in Pasadena.

WORLD CUP: Pasadena isn't the only place hoping to cash in on the 1994 World Cup, which begins June 17. Several Beverly Hills restaurants, including Lawry's, Maple Drive, the Players, Tatou, Silver Grille and Coley's Kitchen are hoping to attract some of those soccer-fan dollars too. The restaurants have banded together to offer a monthlong special three-course prix-fixe menu for $19.94.

REOPENED: Bruno's Ristorante--the antique-filled Mar Vista institution known for its huge, reasonably priced wine list--has reopened after being closed for five years. Bruno's son, Chris Tesari, has changed some things. The wine list is smaller. The prices are lower. And some new dishes have been added to the menu.

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