Service that’ll play in L.A.

At Craft in Century City, the “front of the house” is being remade in L.A.’s image, with advice flown in from New York.
(Stefano Paltera / For The Times)
Special to The Times

Tom Colicchio, reality TV’s reigning chef, just got a serious dose of reality.

Service at Craft, his new restaurant in Century City, stumbled out of the gate. After a couple of early negative reviews and pointed complaints from customers and peers, Colicchio, head judge on “Top Chef,” sent his service director packing.

Two weeks ago, he flew his Craftsteak general manager out from New York to whip the front of the house into shape.


Colicchio says his restaurants always take a few months “to jell,” but that he misjudged how important service issues would be at the L.A. outpost of his flagship restaurant. He and other New York City chefs venturing west to open in L.A. (Mario Batali was first, Laurent Tourondel is next) are finding there is a difference between the right service for L.A. and great service in New York.

“Adjustment” issues can be as tangible as corkage fees and valet parking -- which are important in L.A. but not in New York -- or as elusive as guests’ differing expectations on the two coasts. And staffing the “front of the house” (as the service side of a restaurant is called) presents its own particular challenges here, where minimum wage is higher and labor laws are different than in New York.

So what were the big changes at Craft? Teaching the bar and lounge staff the protocol on transferring bar tabs to dining tabs to avoid inconveniencing diners; redistributing staff so every service team has its own back waiter; and filling out soigné slips. Soigner means “to care for” in French; “soigné treatment” is restaurant-speak for VIP or special-occasion treatment, and it’s hugely important in this town. VIPs might be celebrities or their handlers, or regulars, or diners celebrating a birthday or anniversary.

When an important person makes a reservation, says Richard Breitkreutz, the Craftsteak general manager who came west to retrain, the reservationist or manager fills out a slip that’s passed around to the captain of the station, the floor manager and the chef to let them know there’s a special guest.

The soigné slip could mean a better table, a visit from the chef, complimentary drinks or nibbles, decorating a dessert plate, or averting an allergic reaction.

When it came to understanding the needs of L.A. diners, Batali had an advantage over fellow New York chef Colicchio when he opened Osteria Mozza in July (and the more casual Pizzeria Mozza last year): Batali had a partner, Nancy Silverton, with 20 years of L.A. restaurant experience. Campanile, which Silverton co-founded with Mark Peel, has always been known for smart service, led for years by general manager David Rosoff.

Rosoff, who runs the front of the house at both Mozzas, knows the L.A. dining scene intimately, and the five months he spent in Manhattan helping Batali launch Del Posto prior to the Mozza openings gave him an inside glimpse into New York’s dining culture as well.

People dine differently here, Rosoff says. For starters, geographic sprawl “changes the way people indulge in L.A.” Sure, New Yorkers drink more than Angelenos, who must get behind the wheel after dinner, but beyond that, “the decision to go out in L.A. becomes a much bigger commitment.”

How does that affect the service that’s appropriate here? After battling traffic, he says, “guests need some decompression and compassion. Hospitality is paramount and has to lead the way.”

Defining service

That’s not so much the case in New York, according to Bret Csencsitz, general manager of Gotham Bar & Grill, a Manhattan restaurant known for spot-on service. He defines excellent service as “polished, professional but approachable,” in that order.

Ask Wolfgang Puck, owner of Spago and Cut (and many other restaurants), what defines great service in L.A., and “approachable” gets top billing; polish is not as important. “Good service is service that makes you feel comfortable,” Puck says. “People at our restaurants expect service that is more relaxed.”

Tracey Spillane, Puck’s general manager at Spago, says the “warm and fuzzy” factor is more important in Los Angeles. “New York diners are more serious about dining out,” she says, and therefore service in New York can’t be anything less than “technically fantastic.” L.A. diners, on the other hand, are all over the map in terms of their sophistication, she says.

“Good service is all about adjusting to the guest,” Spillane says. How do Spago’s waiters do that? One way is making sure they use what Spillane calls “the hug method.” “Throughout the meal the server’s body stays open to the guest,” she says. “You never give guests an elbow or a back.”

Beyond that, the same basic rules of service (see related story, right) apply in L.A. as they do in New York, especially as more polished restaurants, as the New York imports tend to be, are coming in. “There will always be a right way to pour wine and right way to serve food,” Spillane says. “The technical delivery should be the same,” even if the tone isn’t.

But even at the high end, there is some variation in the steps and style of service, Spillane says. Both Spago and Cut, Puck’s steakhouse in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, offer cloche service (servers delivering all the plates at the same moment, one per diner, then simultaneously lifting the silver cloches to reveal the dishes). But the service was elevated a bit at Cut by creating a front waiter/back waiter/runner configuration, rather than the waiter/runner/busboy configuration at Spago. (A back waiter assists in wine service, but a bus person does not).

At the Mozzas, although Rosoff hires servers of the same caliber for the Osteria and the Pizzeria, he directs them differently. At the Pizzeria, servers use an all-purpose wine glass, for instance, whereas at Osteria, each type of wine gets its own stemware, and glasses are primed (rinsed with wine from the bottle about to be poured) before serving. There are two sommeliers on duty at the Osteria, none at the Pizzeria.

At Osteria, a full complement of bread is offered tableside; at the Pizzeria, diners get breadsticks. At both venues, Rosoff says, understanding the menu and being able to explain it is crucial.

Staffing challenges

Offering correct service in L.A.'s relatively informal restaurants might not sound that complicated, but the city presents its own challenges in finding staff that can carry it out. David Myers, chef-owner of Sona and the new Melrose Avenue brasserie Comme Ça, points out that there is a much smaller pool of career waiters to choose from in Los Angeles.

Myers says that when he worked at New York’s Daniel, which offers a 401(k) plan and health benefits to its service staff, you could count on 25 professional waiters turning up whenever there was an opening for a server. By contrast, Myers has no dedicated career waiters on the staff of either of his restaurants. “Everyone works part-time and aspires to be something else,” he says.

That doesn’t mean they can’t provide excellent service or be “in the zone” while on the floor, he notes, but it does mean they often lack basic waiters’ instincts. Some of their service missteps (forgetting to fold a napkin while a diner is in the bathroom, or to pull out a chair upon their return) “would be considered ‘Service 101' to any waiter in New York,” he says, “but not in L.A.”

Part of the problem is that waiters in L.A. don’t have the opportunity to learn by example as they do in New York, says Craft L.A.'s general manager, David Madison, who worked at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market. In New York, he says, servers are constantly exposed to examples of good service because they dine out frequently themselves. Here, he says, “We don’t have that kind of dining community” among restaurant workers.

There’s also more money to be made waiting tables in New York, where many more serious restaurants serve lunch, and labor laws make it easier for waiters to work double shifts. In New York, overtime does not kick in until a server has worked 40 hours in a given week, whereas in L.A., overtime is calculated on a daily basis after eight hours.

L.A.'s minimum wage is higher ($7.50 per hour, compared with $4.60 an hour in New York for restaurant workers who earn gratiuties), but working “doubles” allows New York waiters to earn enough, including tips from more tables, that restaurants there can attract a dedicated force that doesn’t have other irons in the professional fire.

And for New York restaurateurs coming to Los Angeles, the higher wages are hard to swallow, especially at a place as large as Craft, which has almost 200 seats. Rather than cut the size of the staff -- and inevitably the quality of service -- Colicchio opted for shorter hours of operation in Century City than in New York.

Labor costs are also a major issue for Laurent Tourondel as he prepares to open BLT Steak in the former Le Dome site early next year. “We’re looking into whether we can work with a leaner staff without compromising quality of service,” says Keith Treyball, Tourondel’s partner and director of operations.

Like Craft, BLT Steak offers family-style service. Its choice of cast-iron vessels requires a minimum number of bodies in the dining room “for the heavy lifting alone,” Treyball says.

One position that is not negotiable, and one of the first that BLT has filled, Treyball says, is that of VIP spotter. “We were told that was very important,” says Ian Medwin, service director for BLT Restaurant Group. “That and valet service.”

Indeed, Mozza’s Rosoff says: “This city can be full of delicate egos, and we need to be very accommodating to them.” Does their child need a fish plate with vegetables on the side? No problem. Can they make an exception to Batali’s “no splitting dishes” policy? Well, that one’s a little tougher. But, says Rosoff, it has been done in the name of diner happiness.

And that, as every successful front-of-the-house man knows, is what it’s all about.