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A Great Restaurant's Secret Ingredient

Here's a hint: It's nowhere on the menu.

October 02, 2002|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chefs make news just like any other celebrity. We hear about it all: The one who moved into a bigger place, the one who favors wild striped bass, the one who would like the world to know that he has a new theory about eggplant.

When Jar, a West Hollywood shrine for carnivores, went through three front-room managers in less than a year, though, the news never rose above industry scuttlebutt. The front of the house--everything in a restaurant but the food--is like the little girl in the nursery rhyme. When it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, the customers simply don't come back.

In addition to attitude as smooth as a veloute, the front of the house includes all the things you don't notice unless they displease you: The temperature of the room, the color of the walls, the lighting, the soundtrack, the wait staff's uniforms, the way the host greets you and seats you, the pacing of the service.

What seems like a seamless environment, when it works right, is, in fact, the result of endless planning and preparation. An offhanded inquiry about how you like the tamarind sauce is part of an almost military strategy, based on a deceptively simple question: "What can we do," says Jar co-owner Suzanne Tracht, "to make you happy?"

The less obvious the effort, the better. Lucques co-owner and front-room maven Carolyne Styne, a short, slender blond whose drive matches the buzz in her main dining room, strives for what she calls "invisible service--everything's taken care of, and the customer never had to ask for it." She doesn't just happen by after the entrees are served. It's a conscious decision not to bother people too soon, and not to wait so long that she can't solve a problem.

Mark Peel, an owner of Campanile, quotes "The Wizard of Oz" to define his service philosophy: " 'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.' " Illusion is key.

In the old days, most restaurateurs paid far less attention to what went on in the front of the house, according to Peel, who worked at Ma Maison more than 20 years ago. "At Ma Maison, it was, 'Service? They're carrying plates to the table,' " he says. The ones who did--Valentino, Spago and a handful of others--were legendary exceptions. "But in many ways service is more important than the food, now. Think of all the places with mediocre food and great service, and they're packed--because people feel welcome, taken care of, and they can get what they want."

When every self-respecting restaurant seems to have a seasonal heirloom tomato salad on the menu, the "out" in "dining out" becomes more important. The restaurant business has come to bear an odd resemblance to the automotive industry: If there are tons of great meals out there, just as there are tons of luxury sedans, then the difference--a restaurant's brand identity--is in how you serve what you serve. In a business with a high mortality rate, in an economy that does not smile on extravagance, the way the customer feels is a make-or-break issue.

Tracht is a tiny, tailored woman with a peaceable air--an unlikely adversary for a man with a big knife. But there he was, an irate customer waving his cutlery at a waiter. Tracht knew she had to do something. No matter how impossible a customer gets, the staff stays gracious. An apology, and a quick retreat, did the trick. "I can fix the food, cold potatoes, a burned steak," she says, "but not rude service. People will go tell 12 friends and never come back."

Tracht's main dining room exudes a flattering reserve, from the noncommittal chairs (Are they gray or green?) to a peachy light that makes everyone look 10 years younger. The linens are white, the wood accents are pale; the whole place whispers quality. There is no room here for histrionics, neither from customers nor from the staff.

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Attentive but Restrained

The front of the house always has a personality, just like the kitchen does. For a while, in the '80s, front rooms were full of ingratiating waiters. (Hi. I'm Bob. I'm going to help you chew your food.) In the '90s, there were the power waiters and wine folk who could keep pace with the most can-you-top-this demands. These days, restaurants aspire to a more restrained, but ever-helpful kind of service: attentive but not overbearing, informed but not about to tell you which side of the road the tomatoes grew on, concerned from a respectful distance about the customer's contentment. If there is one consistent indicator of the current dining gestalt, it is the music that plays in otherwise very different dining rooms around the city:

"World music," says Bonnie Beck, who has been the manager at Jar for three months.

"World music," says Styne.

"World music," says Dana Caskey, co-owner of the House, in Hollywood, which feels like a boho graduate-school cousin to the other, sleeker spots. No matter what the trappings, the message, these days, is cosmic calm.

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