“I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla, if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of a can, then nothing.”
–Meg Ryan as Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally
During his year touring America’s finest steak houses, before Rare itself opened, owner Jack Sosnowski felt a lot of nostalgia for a time he’s too young to remember. The nostalgia was for the heyday of dining out, a time before fast food and laminated menus. There were the leather and mahogany, high ceilings and low-lit chandeliers, bowties and silver. Waiters so crisp in wit, clothes, and wisdom, you could practically bounce a coin off them. The whole business had a little glamour to it.
You don’t hear much these days about the glamour of waiting tables. But it’s a profession with golden roots: The finest restaurants pre-WWII actually spawned bidding wars when they had openings for new servers: People paid for the right to work at them.
In the end, waiting tables was and continues to be a profession built on wide skills, not deep pockets. Gracefully tending to hungry people spending their hard-earned money, many of them hoping to impress their companions? That’s a calling for a rare breed, the best of which raise it to an art form.
Today, just as a century ago, what ties a fine dining experience together in a neat red bow is an excellent server. The one with encyclopedic knowledge about the menu. The one who can expound on dishes with a storyteller’s finesse. The one who remembers you, anticipates your needs, even makes you laugh sometimes. The honest one, who doesn’t call everything on the menu a masterpiece. This is the Jekyl and Hyde, who brokers relations between the fiery energy of the kitchen and the calm of the dining room.
But skilled servers are more than foodies with a PhD in people skills. They’re problem-solvers. One of the things that defines them is the way they handle and ferry criticism: Too cold, too sweet, a crime of unexpected onions—the genuine complaint is appreciated and resolved generously. (No, really. It’s constructive to know when something’s not to a patron’s liking.) They also don’t sweat the tailoring of the menu: This or that on the side, hotter or colder, hold the sauce or add some. (Again, it’s constructive.) Among the many things that set apart great restaurants: One need not ever be afraid to kindly complain to the server.
Sosnowski met his share of exceptional servers during his tour of nostalgia, and set the bar at their level when hiring Rare’s wait staff. It’s a no-brainer, really: The best food and best servers naturally intersect at the best restaurants. That’s how fine dining grew legs and became legendary before the age of fast food. That’s still how the great restaurants roll.