Not all steakhouses, even expensive steakhouses, are created equal.
In February, we walked out of the Miami Beach Smith and Wollensky about two minutes after we sat down, which we rarely do. From the moment we smiled and said hello to the host we knew we were in trouble. They had lost the reservation that our fancy hotel had made and berated us for that misplacement. He stopped just short of calling us liars. Really not pretty. And not a good start. When I pointed out that I had heard our concierge make the reservation myself and explain my food allergies, the host sighed and deigned to find us a table. They brought us to a dark and draughty two’er, squished between tables of 10 or more. A nightmare table. A table that is an afterthought. And frankly, in this case, was no favor. It took all of two minutes to look at each other and realize we would not be having a good time there. So we packed it in and said, “Buh, bye”. No love lost, and I don’t care how often I read about their amazing Sunday brunches with a view, I will not be patronizing the Miami Beach Smith and Wollensky again.
Porter House was an anti-Miami Beach S&W-a delight from the moment I stepped on the host’s heels. A toothy silver fox whisked us away from the host’s station to a lovely corner booth. (In this case, put baby in the corner, please!) On the way there, in my eagerness and self-consciousness-all of a sudden jeans and gold pumas didn’t seem as cute in this very grown-up establishment-I kicked his heel as I was following him too closely. I apologized and he laughed saying if that was the worst thing that happened to him all night, it was a good night.
When our waiter arrived, before I could give him my Allergic Girl spiel, he said, “I hear there’s a diner with fish and tree-nut allergies?”
Great start! The reservationist had communicated what I told them when I called earlier that day. Keir, our waiter, continued-I had introduced myself and my dinner date so we all got friendly-he said the kitchen was fully aware of my allergies and that I could go ahead and order what I liked and they’d accommodate me.
As it’s a steakhouse, it’s a pretty meaty and fishy menu. But the braised short ribs were calling to me; my on-loan-dinner-date had the duck with foie gras. We shared sautéed spinach and he had a homefried potato pancake. Everything arrived meaty and luscious; everyone who approached our table was friendly and courteous - Keir was a superstar. It was exactly as a resto experience should be [and similar to what Batali said was his perfect dining experience]: friendly staff, a great table, (unlike Mario, I don’t enjoy being shoved into dark, dank corners near the bussing station, thank you) a knowledgeable waiter, an accommodating kitchen, a pretty room/view and a delicious allergen-free dinner. Sounds simple doesn’t it? And in Chef Michael Lomonaco’s capable hands, it was; excellent execution on every level.
Which makes me wonder why it can’t be like that every time, most everywhere?
Are you thinking about cost? Of course you are, I did. We assume that an expensive restaurant will be more accommodating-better cuisine, better quality ingredients, finer manners, nicer linens, finger bowls-than a moderately priced one or a chain. And sometimes, that is the case. This delicious allergen-free dinner cost the same [a bit more actually] as my weekly grocery bill.
Let me say that again: I paid the same for one soft drink, one entrée and a bowl of fresh berries than I normally do for a week’s worth of fruits, veggies, staples and goodies, many of them organic.
But too many times I’ve been in the "best" restaurants and both the meal and the service have been seriously disappointing and the kitchen was. Similarly a mom-and-pop joint is no guarantee of service that makes you feel like one of the family and food like you’ve gone home.
What’s the ultimate answer: management. Again and again it all comes from great management and communication. And Porter House in my inaugural visit had both in abundance.