by Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Is service getting worse?
cherries with chevre, leeks and tarragon on pizza at Centro.
Last week a reader mailed a 20-year-old story I wrote about power lunching
in Des Moines. At that time, I was also writing a Cityview column about how
things had changed here over the previous 20 years. The reader made a point
about such perspectives.
"A 20 percent tip was added to my bill recently. Tipping that much used to indicate a diner's determination of exceptional service, beyond his expectations of a quickly refilled glasses of ice water, complimentary bread and butter, timely delivery, clearance of plates and thoughtful bagging of leftovers. Is it just me, or has the generous tip become an entitlement that has little to do with the quality of service?" he asked.
Twenty years aren't called "a score" for nothing. The two decades I have been commenting on our food scene added up to something quite significant — Des Moines became a serious food town. Has service risen along with the reputations of our farmers, artisans, chefs and restaurants? Or has it declined, as suggested by the reader?
Consider the old standards mentioned in his letter. Water glasses are rarely a waiter's priority anymore, but diners drink far more kinds of beverages now. Wine service has improved dramatically. Splash, Embassy Club West and 801 Steak & Chop House do Napa-class jobs employing appropriate crystal stemware. Splash and Fleming's have state-of-the-art wine preservation equipment and temperature-controlled cellars for different wines. Sbrocco, Baru and Café di Scala deserve kudos for educating patrons, particularly about specific regional specialties. Affordable wine, and even beer dinners, is now common at all levels of dining.
Complimentary breadbaskets aren't served everywhere now, but some places substituted things like corn chips and salsa, cornbread or freshly fried potato chips. Places as disparate as the Alsatian café Baru and the soul food café Patton's serve amuse-bouche, which amount to small complimentary courses. Plates are probably served and cleared less conscientiously now, but 20 years ago no one in town was crumbing tables or replacing napkins in the middle of a meal. Sage set that standard, and several good waiters have emulated it. Lately, I've seen chefs leave the kitchen at Mojo's, Dish and Sbrocco to bring samples of a new dish to random tables, too.
The bagging of leftovers has deteriorated. It's common today for waiters to just drop empty Styrofoam boxes on your table. Not everywhere though. At Trostel's Greenbriar, my small leftover steak was accidentally dumped once. The chef replaced it with an entire steak, and the host offered complimentary beverages while we waited for it to be cooked. Recently at The Café, my leftovers were wrapped, boxed and bagged with handwritten notes identifying the contents of each sack. At La Rosa, a bag of leftovers might also include a tamale. At La Mie, late diners are sometimes offered an entire complimentary loaf of bread "to-go."
One further point distinguished good service 20 years ago — the owner was always there. Restaurant legend Babe Bisignano told me that he closed his restaurant rather than only be there part time. Today his niece Linda Bisignano hasn't even allowed chemotherapy to stop her from being at Chuck's each night. Other old school Italian owners feel the same way at Christopher's, Sam & Gabe's, Tursi's Latin King, Noah's, Chuck's, Gino's, Baratta's and Café di Scala. However, these days, alpha diners call newer places to ask if the owner or chef is working that night before making a reservation.
Bottom line — Standards of service changed, for better and worse.
Centro and Baru 66 introduced new dishes this National Cherry Month. Centro smartly paired Rainiers with chevre, leeks and tarragon on pizza, paired pork tenderloin with chile-cherry sauce, and almond pastry with cherry mousse. Baru 66 won the innovation derby though by serving seared foie gras on top of cherries sautéed in Port and vanilla with fresh lavender. CV