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The word service in the restaurant industry can mean different things to different people. At the most basic level, service is about the practical (and mechanical) steps to take your order, give you your food and clean up after you. Not very romantic, I’m afraid.

And then there’s the camp of restaurant professionals that are on the crusade towards “hospitality” instead of “service.” I’m one of them in theory. However, it seems ridiculous to have to make this distinction. Any restauranteur should strive for and hire a team that goes far beyond the mechanical action of punching numbers into a POS system. Fantastic service to me means the person behind the counter believes in the product and shows that by exuding a sense of ownership; they show respect and genuine interest in their team and guests; they build relationships, albeit professional, with people; they naturally smile and engage with people without even saying a word; and, finally, they feel professionally and personally fulfilled by making sure that every guest walks out with exactly what they need (and maybe things that they didn’t even know they wanted).  An experience is created for everyone involved!

You and I can both attest to the fact that service, in the way that I’m describing, is hard to come by.  For the most part, the service that I receive when dining out is pretty good or at least not bad.  Let’s call it neutral.  I usually get what I need (and often things that I don’t need at all, but my stomach does the shopping) and I have nothing bad to say about the process.

And then there’s Alexander’s Steakhouse in SOMA, San Francisco.  My fiance and I went there to celebrate our 2nd anniversary a few weeks back.  We were blown away by the service.  The food wasn’t too shabby either!  We mentioned that it was our anniversary in our open table reservation with the hope that they’d sit us at a nice table.  They trumped that hope with an evening full of pleasant surprises and true engagement from our waiter.  Though our experience may have been different had it not been our anniversary, I believe that it still would have been remarkable.  It’s in Alexander’s DNA.

Very professionally dressed in a suit, the waiter that we had was genuine, professional, and not afraid to be himself.  The suit, instead of a cheesy uniform, seemed to give him a sense of ownership and empowerment.  When we said that we were taking it easy on food (we were on a detox), the waiter rolled with the punches and didn’t make us feel bad for ordering on the light side.  We skipped the champagne and decided we would each order a glass of wine (in the name of the detox once again) and the waiter brought us out champagne on the house.  My fiance ordered a hamachi shooter and a snack was brought for me at the same time, on the house again, so I didn’t feel left out.  The waiter engaged in conversation, not just checking in, each time he stopped at our table.  Dessert came with a candle and special anniversary message.  A special treat (I’ll keep it a secret) came when we received our bill.

It must sound like we got a bunch of free stuff and so of course we’re going to talk up the place.  However, that’s not the case at all.  The waiter made us feel special throughout our meal.  He took care of us, like an owner at a hole in the wall would.  He was pleasant, knowledgeable and engaging.  I think he enjoyed his evening as much as we did.  He made our anniversary dinner a true experience.

Alexander’s Steakhouse – go for the food and leave with a lesson in the art of service.