My family never belonged to a country club. If the stories I’ve read about the exclusive ones here in Atlanta are true, they wouldn’t have had me or my folks if we had tried.
I have, on rare occasion, dined at such an establishment, though. They are places of enormous privilege, designed to please the most entitled members of our society. But, of all the things I recall from those few meals, the food is a faint impression. The great privilege of a country club is the service, the staff’s seemingly effortless accommodation of every guest, the feeling of belonging.
What I would give for a world where we could all belong, but, of course, we don’t.
The closest thing I’ve experienced to that kind of service in a restaurant has been in a couple of Buckhead steakhouses, Chops and Bones. There’s been a long-running debate in this town as to which of those steakhouses is superior, an argument I have no interest in settling. A meal at either will prove to be expertly paced, attentively served, precisely accommodated.
That said, I do have a personal preference.
One of the biggest indulgences I allow myself in life is the occasional rib-eye and martini at the Chops Lobster Bar. When I slip into an open seat at the bar there, I tend to find a server named Michael Failing on the other side. In between shaking martinis and pouring drinks for the restaurant, he seems to glide along the bar, delivering plates, clearing checks, checking in on diners. He makes it look easy.
While I might decline to say whether Bones or Chops is the better restaurant, it is easy for me to say that I’d like be at whichever bar a guy like Failing is behind.
While most any steakhouse in town can buy good dry-aged steaks and cook them to order, there’s no shortcut to creating this kind of service. Failing has been earning his stripes in Atlanta’s restaurants for plenty of years now, and he isn’t alone.
The best service tends to be the result of men and women who have dedicated years of experience, endless hours on their feet, and an enormous amount of energy to making their job look easy. This is one of the great illusions of restaurant service: When it is working best, you may not notice it at all.
Of course, not all talented service workers are veterans of the industry. Over at Kimball House, the cocktails and oyster bar in Decatur, they employ William Bubier as a maitre d’. By the looks of his baby face, he’s much too young to be called anything close to a veteran. But, whatever experience he may lack is made up for by a kind of enthusiasm, a feeling that he is excited you are there.
Any given night for Bubier is full of unexpected tables and unplanned challenges. He faces these with an unflagging enthusiasm, opening the door again and again with an irresistible smile.
Nor does all fine service have the tone of a country club. Staplehouse, that most celebrated restaurant of the past year, has a soundtrack befitting a dive bar and not a tablecloth in sight. Yet, the team they’ve assembled includes some of the most thoughtful and attentive servers in Atlanta.
Not the least of which is Kara Hidinger, who long managed the front of the house for Anne Quatrano’s restaurants, and Jen Hidinger, who once hosted supper club dinners with her late husband Ryan, whose memory is carried on by the restaurant. There is a sense of greater purpose in the service at Staplehouse, in part because the restaurant benefits the Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit that, in turn, supports restaurant workers in need.
Sometimes, when I want the comfort of great service, I go not to some steakhouse or fancy restaurant but to a little diner in Midtown called the Silver Skillet.
It’s a funny old sort of place. The women that serve the tables there wear brightly colored T-shirts and carry around tall, crooked stacks of plates. It’s no Ritz. It will never be compared with a country club. But the women taking your order will call you honey and keep your coffee warm and offer a slice of pie. Sometimes, there’s no greater service in the world than a slice of pie and someone to call you honey.
When considering a restaurant’s service, we may focus on wait times or getting highly specific orders right or fine details, but it is so much more than that. Good service is the comforting knowledge that what you need or want will be taken care of, that you belong.
In a world that does not offer such assurances, a seat at a table that does is worth all of the money in the world. Tip big. After a meal, that’s your chance to recognize the people who made enormous labors on your behalf. In the end, that’s what great service is all about: people taking care of people.
KNOWN FOR GOOD SERVICE
Bones, 3130 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-237-2663, bonesrestaurant.com.
Chops Lobster Bar, 70 W. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. 404-262-2675, buckheadrestaurants.com/restaurant/chops-lobster-bar-atl.
Kimball House, 303 E. Howard Ave., Decatur. 404-378-3502, kimball-house.com.
The Silver Skillet, 200 14th St., Atlanta. 404-874-1388, thesilverskillet.com.
Staplehouse, 541 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. 404-524-5005, staplehouse.com.