Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lessons From Portalli's: What I Learned From A Night On The Other Side Of The Table

I realized how much I like sitting down somewhere around the 10th time that we pushed through the swinging doors into the clatter of Portalli's kitchen.

Chairs are a big part of my restaurant experience.  I get a chair every time.  I sit, and everyone comes to me.  That was until I took Lee Biars' offer to spend a night watching a restaurant from the other side.  He amused himself challenging folks who write about food to see how it is actually made.  That glimpse had me shadowing a waitressing pro from Portalli's sedate dining room into the bright lights, big pressure of the restaurant's kitchen.

My lesson from the night:  Restaurants are a business for the young.  Everything else was questions.

How did it get so bright in here?

Eating is easy.  Everything else in a restaurant is harder than it seemed.   I'd never noticed that waitresses run between the quiet clink of the dining room and a noisy, bright kitchen.  Portalli's kitchen is tiny.  There is no chaos -- at least not on the relatively quiet Good Friday when I visited -- but it's busy and bright and constantly overseen by screens counting the time since every dish had been ordered.

I want the kitchen to deliver my food at the perfect moment.  But I don't want waiters running around or arriving covered with sweat.  I hadn't noticed the tension until I followed a veteran server named Sara as she wove from the dining room through the swinging door -- call out "coming in" or risk having the door jammed into your face -- through the kitchen -- squeeze past the runner assembling a tray of entrees -- and back into the dark of the bar -- be good to the bartender because he is filling your orders while serving diners himself.

On a busy night, Sara said, you pause to assemble yourself before you walk back to the diners.  Or you wipe off the sweat when the nights get worse.  Lee's original idea was that I would actually do jobs at Portalli's -- host for an hour, run food for an hour, bus tables for an hour . . .   Lee was insane.  I would have ruined some nice person's night or at least some nice waiter's tips.  Every meal in Portalli's main dining room is carried up a flight, then has to cross a down-a-step, then up-a-step threshold that looks like it was designed to trip contestants on a reality show.

The whole feel of a restaurant changes when you stand the whole time.  I noticed the lights, the noise, the computer.  (Heavens, I eat out to escape the computer!)  I watched the runner going with bread, the hostess at her computer, the way servers deal with 20 people at once where I'm normally focused on my wife or a few friends.

Who is coming to dinner?

Every restaurant has answered 100 questions that I never realized to ask.  Who says hello?  What do they say?  Who delivers food -- the waiter or dedicated runners?  When do you clear -- as soon as each diner finishes or only once everyone is done?  Do you track each meal by the seat of the person who ordered?  At Portalli's, waiters key each seat into the computer.  Runners serve the food without asking "Who ordered meatballs?" It's subtle, but it is a classy touch not to "auction" off the food when it arrives.  How long do you plan on people to stay?  My favorite nugget of the night:  Valentine's Day diners eat fast.  They're in and out -- like they have somewhere to go.

The key question:  Who do we think will show up tonight?  That estimate dictates how many people work, how much food is on hand.  Good Friday during Passover turns out to be slow for a restaurant selling meat and pasta.  None of us thought about that before.

Portalli's runs its reservations through Open Table.  A free Web site for diners.  A software gem for restaurants, who use reservations to predict crowds and who use Open Table to actually pre-assign a table to each guest.  On my visit, they were planning a night when they'd have two large parties -- including a 90-year-old's birthday that could not be upstairs in the main dining room.  Lee also saw a regular on the list, so he had someone run up to Diamondback Tavern -- their casual joint on Old Columbia Pike -- to get a shepherd's pie that he knew that she loved.

Are they done yet?

When I go to dinner, I know exactly what I want from the night.  I know if this is a quick bite or a long celebration.  I know if we're drinking, if we came to order an old favorite, or if we want to explore the menu for a long time.

Standing in Portalli's dining room, I realized that I didn't know anything about the people who Sarah was trying to serve.  Do they want to talk detail about the wines or be left alone?  Do they want another drink?  Are they done with that meal?  Everyone acts different.  Everyone is different.  Sarah has a few tricks -- like standing the check holder on the table so that she can tell from across the room when they have added their credit card and laid it down -- but mostly, she was figuring out strangers on the fly.  Trying to be there when they needed something, but never rush them along.  It's like endless first dates.

What is going to go wrong today?

I try not to be overly criticall.  I'm pretty empathetic, and I eat out to relax, not to whip myself into tension about the perfect meal.  (We gasped last weekend at a different restaurant when the neighboring table sent back their wine because it wasn't as fruity as they had expected.  Really?  You think the restaurant owes you a second bottle of wine?)  But I am even-more aware now of how much restaurants can't control.

It's a crazy business where snow wipes out 12 days in your first winter, including four Saturdays when you figure in Christmas.  On my night, a Portalli's employee fell so suddenly ill that he ended up in the hospital.  Everyone else picked up that role, and I don't think any diners noticed at all.

How was the food?

I really enjoyed Portalli's food.  Mostly, I spent the night talking to Sara, other servers, Lee, and Lee's partner Evan.  But I tried a great summer cocktail with Firefly sweet tea vodka and San Pelligrino Limonata, and I sampled a meatball that Lee and Evan had cooked after a diner had complained.  (Tasted delicious to me.)  And I eventually joined Mrs. HowChow and our friends with a plate of scallops and risotto of my own. They had been chuckling as I walked behind Sarah with my hands nervously clasped behind my back.

I'm a fan of those scallops, and my folks enjoyed their meals and a table of desserts that we shared.  Great cannoli, and I loved the puff pastry.  Portalli's kicked up some comments when it first opened last year.  It's a fine dining place with fine dining prices so people expect more than a neighborhood joint.  Lee said that they're listening.  He served at Charleston, and his partners came out of the Greystone Grill operations so this isn't new.  They're training on all those little decisions about cooking, serving, clearing, etc.  They even won over one of the folks who posted one of the original negative comments.

And they certainly won me over.  It was fun to see a restaurant from the other side.  Now, I'm going to sit down.

(Correction: There was a reference above that said "Facci's dining room" instead of "Portalli's dining room."  Comments below caught it.  As noted, I was distracted from the error by my supposed job.  And my proof-reader didn't notice either.)

Thanks especially to Sara who just had her boss announce that you're going to be followed around by a blogger.  That sounds like a night to paraphrase King Julien XIII: "Hello freak!"  Hope it wasn't too bad.  I was horrified to learn that Sarah read HowChow before and recognized one of the commenters as complaining -- unfairly she thought -- about a meal she had served.  Thanks also to Lee, Evan and everyone else at Portalli's who talked to me and walked me around.  You can follow Portalli's on Twitter or on Facebook.


Sarah said...

Very cool report. I'll have to get out there soon. Thanks to you and to Portalli's for this!

Simply Organized - Beth Bracaglia said...

Thanks for telling it like it is! A great book that goes behind the restaurant scene is "Waiter Rant". It is well worth the read - for anyone who has ever worked (or for that matter, dined in restaurants) or really anywhere within the customer service industry.

Anonymous said...

This sentence is key: "But I am even-more aware now of how much restaurants can't control."

I think what your post reveals is that Portalli's is well aware of that and does its best to succeed at make everything else within its control -- such as, ahem, making customers feel welcome. Nice report.

Kristi said...

In the Are they done yet? section, you wrote "Standing in Facci's dining room", are they owned by the same people?

Anonymous said...

The "Facci" thing was just a mental mixup cause both are Italian joints. Happens all the time with blog posts. HowChow supposedly has a real job, too, you know. ;)

bboyneko said...

Thanks for the detailed post. I am a fan of Portallis, and was baffled by some of the bad reviews when it first opened. This is a gem of an Italian restaurant and I hope it continues to suceed. I usually love grabbing a pre-dinner beer at Judges Bench then walking to Portallis.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this. I think everyone should work in a restaurant at least once in thier life. It makes you appreciate everything that goes into your dinner experience. Great post!

Lee Biars said...

In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, this whole wacky science experiment was Evan Brown's idea. The goal was to give someone who had never worked in a restaurant an opportunity to write about what it is like. Also, a big thanks to Sara who handled everything like a champ, especially considering we gave her zero notice as we wanted HowChow's experience to be genuine and not rehearsed in any way.

And of course, thanks to HowChow for being adventurous enough to let us boss him around for a night and show him the ropes. He actually does have a real job, and it's amazing how much time he puts into this blog considering.

Anonymous said...

Thought HowChow's Facci mention was Freudian. Hence, matched up with the earlier comment about Portalli's recognizing what they can't control and doing its best at what they can -- like making (waiting) customers feel welcome.

Wendi said...

Thanks for giving us all some insight on what happens behind the scenes.

Sara said...

HowChow it was an absolut pleasure! I love what I do for a living and am greatful to be able to share my experiences with you. Evan, Lee, and Alan are in the top ten of employers I have ever had the honor to work for. Thank you for taking the time to see what it is to be in the industry. It really meant a lot to me. Next time we'll talk about tray balancing. An art I am still not 100% certified in after all these years.

Anonymous said...

Good read. It's nice to see a food critic see "the other side" for a change. My only question is how many different ways does Sara spell her name?