By: Mike Kostyo JANUARY 14, 2020
A few years ago on a trip to Alaska, a friend who lives just outside of Anchorage took us to South, a sprawling, casually upscale restaurant with an attached coffeehouse. It was our first proper meal after a red-eye flight and we needed some liquid refreshments. Luckily, South had a full gin and tonic menu made with options like local gin, Alaskan fruits, and foraged herbs, with all of the drinks served “Barcelona-style,” whatever that meant.
If you’ve ordered a gin and tonic in Spain you may already know this, but we were about to find out that “Barcelona-style” involves a complex ritual: first, the server brought out the necessary tools and ingredients on a platter. Then, he set the highball glass down on the table, before adding the botanicals, gin, and ice. Next, he placed a bar spoon in the glass, giving the drink a few stirs, before he placed the lip of the tonic bottle at the very top of the bar spoon, slowly dipping the bottle until the tonic pours down the twisted curves of the spoon into the glass. I promptly got out my camera phone and multiple friends changed their orders to gin and tonics.
These little tableside flourishes and presentations used to be the mark of a “fancy” restaurant. Think options like bananas Foster flambéed tableside, which was first created by Owen Brennan in New Orleans in the 1950s and later popularized at his see-and-be-seen Brennan’s. Or the Caesar salad, prepared—the crack of the egg, mashing up the anchovy—and tossed tableside at old-school steakhouses across the country. Over the years, however, the concept fell out of fashion as consumers demanded ever-faster dining options and fine dining became more casual.
Yet tableside service has been making a comeback for the past few years, driven by customer demand for more experiences and social media fodder. At the same time, operators are seeking out any options that can peel potential customers off their couches and away from Netflix and Uber Eats. After all, even the finest delivery drivers are unlikely to debone a whole fish in front of you in the living room.
The explosion in modern steakhouses and supper clubs has driven the reintroduction of cocktail carts, which now roam around the dining rooms of countless restaurants across the country. Raclette service was having a moment for a while. At various operations today you’ll find tableside matcha services, Champagne carts, s’mores bars, pressed ducks, carved pig heads, tartares, carbonaras, and of course those ubiquitous melting chocolate spheres. Meanwhile, kitchen-side counters and modern dim sum restaurants have made it easier than ever for chefs themselves to introduce a dish or finish it directly in front of the diner.
What’s not to love? I’ll be the first to admit I’m a sucker for a cocktail shaken tableside, particularly if they leave the shaker behind so I can top myself off. But there are some drawbacks, of course. For one, it can be a lot more work, particularly if staff have to be trained on how to execute tableside service, whether it’s the servers or the chefs themselves (who, in the latter case, are also taken away from the kitchen). And training is key: while a spill or mistake can be a secret when it happens back-of-house, it can become the headline of a Yelp review when it happens front-of-house. Plus, consider the carts, bowls, platters, ice buckets, special tools—it all costs money and has to be washed and stored. The line between entertainment and gimmick can also be thin when it comes to tableside service—if it goes on too long, guests may start to think, “Just feed me already.” And when other tables see guests getting a fun, personalized tableside service, they’re more likely to order it too, which can quickly turn into a circus of tableside tartare-chopping across the dining room all night long.
But the rewards can be great. A good tableside presentation not only shows off your team’s care and skill (potentially leading to higher tips), but it gives them another chance to connect with the guest and a dedicated time to explain the dish and ingredients in a fun, personal way. Tableside presentations often turn customers into little kids again, oohing and clapping and forging a connection with their server or the chef in a way that isn’t purely transactional.
The best tableside options also have a reason to be served at the table beyond just the fact that it looks cool. At Davanti Enoteca in Chicago, the polenta and ragù of the day is mixed in a copper pot tableside before it’s spread on a plate for the table to share—sure, it’s fun, but it also ensures that guests are getting the lightest, fluffiest polenta before it has a chance to start firming up.
And not every tableside option needs to be asparagus presented in a full pig’s bladder (the famous dish at Eleven Madison Park, in New York City)—little things, like adding the final toppings to a sundae at the table—can make a meal more memorable. In their own way, even major chains have figured out how to create little rituals that make a meal feel more like an event, whether it’s the freshly-grated Parmesan at Olive Garden, the tableside guacamole at Uncle Julio’s in Chicago, or turning the Blizzard upside down at Dairy Queen.
If Olive Garden can do it, so can you.