Food for Thought: Wassup With Service in This City?

In early June, Nina and Tim Zagat — you know, of the Zagat restaurant guides — noted an interesting fact in a column for The Atlantic’s website: Out of all of the hundreds of thousands of dining surveys they’ve compiled over the years, 70 percent of the gripes were about service. That got me thinking: From what I’ve seen, diners in Philly are more likely to have a good experience than a bad one these days. Restaurant owners are finally getting servers to buy into the overall experience of the restaurant.

When we complimented the food at a recent Sunday-night dinner at Amada, the manager beamed as if it was his own, despite the fact that he’s probably just one of several managers in the Garces Restaurant Group. (As with Stephen Starr’s restaurants, José Garces’s burgeoning empire has a meticulous training program.) But it’s not just managers who understand the consequences of bad service these days: Now that both consumers and bloggers have a place to recount their restaurant experiences to a large following (hello, Yelp), one misstep in service spreads through the foodie community like wildfire: Everyone from servers to the guy who stands behind the bar and slices Spanish ham gets called out by name.

Conversely, the suburbs around Philly, in general, still lack skilled servers. Their pool to pull from is too small, and turnover is too high. Lately I’ve had and heard of awful experiences in South Jersey (like the hostess at one of Aldo Lamberti’s restaurants who asked a non-pregnant me when I was expecting) and the Main Line (a 10-minute wait that turned into an hour at the now-closed Maia — coincidence? — and a completely coffee-less brunch during the early days of Ardmore’s A la Maison).

Ultimately, we hold our own with the greatest food cities in the U.S. (New York, L.A., San Francisco, Boston, Chi-town), and we are noticeably ahead of the curve of up-and-coming cities that suffer, I think, from a combination of both problems mentioned above: Restaurant owners have not yet learned to invest in service as much as décor and food, and a dismally small talent pool. Some of the most notably bizarre service I’ve had has been in the best restaurants in places like Charlotte, Atlanta, Denver, and Raleigh. (The worst: A Mexican restaurant in Orlando where I had to beg to change my order of pork tacos to chicken tacos — “Um, I don’t know if we can do that,” was my server’s response.)

What do you think about Philly’s service scene? Any places where you got unexpectedly great service? Any horror stories? Let’s hear about it in the comments.