Restaurants: Dining Room Confidential

Bathroom’s a mess? Waiter forgot half the specials? These days, restaurant missteps show up online immediately, which is why Stephen Starr and others are using undercover diners to spy on their own places

As far as weekday evenings in summer go, this Center City restaurant is busy. It’s a Tuesday night, and a large group of sundress-clad woo-hoo girls is gathered at the bar, clapping about something; hungry parties surround ample tables in the main dining room. Every inch of the soaring restaurant has been carefully considered — swirling ceiling fans, tropical ferns, painted tiles, bossa nova beats — to hammer home the south-of-the-border motif. The liveliness makes it hard to give much thought to the menu items the server is calling attention to; Marc Kravitz gives the waiter the half-attentive look of a typical customer, but it’s a poker face. He’s honed into what’s being said with a startling focus, remembering almost every word. He has to. As the owner and founder of i-SPY, a Philadelphia-based secret shopper service, Kravitz is being paid to pay attention.

“That was good,” Kravitz leans in to explain after the waiter leaves. “He was supposed to point out the new spring roll appetizer.” Kravitz mentally checks off an item on his list, then glances at his cell-phone clock — he’s timing how long it will take the waiter to return and take his order.

Tonight’s report actually started way before Kravitz sat down to eat. His secret dinners (Kravitz refers to them as “shops”) start with a reservation call, which is recorded and played back for the owner. (For this shop, the reservationist didn’t inform Kravitz about the after-9 p.m. dress code.) He arrived 30 minutes before his reservation to have a drink at the bar. This restaurant has been a regular client of his for years — he visits monthly — but he asked questions he already knows the answers to, like “What’s in a caipirinha?” He heard the right response: a Brazilian rum-like alcohol and lime. Check. The bartender couldn’t have known that Kravitz asked one of his co-workers the same question at this very bar just last month.

It was important that Kravitz finish his drink, because he would order another one at the table — it’s not just bartenders who need to know their booze. One of his freelance shoppers once didn’t finish her drink at the bar, but ordered another when seated for dinner, as instructed. A server noticed the odd behavior, and she was flagged as a spy. (Kravitz encourages restaurant owners to tell their staff they’ve engaged a secret shopping service, so workers don’t feel duped by his reports.)

Kravitz let the hostess know when he was ready to be seated, and in the short walk to his table, she was being tested: She used his name. She handed him both the regular and the summer menus. She said the server would be right over. Check, check and check. His report grew quickly.

And now the waiter — he has an overdone, singsong friendliness, like an out-of-work actor — is back to take Kravitz’s order within two minutes. Check. Overall, this shop is going well. In the six years he’s been working with this restaurant, Kravitz has seen serious improvement.