One of the few places in San Francisco that I've visited several times without ever mentioning here is COCO500
, the Loretta Keller
establishment that rose from the ashes of what was once Bizou. My first dinner at the restaurant was in early 2006, right around the time that a consensus seemed to emerge in the food blogging community
that COCO500 was the toast of the town. And I shared in that assessment. The food, in a word, was wonderful, from the spectacular flatbread with squash blossom and white truffle oil, to the delicious and flavorful halibut, to the scrumptious sweet summer corn. I was hooked, and my initial meal at this South of Market hot spot was followed by a rapid fire succession of several more, all of which were thoroughly satisfying.
Now, unlike some, I have never been that enamored of the service. I've generally found it to be competent and functional, but never particularly attentive and occasionally somewhat neglectful. And I'm not alone in this assessment; both Fatemeh
had initial visits to COCO500 in which the service was so subpar, that it apparently dampened their enthusiasm about going back. Yet, each of them did eventually return, and to service that was much more impressive.
Well, I had dinner at COCO500 last night, and I can certainly say that the experience left an impression. The food was, as always, well executed and very tasty, and the table service was perfectly fine. The problem? The host staff. When Rhonda and I arrived for our 8:15 reservation, the hostess told us that "our" table was just finishing up and that we would be seated shortly. No problem, we thought -- we'll just wait in the bar. As we sat down, my eyes scanned across the dining room and happened to notice a vacant four-seat table, along with several other such tables at which parties of two were dining. "That empty table is certainly being held for a party of four with a reservation," I said to Rhonda.
Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Twenty. Thirty
. And all throughout, three facts remained unchanged: the vacant table remained unoccupied, the people seated at our table remained planted in their seats, and the hostess remained completely indifferent to our plight. Not once was there an effort to assure us that we would be seated soon, not once was there an attempt to pacify us with a drink or appetizer on the house, and not once was there even a hint of an apology. At the 35-minute mark, we finally lost our patience and approached the hostess. Her response? "Oh, did you not want to wait any longer for a two-seat table?" Yeah, that's right -- we've been sitting here in the bar starving, waiting for a couple of oblivious diners to leave our table and staring at a vacant four-top for the last 35 minutes, all because we were actively hoping
to be crammed into a small two-top instead of being given all of that uncomfortable space
that comes standard with a larger table. I was not amused. And needless to say, the hostess offered no apology and no "thank you for waiting" as we were finally seated at the table that had been collecting dust all night.
A dinner reservation represents an agreement between restaurant and diner, a social contract that imposes certain obligations on both parties. The diner is expected to show up on time, and the restaurant is expected to have a table available and ready. Of course, the vagaries of daily life require that a certain grace period be afforded to both sides, and 15 minutes strikes me as a reasonable amount of time for this purpose. But after that, the situation changes. If a diner shows up more than 15 minutes late, the restaurant should be free to give away the table; and if the restaurant cannot provide a table within 15 minutes after a reservation, then it should immediately take some form of corrective action. Most establishments, understandably, do not want to nudge a lingering party out the door, for fear of coming across as rude. Yet, at the same time, indulging the lingerers requires the restaurant to breach its agreement to seat the next
party -- a gesture that is no less rude. While this may seem like an intractable situation, there's a relatively easy solution: provide the waiting party a complimentary beverage or appetizer to make the delay more tolerable, give them a free appetizer or dessert once they have been seated, or take something off of their ultimate dinner bill. A small gesture like this, coupled with a sincere apology, goes an incredibly long way toward preserving goodwill.
What a restaurant should never
do is what COCO500 did last night: ignore the waiting guests for 30+ minutes, and then do absolutely nothing
to make up for, acknowledge, or even apologize for the delay. And just in case you were wondering -- I did watch the front door of the restaurant for the rest of the night to see whether some later party of four would be displaced by our having taken the big table, but no such party ever arrived. In other words, the hostess apparently kept us waiting for 35 minutes for a hypothetical
party of four that might
walk in off the street without a reservation. Not a smart move, and not one that earned the restaurant any points in my book.
There's no question that the food at COCO500 has been consistently good, to the point that several people I know have been persuaded to overlook bad service experiences and pay the place another visit. But is that really what the restaurant wants to aim for?