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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dining Notes: COCO500

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 and Catherine 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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We were in New York late last year - specifically out winetasting on Long Island.

We had dinner at two different restaurants and got comps both nights for what we considered really minor problems.

The first night we were comped our dessert because it took a little while for it to get to us - something we didn't consider a problem, as we were enjoying ourselves anyway.

The second night, we asked for our wine to be decanted and the waiter spilled a little on the table (and I mean a little). The restaurant comped our cheese course and dessert and the manager personally came over to apologize.

We came to the conclusion that New Yorkers must complain a lot more than we would, thus the comps. It made us realize what we put up with here without complaint!

February 07, 2007 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NS - that is inexcusable. I know that they would want to correct that; have you considered writing them a letter? My experiences with the hosts have always been incredible (as you have read) and I am sure this was a new employee, or at least a clueless one.c

February 07, 2007 9:54 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Anonymous:It's often said that the service in New York is better than that in the Bay Area, and your experiences certainly suggest that there may be some truth in that claim. Small gestures of the sort that you mention go so far toward engendering goodwill -- it's really a mystery to me why more restaurants don't get it.

Catherine: That's a great idea -- I will definitely write to the restaurant to let them know what happened.

February 08, 2007 1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believe me, they will see your blog entry when they check their web stats, and see all the traffic bouncing from your site.

Hey, visitors to NS's site: click the COCO500 link and let them know who sent you!

(That oughtta do it.)

: D

February 08, 2007 3:04 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Hey NS - that happened to me two weeks ago - we were left waiting over 30 mins for our reservation at the Bar at Coco500. In our case there actually wasn't an available table but we happened to be catching up with an old friend so weren't so worried about the wait.

As we were eventually seated an older couple came in and said they'd made a reservation. That dumb hostess (yes - I am going to blame her 100%) nonchantly told them there would be a little wait for their table (5 minutes like she lied to us) and they elected to wait by the door not at the bar. They stood there for 30 minutes or more looking more and more fed up as time passed by. My heart was bleeding for them, I almost felt like asking one of the staff - can't you see what you are doing to those customers, those ones that looked all excited when they came in and now whose spirits are squashed. Eventually they got so pissed offf they walked out AND NONE OF THE STAFF EVEN NOTICED or did anything about it.

I was horrified that customers should be so disappointed with one of my favourite restaurants, without even having the chance to try the food.

All night our service was slow. Noticeably so. At the end of the meal someone, unabetted, came and apologized for delays and comped our dessert for us. (We hadn't made any complaints).

But I still felt they hadn't done enough for the customers who walked out in disgust.

I was sad.

Their manager left at them beginning of January and I am wondering if they are having some teething problems with new management and other staff?

February 11, 2007 8:03 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Tana: I found out over the weekend that a fellow food blogger with connections at the restaurant has already forwarded my post to them, so they will definitely be hearing about this soon if they haven't already!

Sam: Thanks so much for your comment. For the experience that I had to happen even once is inexcusable, but for it to happen three times in a two-week period is simply ridiculous. And these are just the instances of which we're aware -- who knows how many others suffered the same indignity during that two weeks.

Unless an army of table lingerers has suddenly descended upon the city, something is seriously wrong with COCO500's reservation system. Yes, it occasionally happens that a table of diners stays longer than expected. But when a restaurant finds that happening three times in two weeks, it's probably a sign that somebody is not budgeting enough time for an average dinner and is placing the reservations too close together.

Maybe all of this can be chalked up to the new manager/staff at COCO500, but I hope that they correct the situation quickly. The couple that you saw will undoubtedly never return to the restaurant, and even fans like me will eventually lose their patience. And that, to me, would be the greatest tragedy of all -- a restaurant with excellent food that fades away solely due to poor service.

February 12, 2007 10:23 AM  

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