For better or worse, the restaurant business has become an industry of cool, and fine-dining has never had a young, hip air about it. Fine dining’s very desirability is based upon its inaccessibility, made accessible by a staff who’ll fuss over you. Cheeky over-accessibility, however, is the fuel on which our trendiest and most patronized restaurants now run. Chalkboards are favored over leather-bound menus. Plaid flannel has replaced the starched collar, and you’ll more likely find the chef de cuisine sporting a beanie than a white toque. Emphasis is placed on über-localness, not refinement. Typically guests are treated with a kindly, casual air, but they aren’t fussed over or doted upon. Still, in the twilight remain a few stalwart fine-dining establishments, each a place apart from the loud thrum of the rest of the world. Likewise there remains a group of gifted restaurant hosts as intoxicating in their trade as snake charmers — not all of them in white linen fine-dining establishments, but each of them small treasures.
Mickey Bakst stands at the server’s station of the polished wooden bar at the Thoroughbred Club in Charleston Place. He dips a straw into a concoction that’s under development as a new signature mocktail. “A little less cranberry,” he tells the bartender, “and more bitters.” She nods and begins to build a new drink. When she hands him the updated formula, Bakst sips, nods, sighs deeply, and tells her she’s done it perfectly. She nods and smiles, her face registering pride at her ability to please him. After all, Bakst is an important guy.
His official title is General Manager of the Charleston Grill, but Bakst wears many hats — he also acts as a maître d, gastronome, restaurateur, philanthropist, and ambassador of goodwill. The entire time he’s been tasting the trial mocktail, his eyes have been scanning the room, though he makes eye contact with the bartender everytime he speaks to her. Every once in a while his arm shoots up in a friendly wave at a guest, or he nods and smiles at a familiar face. It’s an art, paying such significant attention to one person that they hardly notice you’re also paying the same amount of attention to every human being in the room. But he can make you feel that way, like you’re the only person that matters to him at that moment. A 45-year veteran of the industry, Bakst is one of the last vestiges in the old guard of guys who know how to work a room. He’s a master of small talk.
“It’s not a learned skill,” he says. “It’s a god-given gift. It just flows. You have to be able to adlib jokes, shoot quick retorts, defy expectations. Most of all, you have to listen to what the other person is saying — and maybe what they’re not saying.” Bakst is also fluent in body language. He’s a decoder of guest behavior — a smile and beatific look to the heavens as a first bite is taken, a shoulder shrugged in apathy, an eyebrow raised in confusion — and he’s there to respond in whatever way he thinks appropriate. Bakst watches the staff, too. The furrowed brow of a harried server or the downturned face of a hassled hostess signals to him that he is needed and must help in any way he can.
“My job is to care about every person who walks through the doors,” Bakst says. “It’s actually really simple — I just have to make everyone feel special. I’m essentially doing a great dance with my guests, one that touches every single person.”
When he asks how a meal was and the response is “fine,” Bakst gets really pissed. He wants every meal at Charleston Grill to be an unforgettable experience. It should feel, he says, like you’ve just been pampered by the world’s finest masseuse. It’s a goal that would be virtually impossible without constant communication and feedback from staff and diners alike. For the guest, Bakst is a human cache where deposits of enthusiasm and criticism are equally welcome. Both will draw a response — if a customer exclaims over the foie gras, for example, Bakst will make a mental note of it and remember it for the next time they return. If he or she frowns at the shrimp and grits, Bakst deftly registers the complaint and is quick to return with another dish that will please. For the staff, he acts as a patroller ant for the colony. He’s on a reconnaissance mission to gather information he can bring back to the kitchen or bar to further fine-tune every bite and sip.
And because he has an open face and a ready smile, people just tend to offload on him. When snow hit Charleston earlier this month, it shut the city down and trapped both guests and staff at the hotel. Though the restaurant couldn’t offer regular service, they did create a buffet for guests. Inwardly, Bakst was grumpy — he’d have much rather been at his own home, sleeping next to his wife. Outwardly, though, he was in performance mode, a grin plastered on his face. He describes one elderly woman who came in and balked at the $60 price tag. He tried to explain away the cost by pointing out the lobster, filet, and other high-end buffet offerings. She looked at him and said, “Well, I guess you have me by the balls.” He replied, “No, if I had you by the balls, we’d be married.” Then the woman laughed, hugged him, and returned for three buffet services after the first one. Such is the power of a little well-executed small talk.
The Smooth Operator
Over at Little Jack’s Tavern, Pasquale Conway trades in the same art. He’s impeccably dressed, silver-haired, Bronx-tongued. He is a Rat Pack reincarnate, a perfect figurehead for the posh the restaurant wants to evoke, and he’s parked in front of the establishment nightly to welcome guests. Conway formerly worked at Closed for Business, but co-owners Tim Mink and Brooks Reitz liked his swagger so much, they decided he was more aptly suited for this other, swankier hangout.
Like Bakst, Conway is a jack of many trades — he’s a schmoozer, a bouncer, a host, and, whenever needed, a busboy and food runner. He lights cigarettes and escorts guests down the street to their cars so they aren’t plowed over by cars speeding down Upper King. When asked, he titles himself “Facilitator.” A lot of people, including some of his co-workers, call him Mr. Wonderful.
Conway’s Yankee-ness makes him an eccentricity in a town devoted to Southern pride. He grew up in New York and later married into a mob family, and his backstory is equal parts truth and legend. “People always compare me to the lead guy in that movie Goodfellas,” he says, laughing, “which is funny because I actually know Henry, the guy the whole movie is based on. I have all these pictures of us together.”
People respond in kind to his cordial welcome as they walk through the door. And like other small talk greats, Conway has this way about him that makes people want to confide.
There’s method behind his chatter, though. Like his mob boss counterpart, Conway wants to keep things in the family. “I find out if they’re from out of town or if they’re local,” he says, “so I can figure out where else to recommend they go. I always want to steer them to one of our other restaurants if I can. If they’re from around here and they want to grab a beer after dinner, I send them to Closed for Business.
They want oysters, I tell them Leon’s. And if they aren’t from around here or want something different, that’s fine too — I’ll give them a heads up on places I think they’ll enjoy. It’s just about listening.”
Conway’s bouncer skills usually aren’t called on at Little Jack’s — it’s not really that kind of crowd — but when they are, he takes an un-bouncerlike approach. “I just talk to ’em, and I empathize as much as I can,” he says. “When people feel like you’re actually listening to them, that’s usually all it takes to deescalate a situation. They see me as a friend rather than an employee.”
But an employee he is, and his ability to distract guests keeps them engaged while they wait for drinks and tables. Plus, the information he mines from them is important. He finds out if they’re in for a special occasion or what part of the country they’re from. Feedback on food, drinks, wait times, environment — Conway’s a sounding board for it all, and he takes all that response back to management.
The Puzzle Solver
At Le Farfalle, General Manager Kate Capasso is laying out the puzzle pieces that make the restaurant cohere, mentally snapping them together. During floor service, she pops up everywhere — the door, the kitchen, the bar, table after table. Each plays a part in this opus, and Capasso has a habit of breaking things into their smaller parts to better appreciate the whole.
“I was taught that when you look at a table, you start from the center of the table out,” she says. “So that goes from the candle, to the water glass, to the plate, to the guest, to to the wine glass, and so forth. And that’s kind of how I see the dining room, too. All of the parts fit together, and they’re all essential.”
The door, Capasso says, is perhaps the largest piece of the puzzle. It’s her opportunity to welcome in a returning regular, her last chance to wish someone a happy birthday or to thank departing guests who didn’t seem up to engaging while they were dining. Formerly a longtime server, Capasso has learned when and how to talk with guests. As she walks the tables, she often uses specifics to break the ice.
“I might notice a particular dish they’re eating and say ‘I like how the clams come in the shell and when you bring them out they come together with the white wine and the scialatielli,'” Capasso says. “It’s like a signal letting them know that I’m familiar with the dish and that I want them to like it as much as I do.”
Capasso maintains that sometimes the greatest relationships with guests start from an issue with which they were unhappy. That opens the door to specifics about what the customer likes and dislikes, which creates a trust that is fortified when she and her co-workers can exceed expectations. She remembers her days running a troubled breakfast and lunch restaurant. “There was a woman that came in all the time with her husband, and one day she sent her food back and told me she’d found a hair in it,” she says. “She went on to tell me how every time she came in, there was always an issue — the food was too cold or the order was wrong — and the only reason she kept coming in was because her husband liked it so much.” From that moment forward, Capasso made sure that every time that woman came in, her experience was a good one. The two bonded, a real friendship developed, and the happy patron later sent Capasso a letter thanking her for going above and beyond.
“All this time has gone by, and I still have that letter,” she says. “When you get a win like that, it’s something you hold on to, no matter where life takes you next.”
The Room Reader
Down the street at O-Ku, managing partner Kimball Brienza is doing laps around the restaurant. He’s never still for long — in fact, he’s often doing laps around the Southeast, bouncing between O-Ku’s Charleston, Atlanta, and Charlotte locations. Whichever location he finds himself in, though, he’s hyper-focused on the staff and guests in front of him.
Brienza’s only had one job that wasn’t in a restaurant, and he hated it. “I fell asleep in the stockroom of the Gap,” he recalls with disdain. “Restaurants are where I feel at home.” Brienza thinks of each diner as a guest in his home. As he walks around, he talks to each table that seems ready for an approach. But instead of asking everyone the exhaustively overused managerial question “How was everything, folks?” (which tends to garner an equally unimaginative response), Brienza tailors his speech to fit the person, the mood, and the experience. Often he only speaks at the end of the meal to express his genuine thanks to patrons for coming in. Sometimes he may even send a follow-up text message or a picture of something they really liked. Many times, customers remember him due to those extra measures. And he remembers them.
“There’s a tendency in management to get caught up in who’s a VIP and what are we going to send them and so on, but a lot of times people just want to be recognized,” Brienza says. “And there’s really no such thing as a VIP, because it demeans the value of other guests who are equally important.”
He’s not always front and center. “It’s all about reading them,” Brienza says. “Sometimes it’s really obvious that people don’t want to be bothered. Sometimes they may want to talk for a while. But I try to at some point touch the table twice.” That means he oftens runs food or clears a table. That interaction doesn’t necessarily mean that Brienza’s checking on them or speaking to them, but it makes it clear that he is present. “Every restaurant I go to eat, I look for that person — the one who’s the conductor of everything. And when I find them, which isn’t always, I’m delighted,” he says. “I feel taken care of. And that’s what I want my guests to feel, too.”
Being so present is important to Brienza because he also acts as the last line of defense in the chain of service. While it’s typically a server’s responsibility to ensure a table has water or a drink order, for instance, Brienza’s hawkeye means that if a snafu occurs and a step is missed, it can be corrected before the guest notices a disruption. Brienza’s helicoptering is something his staff is used to — he tries not to micromanage, only to assist. Like Bakst, Capasso, and Conway, he believes a happy staff is the key to happy guests.
Like all things, restaurant trends operate on a pendulum swing, where new becomes old only to become new again. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back soon, and the goal of the ultra-pampered guest will become optimal. If that happens, talking to the customer, actually conversing, may resurge too. The OGs of small talk are eager to see that happen.
“I long for the days when fine dining comes back and for every person to have the opportunity to be treated in a restaurant as if they were a king or a queen,” says Bakst. And then he catches the eye of a familiar guest across the room, smiles, and heads off to treat them like royalty.