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Three Things Restaurants Should Get Right

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The Critical Insights Double Agent, a professional restaurant critic, is our spy on the front lines.
By The Critical Insights Double Agent May 2013

We are living in a golden age of dining: People are more food-obsessed than ever and restaurants keep getting better. But there are three things that restaurants can’t (or won’t) stop screwing up.

1. Websites

People come to your website for only a few reasons: To find your hours, phone number, and address; to see your menu; maybe to make a reservation. They do not come to hear smooth jazz or read your “philosophy.” Restaurant websites are the most user-unfriendly websites I can think of, especially in the cell phone age when most devices can’t handle all that fancy design. I can’t tell you how often I can’t find the simplest thing on a restaurant website—hours, for instance. Is it in “About Us”? No, that’s a novel-length bio of the owners. “Contact us”? No, that’s an email form. All the while terrible music blares out at me.

Fix: A simple, non-Flash site with minimal design that offers basic info on the homepage is all you need.

2. Greetings

“Hi, my name is Joe and I’ll be taking care of you this evening. Have you dined with us before?” Sound familiar? Of course it does—it’s the standard welcome in 90 percent of restaurants in America. But, like anything that is formulaic and inauthentic, it isn’t welcoming. It’s lazy and slightly condescending. What is the use of asking: “Have you dined with us before?” The only answer I’ve come up with is that if a customer hasn’t ever been to your establishment then they must be too stupid to understand your incredibly complex concept. Let me guess...small plates? Made for sharing? Dude—it’s 2013, people know how dining out works, and how to read a menu. And if they have a question about it and your server is friendly and available, they’ll ask. No monologues necessary.

Fix: Perhaps, instead of making your servers learn a script, spend more time teaching them about the food and wine so they can engage properly with customers. And also teach them to leave customers alone who obviously don’t want conversation. As for a welcome, a simple: “Hi there, how are you this evening?” is a good place to start.

3. Following trends

Small plates. Mixology. Farm-to-table. These are the pervasive bandwagons everyone feels they must jump on. The problem is many attempt trends before they understand them, or without anyone who can execute them. It’s all well and good to say “local” and “sustainable” on your menu, but unless your chef is truly dedicated to that philosophy, meaning he goes to markets and cultivates relationships with farmers, your guests will smell a rat. And unless you have a talented bartender who trained somewhere legitimate (and no, that waitress who has “a passion for drinking” doesn’t count), you’re wasting your time with craft cocktails.

Fix: It is okay to be who you are as a restaurant. Focus on wine if wine is your thing; leave cocktails to the cocktail nerds. Don’t force your food onto small plates if it doesn’t make sense. Quality is always in style.