Creating the Ritual: A Restaurateur’s Guide to Providing the Warm Blanket of Service by Nicole Valentin
I recently took a trip to Milan with the intention of dropping by one of my favorite liquor companies’ distilleries. I had participated in a tasting in Tampa, where I live, a couple of weeks before my scheduled trip at the bar where I work. The outside sales director had graciously offered me the opportunity of swinging by when I was in Italy. How could I refuse the invitation! That evening, after the distillery tour, he escorted my friends and I to a night on the town to visit their top accounts and see what the Milan craft cocktail bartenders were fixing up.
A few highlights from the evening: Gourmet French pizza of pressed veal and tuna sauce paired with balsamic vinegar aged Hanky Panky cocktails; Smoking gun Vieux Carres with elegant garnishes of shaved orange zest frozen in ice cubes with a maraschino cherry sitting on top; A two part cocktail of date syrup and Genever, served to you on your very own silver tray accompanied by dried apricots and figs for gnosching as you sip between fresh pressed mint water and your beverage.
The whole experience felt delicate and ceremonial. I appreciated every detail as it was presented to me, like the unfolding of a great play with a surprise ending.
At the end of dinner, I ordered an espresso. Served with it, tucked under my spoon, was an intricately painted card from the coffee company and their story written on the back. It was small, but valuable somehow to me at the moment; a tiny, tangible present to commemorate the memories that were being made that evening. I thought, “If the owners care enough about the coffee, imagine how much care they put into the food.”
While dining, my Italian tour guide, scoffed at American’s use of the inappropriate utensils when eating pasta. “Why, why must you American’s insist on using a spoon when eating your spaghetti,” he exclaimed, as he demonstrated the ‘proper’ Italian technique of using a fork, grabbing a small portion of noodles, and curving it towards the outer rim of the bowl, then slowly turning his fork with the pasta until he had a delicate, perfect bite to ingest.
“You certainly have a bit of a ceremony in place.” I said.
“It’s all about the ritual,” he exclaimed. “Give people a ritual, an experience they can only have between your establishment and the guest, and they will continue to come back again and again.”
Why do we humans love our traditions so much? When I tend bar, I only serve olives and cherries in groups of one or three, never two. I like my bourbon with one cube. But do I like it because it really is better that way or because someone once told me the traditional way to drink bourbon is with a cube? We have salad forks and dinner forks, and sauce spoons, and teaspoons. Isn’t one fork or spoon sufficient enough? When I think about some of my favorite dining experiences, it’s not always the food I recall first, but the way the evening was presented to me, and the wonderful conversations that were had over the table throughout the presentation.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota found in a psychological study that traditional dining rituals such as breaking the chicken bone at Thanksgiving, ceremonially carving the meat, praying at a meal, tapping your wine glass for a toast, and lighting candles at dinner tables, not only enhance the meal experience, but actually make the food taste better. Margaret Visser’s book, “The Rituals of Dinner,” expands on this topic, making the point that rituals at dinnertime heighten our experience and connect us to the past.
Our traditions, our special routines, act as warm blankets which provide a sense of comfort to our individual selves that must operate in a public setting with proper etiquette. We learn that you should usually drink white wine with seafood, and red with steak. We know the difference between a cocktail hour and black tie affair. Well, most of us anyway. We cheer when we pop the cork off of champagne. We designate a taster when ordering a bottle of wine. We learn what rituals must take place in order to function successfully in society. We are looking for that place that can provide the blanket we need to feel comforted in public. And rituals are the prisms in which it’s comforting to live within.
It seems the most successful restaurant or bar owners have the ability to internalize this human need and apply it to their business. They understand that in order to keep a patron continually returning, they must provide an experience that is unique to their establishment. Every attention to detail, from the font on the menus and design, to the lighting dimming at dusk, to the meticulous musical selection, creates a unique experience that the guest will continually want to have over and over again. And the best places to dine at have their own origin story to tell, and make sure that their patron’s know what makes them different. If you treat each moment of the dining experience in a ceremonially way, your guests will not only appreciate the thoughtful care, but will automatically hold others to your standards. And once they realize that the standards aren’t as high somewhere else, they’re sure to revisit again and again, creating a stronger bond with each experience.
Even now, I’m still thinking about that espresso I had 6,000 miles away.