Rules of the Trade: Professionals Weigh in on Front of the House Etiquette

by Emily Bell
February 2010

To update out the terms of etiquette for a modern age, we’re developing a series on etiquette with industry professionals who’ve helped set (and challenge) the standards of etiquette for the next generation. Here we follow up our first installment with a foray into the good and bad practices in the front of the house.

It may seem like a concept better suited to the genteel South than to the complex dynamics of the working restaurant, but etiquette is the secret fuel of the restaurant industry. From Danny Meyer’s hospitality-happy restaurant empire to the structured kitchen practices of chefs like Thomas Keller, shining examples of the success of etiquette abound, beacons of best practices for other restaurants to follow, incorporate, or amend as they see fit. But where does etiquette belong in a restaurant? Most restaurant etiquette guides speak exclusively to the diner, advising on topics like dress codes, corking fees, and tipping policies. Guidelines like these are surely useful, as any beleaguered, under-tipped waiter can testify, but they relegate the concept of etiquette to a kind of consumer-oriented manners guide. Real etiquette extends beyond the diner, and even beyond the conduct of the front of the house, to the essential culture of the restaurant itself.

Front of the House

The front of the house is a mixed population, with highly trained maître’d’s rubbing shoulders with aspiring actresses, lifelong servers, and career changers in search of a taste of the restaurant industry. Unlike the back of the house, filled during service by people with similar professional interests, the front of the house is a motley crew, temporarily unified by a restaurant concept. So it’s important that the concept be clear to unite the disparate personalities of the front of house under one banner, whether it’s determined by a chef-owner or a restaurant’s legacy. Philip Tessier of Bouchon Bistro in Yountville has a philosophy of etiquette that justifiably pervades the whole restaurant. “Etiquette is about a respect for your environment, other people, and the products,” he explains, whether in the front or back of the house.

Chef Philip Tessier

Obey the Kitchen

At Eleven Madison Park the team mentality pervades. “There is no line that divides us,” says Chef Daniel Humm of the front and back of house (or kitchen and dining room, as they call them). “We all make up a part of Eleven Madison Park and we are all equally as important as the next.” But some restaurants have a functional dichotomy. At The Oak Room the front of house functions as a subsidiary of the kitchen. “We get along,” says Chef Eric Hara, “because they know that the back of the house is the boss.” Especially in a fine dining setting, where diners are paying top dollar for expertly prepared cuisine, a strict hierarchy between kitchen and front of house can keep the orders, with or without modification, coming out smoothly. As in most elements of the restaurant business, the power structure is a variable but pivotal ingredient to success. “Each establishment fosters its own style,” says Chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern. “This industry shares a fascinating customary code of behavior.”

Chef Michael Anthony

Sincerity, Not Formality

Some upper-tier restaurants might exude what Graham Elliot Bowles calls a “front-of-the-house stuffiness,” a phenomenon he strains to avoid at his intentionally low-key eponymous restaurant. But what really constitutes etiquette from the front of the house is sincerity, not formality or sophistication. “It is a sad mistake to confuse discipline and respect with arrogance,” says Chef Tessier. “Etiquette exists anywhere in any profession where there is a need for professionalism, respect and integrity.”

At Flour and Myers + Chang, Joanne Chang built two distinct businesses with a similar emphasis on hospitality. Her secret? Reciprocity. “If you treat your staff right, they will treat your customers right,” Chang told us in a recent interview. Although her restaurants are conceptually different, “from a hospitality standpoint they’re identical: we want people to feel welcomed and comfortable.” Nor is Chang just being polite; she knows that a happy customer, one who feels attended to, is a repeat customer. “We want to make sure that experience is worth it for them,” Chang told us, because at the end of the day, “customers have a choice where to come.”

Chef Graham Elliot Bowles

Don’t Squash the FOH Personality

At Alinea, by direct order of Chef Grant Achatz, the four-star cuisine is delivered not by a suit-and-tie clad server, but by a bona fide, unrestrained personality. “These guys live and breathe what we do and part of that is that we let their personalities shine through, which a lot of restaurants don’t,” says Achatz. “If you come here, you’re going to see a skinny white guy with a giant afro,” Achatz says, despite the fact that “most four-star restaurants would say ‘you need to trim that hair or you can’t have any tattoos or piercings showing.”

The same attitude is applied to teaching servers dish descriptions. “When I give them direction on new dishes I don’t present to them the new dishes saying ‘this is how I want them described,’” Achatz explains. “I introduce the dish and we have a conversation about the important aspects both from a culinary perspective and guest experience perspective, and we let them create their own description.” Achatz isn’t just being a nice guy, although he’s that, too. He actually believes in the value of open, natural dialogue. “It feels genuine and warm,” he says. “[Servers] can show off their personality, and it doesn’t feel like a script.”

Chef Grant Achatz

Patience with Pacing

Balancing business and hospitality (allowing for the most sincere attention to comfort without falling behind intake potential) is a longstanding challenge in the restaurant business. Making money means turning tables, which can sometimes translate into rushing diners out the door. Among the least comfortable experiences at a restaurant is enjoying the last lingering minutes of the meal only to be interrupted by the harried busboy grabbing unfinished plates or a pushy waiter forcing dessert options on an unsettled stomach.

Not only is it plainly rude to force the pacing of a diner’s meal, but it betrays harshly economic motivations of the restaurant, i.e. “You need to leave so we can seat more customers and make more money.” Just as a kitchen only runs well when chefs respect one another’s time, the front of the house will only succeed if they respect the diner’s time. This means above all a continuity of respect throughout the restaurant. “Our standards and philosophies are a common thread throughout the whole restaurant,” says Rory Herrmann of Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills. “Our expectations of each other are very high, as well as our respect for each other.” Any restaurant looking for repeat visits has to extend this courtesy to the diner.

Chef as Diner

“If I need to talk to a manager, you better believe something horrible happened,” says Chef Brian Roche of La Verdad in Boston, Massachusetts. “Working in the industry, I understand things happen and I have already [used] the excuse they will tell me.” Like Roche, chefs dining out tend to have reasonable expectations of the front of house and kitchen, based as much on their own experience in the kitchen as on how the restaurant presents itself. As a result, most chefs will be fairly easy-going as customers. As a diner, Chef Hara looks for “detailed and attentive service,” and a server who is “comfortable towards the guest and engaging—but not too much.”

“The only thing that I do to show that I am not happy with services is the tip,” says Chef Roche. “When a server only gets 15% from me, they did a very bad job.” For the chef dining out, remember what it’s like in the back of the house before taking your anger out on the front of the house. It’s not a bad idea to give the restaurant staff feedback based on your own professional trials and travails.