Restaurant service has taken a hit in the pandemic. Here’s how to turn it around.

Almost from the start, the night went south. Could we please sit at the banquette rather than near a busy service station? Sorry, the host told us, the banquette was for three or more, and we were just two. Some diners got bread. We had none. Some people got champagne. No flutes for us, even though bubbles, as we later learned, were supposed to be part of the fixed-price menu. As we picked at a salad that tasted like something you’d get from an airport grab-and-go, we watched servers clean tables as if they were firefighters hosing down a four-alarm blaze and noted that the forbidden banquette went to a lucky duo. Plates tried to land at random tables: Not yours? Not yours? Back to the kitchen with the cooling food! Timing was an issue, overall. It didn’t help that our original reservation was delayed by the restaurant two hours, never mind that our body clocks were on East Coast time.

You bet I left a note for the general manager of the hotel.

I was civil and specific, prefacing my list of what went wrong with the acknowledgment that the pandemic has long been a challenge for the entire industry, and holidays are never easy. And yes, I left a generous tip, as former waiters and current critics tend to do even if the service sputters.

Then, I tweeted what I had done and asked the hive mind whether I was a Grinch or (my intent) looking out for fellow diners.

Predictably, I struck some as a shin-kicker of the strained workers. “The mentality that making frivolous complaints on Christmas is an act of solidarity with ‘fellow diners’ is anti-vax level stupid,” The Restaurant Manifesto shot back. Yet my tweet also got liked almost 300 times — even by some restaurateurs. The sympathy shown by so many suggests that the frustration flares up far beyond this dining room. “If even 1 in 1000 guests did this we’d all be better,” responded the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in Houston. “A pro doing it? We’d be upset if you didn’t.”

Granted, Christmas might not have been the wisest time to be an unmerry gentleman. I know as well as anyone how devastating the pandemic has been for the industry, and how its workers have been quitting in droves. Since early in the pandemic, I’ve tried to cheer on the industry, suggesting it was not a time to complain about dining mishaps, explaining the many necessary pivots to readers and forgoing star ratings in my reviews. But I also feel compelled to advocate for those I serve first and foremost: diners, near and far. They’ve been there for restaurants throughout the crisis, over-ordering takeout, over-tipping, in some cases snapping up gift certificates they had no intention of cashing in, sending crowdfunding dollars to the uniquely strapped and even mourning the loss of favorite establishments.

Two years into the pandemic, however, some diners’ patience has grown thin as angel-hair. The elephant in the room? Service, or the lack thereof. I base this on what diners from around the country share on my weekly online dining Q&A as well as my own restaurant rounds. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve talked to hosts on the phone who don’t know the address of their own restaurant, a server who failed to ask why heaping helpings of food remained on everyone’s plates (maybe he knew how bad it was?) and an attendant who never checked in after our appetizers arrived but asked, a few bites into our entrees, “Ready for your check?” One restaurant let me book a table online but was closed when my trio showed up at the appointed hour.

None of these incidents is life-threatening. Diners are lucky to still have places cooking for them. At the same time, menus are shorter, prices are higher and a lot of restaurants are adding service fees of 20 percent or higher. The pandemic-era realities have some diners asking: Here’s the money, so where’s the love?

Like the drip, drip, drip of water that eventually breaks a rock, the steady diet of inattention has diners asking what exactly they’re getting these days.

Most restaurants aren’t in the position to spend money recruiting extra hands — if they can find any. But they can do plenty of other things to raise guest satisfaction by a mile.

“Hospitality is free,” says Rose Votta, general manager of the Italian-inspired Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., the most recent recipient of the James Beard award for the nation’s outstanding service. The restaurateur says little acts of kindness might include “getting a chair out for someone, escorting them to the restroom, giving them a tour of the kitchen — although not everyone wants to see the dish pit,” she jokes. A gesture as basic as asking diners if they’d like to be added to a mailing list signals accommodation, too.

“We think the food going down our throats is the product,” says Ryan Giffen, assistant professor of hospitality management at California State University at Long Beach. “It’s actually the whole experience, the memories that are created” from eating away from home. “It’s the non-tangibles we remember,” says Giffen, who is also an organizational development consultant.

Even before the pandemic, Giffen noticed a decrease in managers “touching tables” — checking in with guests after they’re seated — a practice he says restaurants, “whether Denny’s or a Four Seasons steakhouse,” can use as an opportunity to welcome diners and get feedback. After asking a party if they’re enjoying the meal, Giffen suggests managers inquire “if there’s anything we could do make the occasion better,” giving diners a chance to say something.

The No. 1 complaint I get from readers? Restaurant websites that aren’t updated or offer too little basic information. No one wants to see New Year’s Eve packages after the new year or log on to find missing hours of operation or menus without prices. But those quibbles seem quaint at a time when, thanks to the omicron variant, the only way some diners want to experience a restaurant is through takeout or its outdoor seating. Smart restaurants proactively address customer concerns by announcing pandemic protocols and offering clear photos of their outdoor seating. Is the exterior covered and heated? The answers should be visible online. Delegate a restaurant employee to monitor all social media.

Often, “people do their research ahead of time” online, Giffen says. Websites are “a chance to impress, or not.”

Sometimes, though, we just need to talk to a real live person. Already-taxed restaurant workers can’t be expected to be glued to phones at all hours, which is why I propose office hours, time slots during which diners can call and ask questions that might not be addressed online. Even an hour or two — say, one in the morning and one later in the day — would go a long way to winning hearts and minds, which can translate into traffic. To make it easier for the businesses, employees could take turns handling the calls. Some restaurants claim they’re quick to address questions via email. Maybe so. But a live voice is a great way to show diners you care and to distinguish a restaurant from the pack. To not even list a phone number seems the opposite of hospitable. Count me a fan of the human touch.

Early in the pandemic, when all surfaces were suspect, QR codes made everyone feel safer. The system might work for restaurants, but diners young and old have let me know they don’t like it. Frasca Food and Wine introduced QR codes at the start of the pandemic but dropped them a year later, Votta says. Paper menus are part of the tangible experience; no one finds “Happy birthday” or “Happy anniversary” on a QR code, she says. Further, restaurants should be an escape from the past two years. Phones take away from that, she says.

Admittedly, ink and paper can be expensive. Ashok Bajaj, whose 10 Washington restaurants include the posh Annabelle and the popular Bindaas, says he spends about $1,000 a month per establishment on his lists. Cost-conscious restaurateurs might look to Europe’s bistros for an alternative. Tough times call for handwritten chalkboard menus, practical and personal.

Edible tokens of appreciation, some costing little to make because they use food that would otherwise go to waste, go a long way toward generating goodwill among diners. Regulars at the neighborly Tail Up Goat in Washington look forward to whatever appetite-stimulating shrub they’re greeted with once they’re seated (grapefruit-rosemary not long ago), and diners at Campo at Los Poblanos, on an organic farm in Albuquerque, perk up at the sight of an amuse-bouche that hints at delights to come on the regional menu. Earlier this winter, that meant a glorious single bite of grilled squash, apple, lemon curd and pomegranate seeds.

Diners seated on the patio these days at Cadence, an upscale vegan soul food restaurant in New York, receive hand warmers, says head chef Shenarri Freeman. And regulars are wooed back with gratis dishes Freeman might be auditioning for her menu. Picture deep-fried, jerk-seasoned chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms with vegan ranch dressing. Freeman says the fillips are the restaurant’s way to offer “a little extra boost of hospitality.” To minimize her costs, she tends to rely on vendor samples.

Giffen’s advice to restaurants: “Slow down. Think about what the customer wants. Create a culture where criticism can be taken as constructively, not defensively.” That general manager at the hotel in Santa Fe? He called to apologize, told me he went over the restaurant’s issues with his team and extended an invitation to return for dinner, a suggestion I appreciated but declined. Really, I just wanted to pass along feedback, help the establishment and save future diners from mishaps.

It takes a village to make a restaurant work. Giffen is a big believer in “all hands on deck,” whereby all team members are encouraged to help colleagues, regardless of their position. All facets of the restaurant experience should be evaluated: pre-entry (phone or valet service), point of entry (reception at the door) and point of exit (the farewell).

Even in our current state, says Votta of Frasca, “complaints are fair. It’s not like customers are getting half off meals.” When problems arise, her practice is to be candid with diners: “Let’s be in this together.” But please, she wants customers to know, “Angry isn’t helpful.”

Giffen reminds diners to treat staff with the respect diners themselves expect: “The people serving you are human beings.”

Freeman says a complaint is fine “as long as it’s in the interest of improving something.” Cadence, whose chef’s counter looks into the kitchen, makes the process easy. “They can tell it to my face,” she says with a laugh.

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