Two thousand five might well be dubbed The Year of Bad Service. From fine dining to fast food, I encountered servers with attitude ranging from obnoxious to indifferent and novice servers who had no idea about the menu and were unable to answer even the simplest of questions.
I’d like to blame the restaurant owners and dining room managers for employing such people and not training them correctly, but the fact is, sometimes a bad server appears better than none at all. Call centres, with physically easier working conditions and higher base wages, have replaced the service industry as the entry-level job market, and this has created a labour shortage and drained the pool of talent to the point where restaurateurs are putting up with mediocre servers.
And I’m not slagging all servers, because there are those out there who take pride in their jobs, who enjoy doing what they do, and do it very well. My pick for outstanding server this year is Avery at the Five Fishermen—ask to be seated in his section and prepare to be spoiled. Gracious, accommodating, knowledgeable and pleasant, Avery is the quintessential server, the one who can elevate a lovely dining experience into a fantastic night out.
The job of finding great service is getting a little harder as SuperCitizens become not only more food-wise, but more wine-savvy. As high-end wine bars like Seven continue to thrive, our grape expectations rise. Leading the charge to educate oenophiles is the newly created Halifax Food and Wine Club, the first in the city. Meeting for monthly themed dinners, this group, led by Valley Wine Tour sommeliers Sean Buckland and Mark DeWolf, is a great way to spend an evening, whether you’re a seasoned wine taster or a beginner. And this time last year, Metro’s first BYOBottle restaurant opened—Milano’s has been going strong ever since, proving that we were ready and waiting for just such a restaurant.
Other new restaurants did not fare as well. The amazing Metro, our first tapas restaurant, closed, much to my dismay. Addis Ababa lost the Ethiopian food fight to the Ethiopia, and le Chambre Rouge opened and closed faster than you could pick up a fork. Antonio’s, an excellent Lebanese eatery, suffered the fate of many before who have tried to make it in that restaurant black hole next to the Bluenose II. And another conspicuous consumer of restaurants, the corner of Spring Garden and South Park, saw the demise of La Cave, which unwisely abandoned its longtime Blowers Street home to move uptown. Interestingly, the Cavern Bistro, which moved into La Cave’s old digs and was very good, also closed—the underground hotspot is now home to Syn.
La Cave wasn’t the only legend lost in 2005—the much-loved Hogie’s became the nondescript Quincy’s on Quinpool, and the Birmingham Bar and Grill closed its doors after more than 15 years. Not nearly as sad was the closure of the dreadful Lobster Ranch—rumour has it that it may reopen this summer, but I can only hope not. Lesser luminaries such as Corso and Dartmouth’s Shakespeare’s and Monet Bleu closed and reopened, respectively, as Chateau Briand, Georgio’s Italiano Cafe and the Celtic Corner, proving that opening a new restaurant is indeed one of the riskiest ventures around.
With so few shining stars and real success stories, 2005 was not a stellar year for the restaurant business. Here’s hoping 2006 brings better tidings.
Look for Liz Feltham at www.foodcritic.ca.