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Contents At A Glance

R&I ? Editorial Archives ? 2001 ? May 1 ? Food

Masters of Ceremony
Tableside service ushers in showmanship and profits.

Tableside cooking turns customers into a rapt audience and headwaiters or captains into masters of ceremony. It's pure show biz that has style and marketability. The arts of deboning, flaming, tossing, reducing, spooning and igniting echo a gracious style of dining synonymous with sparkling chandeliers and hotel dining rooms with more staff than chairs.

Consumers' desire for more personal service at any price is reviving the art of tableside preparation. Sauces are lighter and choices extend to appetizers. At Adobo Grill, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Chicago, six servers prepare guacamole from as many carts at tableside. The restaurant averages 500 orders per week. The ripple effect is a bonus. "When one table orders it, three more do, too,'' says Paul LoDuca, Adobo Grill's owner.

The overall appeal is freshness and personal service, but underlying both are operational challenges. Tableside demands skill and training. Pity the captain whose unwieldy flame turns Zabaglione into Marsala-flavored scrambled eggs. Or the waiter whose shirt cuff and wrist, licked by a flame, required more than a costume change. A nightmare of grabbing sugar instead of salt or of frightening an elderly guest with a leaping flame are concerns that go with the territory. Tableside also demands space, kitchen support and time.

"We add about 30 to 45 minutes to each table that orders something tableside,'' says Adam Seger, director of restaurants at Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville, Ky. But these diners who want the attention, the entertainment and pampering are also in the mood to stay longer, order more courses and beverages, and pay for it. At Seelbach, tableside items are priced about 15% higher than others.

Single diners are not turned off or away by the "for two" tag in the menu description. Caesar salad for two at $18 is also made for one at $11. "What it costs me in romaine, croutons, egg and dressing is not a bad food cost,'' adds Seger.


When LoDuca opened Adobo Grill a year ago, the chef-operator weighed the value of doing a tableside item. Guacamole was ideal. The preparation was easy; the production, clean, odorless and tidy. Any staffer could manage with some training. But it took three months to get it down right. "It was more work than I thought,'' he says. Two carts on a tri-level restaurant were too inefficient and cumbersome.

He ordered four more trolleys ($500 each) and outfitted each with eight stone molcajetes y tejoletes (mortar and pestle sets). He advertised for the guacamole-server position and hired folks with good people skills and personalities. Each cart is stocked with mise en place to produce three orders of guacamole at one time. An order at $6.95 takes about five minutes. The attraction of custom blending to suit mild or spicy tastes was a hit.

"Customers love seeing the immediacy of food being made and fresh ingredients. It's a novelty.'' LoDuca makes about $1 profit per order, unless the cost of avocados soars and devours the profit. An upshot of its success is guacamole kits. "So many customers wanted to buy the bowls, we decided to make a gift kit for the holidays.'' He averages four sales per week at $25 per kit, which includes recipe, container and spoon.


The leisurely style of tableside service lures diners to shipboard dining and remains a signature for many reasons. "We have 25% more space than shoreside restaurants and two waiters plus one runner for every 15 guests,'' explains Toni Neumeister, director of culinary operations for Crystal Cruises in Los Angeles. "The majority of headwaiters and dining room captains have at least 15 years experience. They learned it at culinary schools and hotels in Europe where tableside skills are mandatory.''

Shipboard dining is not rushed, about 21/2 hours per table. Items more suitable are desserts, Caesar salad, pastas and a few classic preparations such as pepper steak and steak Diane. Sauces for pasta are made in the kitchen, then customized at tableside. Sauces for desserts and sautéing fruits are relatively clean and splatter-free.

Neumeister says chefs control the quality of sauces in the kitchen while servers can tailor seasonings and flavorings to taste. Guests enjoy the interaction with staff and the pleasure of being served a dish suited to their preferences. He challenges the notion of tableside cuisine being rich and heavy. "We update the classic dishes with less butter and sugar. Cream finishes the sauce instead of being reduced for it.''

Neumeister advises any operator interested in doing tableside service to consider it a team effort. It needs talent, training and a supportive kitchen to assist the dining room. "Otherwise, it's a burden.''


An order for a tableside entrée or dessert is an opportunity to market service and upsell quality, according to Isos Stamelos-Monroe, Cité dining room manager. The 170-seat restaurant atop a residential building on Chicago's lakeshore has an average dinner check of $75. The menu offers six to eight tableside items. Tableside desserts comprise 50% of the dessert menu. Flaming drinks tag along with cognacs and brandies on a special list.

"The customers who order tableside service come for special occasions. No one is rushed and they're not averse to lingering over cognac, dessert wines and cordials, says Stamelos-Monroe. In fact, captains and servers will suggest a dessert wine with Bananas Foster and cherries jubilee, or a rare cognac or cordial.

Tableside dessert for two runs $15 whereas a traditional one is priced at $8. Experienced waiters are able to read the group and know when to suggest a special wine or after-dinner drink. "When guests see the cart of 15 cordials or a rare cognac for $125, they indulge. It's the spirit of the evening,'' he adds. Though tableside discourages turning tables, customers who desire it are welcome to stay as long as they wish.

Mark Baker appreciates the skill that tableside service requires. And the sense of service is exudes. But the executive chef of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago questions how it fits into the dining trends of today. "It was in vogue 20 years ago. But chefs today want more control over the taste and seasoning of the final product. And customers want more grilled foods and less sauced entrées,'' says Baker.

What is "in" at his dining outlets is pouring broth over a fish entrée, serving foods from a casserole or tureen, and deboning a fish. "Tableside service gives the perception of comfort and personal touch,'' he says. But the shortage of skilled labor is a challenge. "Since there isn't much need for tableside skills, few servers want to learn it. I'd be hard pressed to find someone to filet a Dover sole at the table without destroying it."


At the Sardine Rouge in Austin, Texas, tableside appeals to the taste of the typical customer. "He's Texan, usually an oilmen or dot-com millionaire. They order 16-ounce pepper-crusted steak flamed in cognac with french fries, creamed spinach and Bananas Foster, according to Jimmy [cq] Shuemake, executive chef. The average check is $60; the typical order is beef.

"We're not a trendsetter restaurant. We appeal to the average Texas Bubba, the guy who is worth millions but wants steak and potatoes, clean and simple,'' Shuemake says. Every menu change includes three to four tableside preparations. All are profitable, he insists. Every server undergoes two weeks of training in tableside preparations such as Dover sole amandine and Châteaubriand, desserts and flaming after-dinner drinks, including the heating of glass rims and cognac snifters. The effort pays off. "Customers like the personal attention and showmanship. The nuances make dining more special.''

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