Food and service are such personal expressions of hospitality that going out to eat in another country can be a wonderful experience or a terrible one. I learned this first-hand during a recent trip abroad.
After a week of eating through different parts of Italy (I know, poor me) I found myself at Locanda Spinola, a tiny trattoria in Genoa, that a couple of locals recommended. Not knowing what to expect and not sure if I would even be able to get a table, I was greeted at the door of the restaurant by a manager. She looked around the dining room and found a small table for us near the kitchen. After seating us she said “I’ll be back to explain something about the menu,” and I expected her to come back to our table and list the night’s specials. What she did was walk us through the entire menu explaining cooking techniques and highlighting local ingredients because she knew we were not from the area. She did this as the dining room, completely full, was at a loud roar and the kitchen put up plate after plate. Her descriptions weren’t harried like she had something else to do and she paused to make sure that what she was saying was clear to us. This little gesture let us know that we were in good hands and someone cared about our dining experience.
This little word, ‘care’, and all of the feelings associated with it became crystal clear for me while travelling. It’s amazing how removing a common language from a conversation amplifies the nonverbal communication that happens between servers and diners. I began to notice how often people smiled, servers used their hands to draw pasta shapes in the air and when you can’t communicate the full range of descriptors for a dish, the enthusiasm with which a dish is described as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ is easy to pick up on. I had meals in Italy where servers were annoyed at my marginal Italian and sometimes after a few minutes of trying to communicate somewhere between English and Italian, my original server was replaced with someone who spoke a little more English. Out of all of my meals though, the one at Locanda Spinola was the best and not just because of the service; the food was spectacular. Genoa is a coastal city in Liguria and the menu featured some of the best seafood dishes I have ever had. As I ate, I couldn’t help but think about my own experiences serving guests from other countries. How did I make them feel? Did I do enough to make sure that they enjoyed their meal? Did they feel cared for? I realized that having a big impact on a diner can be done through small gestures and small details that impart a sense of care. Making someone from another culture, or even just an out of towner, feel like you want them to have a great meal is not that hard. All it takes is a little bit of time and understanding, no matter how busy you are.
After dinner, I decided to do something that I would do in the US, I bought the kitchen and front of the house crew a round of beer as a thank you for such an amazing meal. To my surprise, they invited us to stay and have a post-service drink with them. Pay little gestures forward and not only will your guests be happy, but so will you.