| Originally published in Gourmet Live
When John Hartupee found himself eating fast food in the Montreal airport on his way to a weekend dine-around in New York City’s finest restaurants, the irony was not lost on him. From his Blackberry, he tweeted: “Burger King in the airport waiting for my flight to NYC. I’ll consider this my amuse-bouche for Eleven Madison Park!”
The next day, Hartupee glided through the revolving door of Danny Meyer’s palatial restaurant with his girlfriend, leaving the memory of his traveler’s appetizer to evaporate in the Manhattan heat. The maître d’ greeted them, the host swept them off to a crisp, white-clothed table, and a quiet fleet of servers delivered house-filtered mineral water and minimalist square menus.
By the time the real amuse-bouche arrived, they’d been fully transported. They savored a soupçon of sweetbreads, and the table was cleared. Then a second set of small plates arrived, this time concealed under silver domes. The couple sat expectantly as the waiter carefully unveiled their next pristinely constructed bite. But instead of a torchon of foie gras or an heirloom tomato puree, each tiny plate held a single, silver dollar-size lamb burger on a diminutive bun. “We hope these are better than the one you had at the airport,” he said with a wink.
Hartupee was dumbfounded. Had the food police reported his culinary transgression? Were New York chefs omniscient? Reading Hartupee’s expression, the maître d’ approached the table and explained that as part of their daily preparations, the hosts scan social networks for mentions of the restaurant. Hartupee’s tweet presented an opportunity for the staff to personalize his experience, and they took it, figuring that frequent Twitter users aren’t too averse to having strangers know a thing or two about them.
And they were right. Hartupee’s dismay gave way to delight. “This is one of the most quirky yet thoughtful things I have seen a restaurant do,” he wrote afterwards in another online forum. “They took the time to prepare that special item only for us.” But the comments that follow confirm that not everyone relishes the diminished privacy of the digital age. One respondent wrote, “This is the creepiest thing ever.”
So how do modern maîtres d’ balance the potential of using the Internet to elevate diners’ experiences against the risk of unsettling them?
“First and foremost our job is about reading a guest,” says Sandra DiCapua, the 25-year-old head maître d’ at Eleven Madison Park. With guests like Hartupee—young, tech-savvy, and not too self-serious—it works to be completely direct about Googling them before their arrival. Most of the time, however, the information a maître d’ gleans about a diner merely provides her with an unseen toolkit for building rapport. And while not everyone wants to be recognized for the Double Whopper they ate in presumed anonymity at their departure gate, people almost always appreciate being greeted by name when they walk into an unfamiliar place.
At the Four Seasons, putting a name to a face is the real advantage of Google. “We don’t look people up to know what they do or don’t do,” says Julian Niccolini, the restaurant’s legendary maître d’, “We use Google Images to find out what they look like. That way we can identify them when they walk in and impress them even more.” It’s that very first encounter—the immediate, familiar greeting—that sparks the entire experience Niccolini works so hard to craft for his guests.
The Internet didn’t make this possible, but it certainly made it easier. “In the late 70s and 80s, we were constantly reading all the newspapers so we could see exactly who was coming and going, who was who,” he recalls, invoking a romantic see-and-be-seen New York when paper was the dominant medium. “Now newspapers are becoming a bit more…,” he searches for the right word, “difficult.”
In some ways, the longer a maître d’ has been at it, the less he needs a digital cheat sheet. Niccolini’s mind contains a decades-deep catalog of names, faces and personal particulars. He built his repertoire of hospitality magic tricks by holding court in the same dining room, with the same diners, year after year. Still, if a visitor is coming in for a meal from across the country—an esteemed chef, say, or a noted critic—a few clicks through Google Images arm even the greenest host on staff with the power of a strong first impression.
If we’re going to worry about the unintended cultural consequences of the Internet, then, it might be less important to fret over the privacy of the diner than the mental acuity of the maître d’. If it’s no longer necessary to read the daily newspaper in order to identify potential guests, nor critical to remember who prefers their butter salted and who favors Bordeaux over Burgundies, have the demands of the job been foisted onto the synapses of artificial intelligence?
“No,” says Nick Peyton, the maître d’ and owner of Cyrus Restaurant in Sonoma, California. “I’ve been doing this since the 70s, and the basics haven’t changed. Your whole intent is to provide personalized experience—it’s not just great food or great ambience or technically perfect service. There’s a catharsis that happens in that communion over the table. Your job is to add to that.”
So far, computers fall short in the communion department, but Peyton doesn’t reject the notion of the Internet as a performance-enhancing device. Like Niccolini, his head is crowded with a vibrant cast of food-loving characters, assembled through years managing the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, Restaurant Gary Danko, and now Cyrus.
With so much information already stored, Peyton’s use for digital tools revolves more around memory than research (though in the twenty-five minutes that elapsed between my initial email to him and our phone conversation, he managed to review all the links in my signature, glance at my headshot, and arm himself with facts about my background).
At Cyrus, as at so many restaurants nationwide, the collective memory of maîtres d’ is now stored in the elephantine database that is OpenTable.com.
“The minute somebody says, ‘We like sitting across from each other,’ or ‘I’m lactose intolerant,’ you’ve got that forever and ever. You’re not relying on something fallible like your brain,” Peyton explains, adding with a laugh, “It’s sort of magic, too. People say, ‘You’ve got an incredible memory!’, and you say, ‘Why, yes, we do!’”
Psychic powers aside, OpenTable has provided restaurants with a valuable logistical upgrade, consolidating what were once physical guest history files and reservation books into a single, readily accessible location. But if all of this seems like an irreproachable convenience—a system that organizes and updates your clientele for you, eliminating occupational hazards like illegible penmanship and carpal tunnel syndrome—you underestimate the swiftness of backlash.
At Animal in Los Angeles, a two-year-old restaurant run by an artisanally-inclined young team, hosting is an intentionally low-tech affair—no OpenTable, no computerized profiles. “We do everything by hand,” says General Manager Helen Johannesen. “It’s not as important to me who’s coming in as the experience they’re having. Dinner is dinner. It’s a private experience in a public place.”
Johannesen’s outlook seems to spring not just from a distaste for Internet-dependent hospitality, but also from working in a town where an unusually high percentage of faces can be recognized without the aid of Google Images. Before taking her post at Animal, she worked at Tom Colicchio’s Craft, where Googling the day’s customers was the norm. “Being in Century City drew lots of big-name, industry people, so we’d always look them up, sometimes just out of curiosity.” The ability to preview the evening’s lineup in great detail played into a culture of celebrity favoritism, which Johannesen is allergic to now that she runs her own ship.
With so many personal lives already on display in LA, she and her team take the opposite tack—at least when it comes to entertainment-industry customers. “There are some restaurants where knowing everything about everyone to an overarching degree translates as some kind of power,” she reflects. “We prefer to forge relationships with people while they’re here, because they’re here.”
Her favorite connections with guests are spontaneous and organic, grown from the conversations that take place tableside. Figures from the food world, on the other hand, get her excited enough to Google. “If there’s a chef coming in that I know by name but I’m not entirely sure what they look like, I’ll look up their picture.”
Despite Johannesen’s predilection for low-profile operations, Animal has received significant press, and the butcher-chef-founders Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo don’t spurn the attention. But most of the action is still contained within the restaurant’s walls. You won’t find menu updates on Twitter or party photos on Facebook (at least not on an official Animal page), and you won’t even find the restaurant if you don’t know exactly where to look—there’s no sign outside the entrance.
And that, of course, is another variation on the subtle suspension of reality that makes dining out add up to more than just a good meal. At Animal, that might mean getting lost in a lesson on pig butchery; at the Four Seasons, it might begin when Julian Niccolini seems to know you by name; at Eleven Madison Park, you might be pleasantly disoriented by Miss DiCapua’s detailed knowledge of your last great meal—but only if she knows her trick will charm you. Even the digital native acknowledges that it’s possible to learn too much. “It’s all about knowing just enough about a person to make them feel at home,” she says, adding that her favorite conversation-starter predates the Internet. “It’s amazing how many people you can connect with just by knowing their area code.”