MAGGIE HENNESS Y IS A CHICAGO-BASED FOOD/DRINK WRITER AND CHEF WI TH A BACKGROUND
IN BUSINESS WRI TING AND MORE THAN EIGH T YEARS’ EXPERIENCE AS A JOURNALIS T AND EDITOR
COVERING THE FOOD/RES TAURAN T INDUS TRIES. VISI T HER WEBSI TE A T W W W. MAGGIEHENNESS Y.COM.
and meringue and feed it to the
guest. So we’ll create this intense
experience in front of them and
force them to have it. Then it’s
over, like that.”
Being a small husband-and-
wife owned and operated concept,
Eden Hill’s strategy is more akin to
adjusting on the fly. Moreover, all
the servers have been there since
the beginning, and are in tune with
Petty’s whims and energy.
“Servers, cooks—we all work
closely together to create this
machine,” Petty says. “We don’t
practice the flow or presentation
a lot because we don’t have time. We practice by doing this
Where Hands-off is Best
Chicago stalwart North Pond takes a much more hands-off
approach to serving its five-course seasonal tasting menu—
primarily ensuring food and wine pairings come out at the right
time and temperature, and that guests are comfortable and relaxed.
This reflects the style of chef/owner Bruce Sherman’s
menus, which express the epitome of Midwestern seasonality.
Straightforward dishes such as the bright spring opener of foie
gras ganache with green asparagus, poached rhubarb, charred
barley and fruit gastrique don’t tend to require tableside theatrics
or personal backstory. Even food allergies are discussed during
pre-shift, so servers come to tables already prepared to answer
whether the kitchen is able to modify the dishes in question.
“We try not to be a part of anyone’s experience more than
they’re hoping for—we’re very hands-off,” says general manager
Natalie Labun. “The kindness of the staff depends on whether all
the guests’ needs are met or exceeded so they can focus on who
they’re with. It’s not about the personality the servers bring.”
This mantra extends to the pace, which typically runs about
two hours, depending on the size of the party. If patrons are
inclined to sit for 30 minutes with their cocktails before diving
into the menu and wine pairings, or if they linger chatting over
the check, the front of the house makes adjustments behind the
scenes rather than subtly hurrying things along at the table level.
North Pond doesn’t guarantee tables in the dining room, and
waits until day of service to plot tables.
“Our reservation book is laid out in a way that’s seldom
backed up,” Labun says. “We try to look forward and say, if
this table doesn’t get up in time, we have to make sure another
table is available. Some tables that have wings can pop up
and seat six or go down and seat four. It’s a lot like [the tile-
matching video game] Tetris.”
You Can’t Teach Genuine
Regardless of the preferred style of a concept, often the most
important piece of the puzzle is hiring the right people. Petty’s
front-of-the-house team comprises playful, instinctual people
who feed off his personality—and thrive in the intimacy of a
small, close-knit restaurant team. “They aren’t afraid to tease the
guest a bit,” Petty says.
North Pond’s approach also reflects the chef’s viewpoint,
though all front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house players
flex their collective muscles to create a subtle yet harmonious
experience centered on the fleetingly seasonal food on the table.
“It’s about ensuring the guest has an incredibly memorable
dining experience and better enjoyment of the main ingredients,
down to the small garnishes and flourishes,” Labun says.
The Musket Room aims only for people who are able to
engage the guest in a meaningful way. “We don’t need to hire
the most experienced or knowledgeable people,” Lambert says.
“You can teach them to memorize a menu or a story. You can’t
teach them to be genuine.”
That comes across in all manner of gestures: thanking guests
when they leave, hailing a cab on a rainy night or handwriting
museum or restaurant recommendations on a scrap of paper.
“There are over 8,000 restaurants in New York,” Lambert
says. “People could choose to go anywhere else, or never dine at
the same place again. Little moments matter.”