‘Good evening,” the maître d’ would say, “and welcome.”
He’d usher you into the dining room, where the clink of cutlery and crystal glasses added a light percussion to an otherwise whispery soundtrack. A table covered in a heavy white cloth awaited. A server with a towel draped over his arm delivered a leather-bound menu — from the left, mind you, always the left — with flourish and a slight bow.
Sound more like a scene from a movie than a night out?
With fast-casual restaurants arriving in the Twin Cities area by the dozen, how we dine out is being transformed. Tablecloths are being whisked off, the hush is rising to a dull roar, and tableside servers are being replaced with counters and sometimes even computers.
And while more people are going to restaurants more often, service is increasingly being seen as a luxury rather than a necessity.
“With the fine dining mentality going away, some of those hospitality basics get forgotten, too,” said Sameh Wadi.
He should know. Wadi owns World Street Kitchen, a fast-casual global restaurant in south Minneapolis, and the new Grand Catch, a full-service restaurant in St. Paul. He closed Saffron, his fine dining establishment in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, in 2016.
Still, he’s not mourning the loss of white tablecloth service.
“I look at it as something that evolves,” he said. “We can’t get stuck in our old ways and say, ‘This is what we used to do.’ There has to be a balance.”
Of course, fine dining — or the modern version of it — still exists.
At Manny’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis, servers still don starched shirts and black ties. At Wayzata’s Bellecour, a sommelier guides guests through the wine list. But such establishments have become the exception rather than the rule.
At more restaurants across the metro area, speed is taking precedence over service.
“We just want things so much faster,” said Craig Maus, a professor in St. Paul College’s hospitality management program. “And we’re willing to do the self-serve thing — willing to be a part of the process, walk up to a counter and get our own beverages — because we just want it so fast.”
Some restaurateurs are answering that demand in dramatic ways.
Inside Minnetonka’s new Craft Burger (formerly known as Farm + Vine), diners order from a kiosk or an employee holding an iPad. They pour their own wine and beer from an automated system. And if they like, they can add to their order from their smartphone. Owner Doug Sams believes that kind of automation is the design of the future.
“People under 40, they beeline for the kiosk,” he said. “It’s convenient. It’s accurate. It has the ability to customize. These are really strong factors for a lot of people.”
Sams may be on to something.
The fastest-growing chains in the country are based on a counter-service model, according to a recent Nation’s Restaurant News report. And here in the Twin Cities, some of the most popular restaurants require diners to order at the counter — Copper Hen, Hello Pizza and Tori Ramen among them.
The much lauded Cafe Alma in Minneapolis recently switched to counter service for breakfast and lunch. And when restaurateur Tim Niver opens Maven in Minneapolis this summer, it’ll offer deli-style counter service. Some major chains, such as Applebee’s, Olive Garden and Panera Bread, have taken DIY dining a step further by adding self-serve kiosks.
Once limited to gas stations, automated service is now showing up everywhere, from the checkout lines at Target to swiping your watch to pay for your groceries.
“Really now, we just go do it ourselves, everywhere,” Wadi said. “People are on their phones. They don’t want to talk to anybody.”
But that “sort of dulls the experience for the staff,” he said. So he tries to make sure that the interactions his staff has with diners, no matter how limited, are friendly and positive. At World Street Kitchen, while diners order at the counter, they are served their food by staffers, who often also take care of some of the “self-serve” basics by delivering water, napkins and utensils to the tables.
Some diners don’t care about — and might not even notice — such niceties.
Chris Smith, a 30-year-old from Fargo, said his only real concerns at a restaurant are getting the right food in a timely manner.
“If [a server] keeps coming back to check in — it’s just an interruption at that point,” he said. “For the most part, I just want my food and to converse with my friends.”
In fact, understanding the level of service that diners want has become one of the biggest challenges for front-of-house employees, said Niver, who also owns St. Paul’s Saint Dinette and Mucci’s Italian.
“Do they want to interact? Or do they just want you to be unobtrusive?” he said.
Katelyn Everhart, a 29-year-old St. Paulite, knows what she wants.
She loves to go to Saint Dinette, and not just for the food.
“It’s just the warmth and the welcome that comes along with it,” she said. “It’s an emotional connection with a place that feels like your own. When my friends and I go out for a good meal, that’s kind of our entertainment. We’re going to have an experience.”
Even Craft Burger’s Sams has felt the pull of patrons wanting at least a little human interaction.
After starting with an entirely automated ordering process, he briefly closed his restaurant in March and reopened it with more staff. Now, if diners don’t want to order from a kiosk, they can give their order to a human being. If they don’t want to pour their own beer, a “beertender” will do it for them.
“It’s not universally accepted yet,” professor Maus said of the service-free model of restaurants. “Some people still just prefer talking to a person.”