It's hard to find good help, or so the saying goes. Indeed, many of the chefs and restaurant owners I've spoken with over the years privately admit that finding good waitstaff in Houston can be a Sisyphean task: You manage to find a truly great server or two, they dazzle your diners and then -- because this is a very marketable skill we're talking about -- they're lured away to another restaurant, and your search begins anew.
But at the restaurants we're spotlighting today, the service remains consistently spectacular from visit to visit -- whether the same employees are retained or not. These restaurants run the gamut from fine dining to mom-and-pop joints and all manner of cuisines.
They have one thing in common, however: Service that makes every meal memorable. The kind of service that encourages you to return again and again just to see a favorite waiter or catch up with restaurant owners who treat you like family. The subject of this week's cafe review, L'Olivier, is an excellent example of old-school service in an updated climate -- and so are the 10 restaurants below.
The Oceanaire doesn't get much play as a foodie favorite, and that's a shame. The Galleria-housed seafood palace offers the same attentive, traditional service as Creole grande dame Brennan's or downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's -- all of which are usually my first picks when my parents or other beloved elders want a dignfied, pleasant, upscale dinner. Service par excellence is the standard at these spots, and they can always be relied upon to make you feel welcomed and pampered for an evening.
10. LA Crawfish
A common complaint at many of the Viet-Cajun crawfish places is that service is either rude or non-existent. Just the other day, Mai Pham's profile of Crawfish & Noodles owner Trong Nguyen inspired one commenter to remark: "Decent crawfish, but terrible, inexcusable, and inexplicably bad service. Seriously the worst I've had in my entire life, anywhere in the goddamned United States of America." Pham countered with a link to a previous post, in which she'd explained why she doesn't expect good service in Asian restaurants. LA Crawfish is an exception, however, to this anecdotal rule. The young kids who run it are unfailingly friendly to each and every patron, as well as helpful to crawfish neophytes. But most importantly, they get the food out lightning fast, which ensures that even if there's a long line (which there usually is), you'll get your food post-haste after ordering.
I've rarely seen young servers as engaged and happy as they seem to be at King's Biergarten in Pearland. And they aren't just sporting lederhosen and dirndls for show: Every one of them can explain the German menu top to bottom, although owner Johann Sitter is always on-hand should you require a description of his homeland's food directly from the man whose family recipes are used to make the restaurant's goulash, zwiebelrostbraten and more. The effect of so many nattily-attired, cheerful servers delivering enormous, heavy trays of beer and brats can make evenings here seem more like a vacation to Munich.
Although any one of the four Barnaby's locations will offer you terrific service, the original location -- tucked away in a residential area in Montrose off Fairview -- still sets the bar. Despite long waits on weekends and occasionally cramped quarters inside (especially when you're dining at Baby Barnaby's next door), the waitstaff are never anything short of charming and gracious. Between complimenting your hairstyle, telling your grandmother how glorious she looks today, recommending their favorite dishes and always getting your order exactly right, the staff always offer excellent service. Employees appear to love the place just as much; anecdotes have flown for years of high-end maître d's attempting to lure Barnaby's crew members to "greener pastures" and failing every time.
I've never had anything but cheerful and industrious service at Taqueria La Macro, the little Northside taqueria that could teach a thing a two to many fine dining restaurants around town. You're always greeted with a big, genuine smile. If anything is running a bit behind in the kitchen, the waitstaff is quick to apologize and keep you abreast of what's going on. The moment trash hits your table -- whether it's a discarded sugar packet or a straw wrapper -- it's scooped up by a server. Drinks are kept constantly refilled and plates are delivered with a genuine smile. And owner Saul Obregon is always there to keep a watchful eye on his little restaurant, greeting customers by name and often sitting down to chat.
I look forward to meals at Charivari in a way that is wholly different from other nights out. There is a lovely, considerate quality to the elegant service that's rarely found in modern dining rooms. Some may find silver domes removed with a flourish from dishes to be anachronistic; I consider it a treat. I love the ballet of watching plates set down in unison or the civility of being offered a palate-cleansing sorbet between courses and a silver tray with gingersnaps alongside my espresso at the end of an utterly relaxing meal. But for all this pomp and circumstance, Charivari remains warm and accessible. The service never seems outmoded but simply chivalrous, anticipating your every need before you've even realized it.
5. Cafe TH
This revamped banh mi shop in EaDo is home to Houston's best front-of-house man, who also happens to be the owner and chef: Minh Nguyen. All you need to do to become a regular at Cafe TH is come for one meal; Nguyen will remember you ever after, and greet you with a beaming smile each time you come back. The man remembers to ask about your mother, your job, your car, your workout progress -- anything that's important to you is important to him. He also has a habit of allowing customers to create dishes, then naming those dishes after their creators (see: Hala's Fried Chicken, Ironman Jay or Abby's Uncommon Combo).
The 38-year-old Mandola's Deli is a more personal choice than any other on this list. Gregarious owner Frank Mandola reminds me so much of my grandfather in his heyday, that I often go to the deli for dinner simply to listen to Frank greet every customer by name in his wonderfully thick Texas accent, tell a silly joke or two and catch up with them as he works the cash register as this wholly family business. Wife Debbie mans the restaurant when Frank and son Joseph aren't on hand (as with a recent father-son trip to Italy for Joseph's 30th birthday, which Frank proudly boasted about to anyone who'd listen one night), and Frank's sister plates the deli's signature Wop Salad and spaghetti with meatballs. Keeping it in the family -- and treating their customers like family, too -- is par for the course with the Mandolas, whose cousins run many of Houston's most familiar and beloved restaurants.
"Do you notice how you can't even make eye contact with the waiters without them coming over to check on you?" I once asked my dining companion during a review dinner at Triniti. "That's amazing." And yet the service never comes across as obsequious, stuffy or patronizing -- a triumph in and of itself. You always feel welcome at Ryan Hildebrand's ambitious tribute to modern American cuisine, regardless of whether you're wearing shorts or the entire contents of the Versace store at the Galleria (I've seen both here). Hildebrand stocked his place with the best managers, bartenders and servers assembled from the best, most pedigreed restaurants across the city -- and it shows in every service.
This Washington Avenue steakhouse is better known by now for a waiter who refused to serve a table after he heard them caustically remark on a fellow diner's child with Down's syndrome: "Special needs kids should be kept in special places." Although that waiter's moral code is admirable, I hope that it's not the only thing Laurenzo's is remembered by. Because all of the service here is excellent. The clubhouse-y restaurant is a visual throwback to joints like the Houston's of yore, complete with the smart, friendly, expeditious service that typified those semi-upscale spots. In short, it's the service you'd ideally expect to accompany a really good prime rib and a bottle of wine. And if there were any questions about how seriously the Laurenzo family takes its service, check out the placard on each table that allows you to text the manager directly.
The massive, multisensory menu at Uchi can be intimidating -- even to hardcore food lovers. Machi cure with yucca crisp and garlic brittle? Walu walu with yuzupon and myoga? It could all be a bit much if it weren't for Uchi's impeccable service, which is what netted it a Best of Houston® award for Best Service in 2012. With a waitstaff that knows the menu inside-out and blindfolded, you can allow your server to be your friendly sherpa while you navigate Houston's Mount Everest of restaurants. They'll even custom-design a dinner for you, allowing you to relax and enjoy the food. Not only is your server ready, willing and able to do all of this -- you'll come out of your dinner there with a wealth of knowledge and new experiences that far surpass the monetary value of just a plain old meal of sushi.
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SHOW ME HOW
Getting hired at Uchi restaurant is no small task, reports Director of Culinary Operations Philip Speer. Servers must endure a rigorous four-part interview and a battery of personality tests, then prove their mettle during a four-to-six-week training period before they're even allowed to take a table. If it seems like overkill, it's not. The result is a well-trained and disciplined waitstaff that can anticipate your every move, customize meals to your dining style, give a thoughtful explanation of any dish on the menu and do it all with bright, bubbly smiles.
The staff tends to stick around, too. Seven months after opening, Uchi Houston had retained 80 percent of its original opening crew. "We buy in," said Speer of the spirit endemic to the Uchi staff. "We drink the Kool-Aid."