A few weeks ago, I had dinner at The Restaurant at Meadowood, the 3-star Michelin guide restaurant of Chef Christopher Kostow located at the famed Meadowood Napa Valley resort. The meal was everything I thought it would be and more. An upscale but cozy setting with course after course (twelve to be exact) of fascinating flavor combinations and beautifully presented local and sustainable delicacies--from sunchoke beignets to Wagyu beef smoked in dry onion tops.
Typically, at a restaurant of this caliber, people are so dialed in on the food that they forget that a big part of what makes their experience feel so special is the exquisite service and the restaurant staff's precise attention to every imaginable detail.
With that in mind, I was curious how The Restaurant at Meadowood creates such flawless hospitality and decided to get the inside scoop from Nathaniel Dom, the restaurant director.
Here's a bit of our conversation:
What's your intention for a guest's experience at The Restaurant?
I want guests to have a singular experience. It's a restaurant, people come for the food. I know they might not remember a course they had or a beverage they drank a year later, but I want them to remember how they felt. That is the most important. For me, hospitality is about a relationship. A lot of people understand service, but hospitality is about how to fully take care of someone. And that's what we do.
Eating at The Restaurant feels a bit like watching a perfectly choreographed dance of your staff. What goes into training and perfecting this level of service?
We have what we call TRAM U, which is the specific education that is required when working here. I train the staff to understand and appreciate that every night is special and every table is special. And training isn't just about the hard facts of understanding food and wine, but also about understanding each other and our movements.
On a daily basis, the staff arrives between 10am-2pm-so that they don't have to try to cram work in within a short time before guests arrive. When staff members get here, personal lives go away. It's all about the previous night, best practices, lessons learned, and constant conversations about how we can improve.
Can you give me an example of a lesson learned?
It can be as simple as a staff member putting the plate down and moving to the right when he should have moved to the left, or pulling what's thought to be an empty glass but there was wine left in it.
Everything in the restaurant has a life to it--so staff members are expected to know the history of each item so they can make the best decision about what to do.
What's something a guest would never realize the staff is doing but makes for a top-notch experience?
There are a lot of nuances we're paying attention to that guests don't realize..
For example, we don't practice male/female service - as in, we don't simply just serve women first. There's a reason for this -- let me explain.
Let's say there's a male and female eating. The woman's hands are handling a glass of wine and her male dinner companion's hands are free. In this case, the staff member would put the man's plate down first. The woman would then notice and automatically move her own hands so her plate could be put down.
Most servers would ordinarily just disrupt the woman to serve her first. Instead, the suggestion that she move her hands away from her place could have be done discreetly.
A guest doesn't remember whether they've been served first, just that the service was smoothly executed. This is part of the experience.
This attention to detail is pretty spectacular. What else are you paying attention to that a guest may not know?
In the restaurant, when a guest gets up, it is primarily to go to the restroom. We're actually paying attention to the timing of it -- which guest got up first and which got up second. If one guest gets up, another may soon after his/her return. If so, staff members take note so they know when food should come out.
Other restaurants run at 18-22 minute intervals, so if you eat quickly, at other places you often end up waiting for your food.
Here, we run at 8 minutes. This is why they pay attention to these subtle things, because it impacts the kitchen, too.
We also take lots of notes - what did a guest order, what wine did the guest order, how much of it did the guest drink? We can look at waste and preferences.
And our notes start from the moment the reservation is made. On the phone when we take reservations, we're listening to the background--are we hearing kids in the background? It's important to me to understand a guest's daily life and routine so we can be accommodating and plan accordingly.
For example, if a couple is coming in and we've heard kids in the background when they were making their reservations, then it's likely that this evening is not a routine occurrence, and we'll make sure to make their experience relaxing - perhaps give them some time at the fireplace before dinner.
There aren't rules here, just expectations. Expectations provide room for growth, for flexibility and opportuni
The word on the street is that you and Christopher Kostow are opening up a new restaurant in Napa, The Charter Oak. Can you give us a hint about what to expect?
The vision for The Charter Oak is celebratory and sharing. We want to be able to challenge ourselves even more and create a casual spot. We closed our eyes and reinvented what casual is to us. We thought about our families: when you sit around a table you want the vibe to be grand and celebratory and you want to share. So that's the main focus of it.
It's all American - meats and veggies cooked over cooking hearths, silverware in drawers. Each person has a drawer and there's one menu for a party of four.
We think a set up like the one we envision for The Charter Oak inspires conversation and togetherness.
And we'll have a killer bar program, and a wine program focused on Napa Valley wines.
And when is Charter Oak set to open?
After this conversation, I don't think I will be able to look at a fine dining experience the same ever again.
The Restaurant at Meadowood's pursuit to making sure every moment at their table is as flawless as possible will certainly be a hard act to follow.
To find out more about The Restaurant at Meadowood, click here.
And to get the latest about The Charter Oak and its opening, click here.