Everybody's a critic: What to know about good service at LI restaurants

For devoted fans of romantic schadenfreude, there are few things that compare to watching someone else’s relationship unravel before your eyes, and few better places to witness this than one table over from a warring couple in a restaurant. You’re close enough to catch all the expletives, but safely distant should anybody decide to weaponize the breadbasket. Of course, this sort of feasting need not only involve endings. Awkward first-date conversations can be entertaining, as can fears that someone swallowed the ring in the soufflé, or cake proposals with unspellchecked frosting. ("Mary me?") Sit in a restaurant long enough, and you’ll be privy to every sort of liaison in every stage of health. No less interesting, however, is a relationship often overlooked, though just as complex, perilous and perpetually misunderstood: the one between diners and restaurants themselves.

It’s also a relationship that’s gotten more attention of late, courtesy the pandemic, and one that proceeded in several stages. When the virus first raged, restaurants were things to be feared. Then, as they began to disappear one by one, they were things to fear for—namely the extinction of the species, which in less than 250 years of existence had become integral to cultures all over the world. But restaurants came roaring back as the emergency eased, and diners showed their gratitude by patronizing them every chance they got, along the way forgiving everything from server shortages to supply chain snafus.

“It’s not about what really happened. What really happened doesn’t matter. For the diner, perception is reality.”

Charles Kim, General manager at Opus Steakhouse

Which brings us to roughly September 2021, when, owing to various lingering frustrations, things began to get ugly in the New York area. There were shoving matches at hostess stands, signs in windows commanding diners to BE KIND, the bitterest of Open Table reviews. Just as divorces spiked during the pandemic, many restaurant-patron marriages seemed headed in the same direction, and anything resembling a healthy relationship seemed the exception.

Still, they existed. A thorough perusal of social media, online foodie colloquies and crowdsourced platforms, not to mention my own conversations with Long Island diners, suggested that there are places where the love between diner and establishment remains as vibrant as ever. Amid the past year’s challenges, a handful of places continued to earn high marks for exceptional service and hospitality. I recently visited six to learn why some restaurant relationships work, why some don’t, and why some—through dint of poor communication, lack of empathy, money issues and unrealistic expectations—could use couples therapy.

Charles Kim, general manager at Opus Steakhouse in Jericho.

Charles Kim, general manager at Opus Steakhouse in Jericho. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

"It’s not about what really happened. What really happened doesn’t matter. For the diner, perception is reality." Charles Kim, seated in the dining room of Opus Steakhouse, the swanky, cavernous Jericho restaurant for which he serves as general manager, chose his words carefully. On a busy night, 500-plus diners enter this cathedral of marble, leather and wood, a large number of them celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and other events of significance, and Kim has the unenviable task of satisfying all of them—he and his 20 servers, four bartenders, five or six runners, two or three hosts and a couple of floor managers.

"We’re here to make an experience," he instructs them at preshift staff meetings that often include weather updates for outdoor dining ("we’re like meteorologists who have to know what conditions are hour by hour"), written quizzes ensuring that servers are aware of what the branzino’s celery-root purée is served over (answer: chimichurri, Fresno peppers), and stopwatch-timed demonstrations so they can appreciate how interminable a two- or five-minute wait can feel when you’re a diner. "Making an experience," said Kim, "means putting yourself in the guest’s shoes."

"I like the ones in sports or who are going into the military. They understand rules," laughed Elmer Rubio. Attempting to preserve his fine reputation for service at Chachama Grill in East Patchogue, the chef and owner resorted to hiring high-functioning high-schoolers, some of whom had never worked in restaurants before, even as he conscripted his 17- and 14-year-old sons for host and busboy duties, respectively. These days, Rubio himself can often be found, for the first time since opening Chachama in 2003, splitting his time between manning the kitchen and tending bar.

Elmer Rubio, chef and owner of Chachama Grill in East...

Elmer Rubio, chef and owner of Chachama Grill in East Patchogue with his sons Pablo, 17 (left) and Gabriel, 14. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Even so, he has only put a dent in his labor needs. (A survey in September by the National Restaurant Association revealed that 78 percent of restaurant operators believe they are understa ed.) Rubio’s restaurant used to serve lunch and dinner daily, now it’s open five nights a week for dinner only. "I tell the new servers, ‘Probably, you are going to see people who are not happy. But if you do, call me and I will go to the table. We need these people to come back.’" And they do, again and again. Most, but not all, are forgiving of his staff’s rookie mistakes. "I want to say, ‘Be a little more patient with the new employees. You can see that they are young people.’ My oldest bus person is 18!"

Jerry Dicecco, of Jerry and the Mermaid in Riverhead, finds himself managing expectations as well. "When we first reopened back in 2020, people were completely understanding," said the chef, whose father, Jerry Sr., opened the seafood restaurant more than 25 years ago. "It could take an hour to get your food, they were just happy to be back in a restaurant. In 2021, diners’ expectations went back to where they were in 2019. Last year was all thanks and praise, this year is ‘Well, why did it take so long?’ "

Another point of contention between restaurants and loyal patrons is what might be termed the coconut shrimp problem. When diners open menus and discover that a dish they’ve loved for decades is temporarily unavailable, it feels like a betrayal. "Everybody always thinks that we are blaming it on supply chain issues and we’re full of"—um, beans—"and we’re not," said Dicecco, who begged seven of his usual purveyors for shredded coconut last fall, to no avail. Diners were incredulous when he 86ed the shrimp for a month. "They were like, ‘What do you mean? We’ve been getting it since 1994!’ "

Left: Jerry Dicecco, of Jerry and the Mermaid in Riverhead, greeting customers and friends, Frank and Jean Belson. Top: Jerry's famous lobster roll at Jerry and the Mermaid. Bottom: Coconut shrimp with honey aioli at Jerry and the Mermaid. Photo credit: Newsday/ Alejandra Villa Loarca

Jerry and the Mermaid’s fans love being met by Dicecco in the dining room, all the "personalization and greeting people and caring about what they have to say and where they’re going to college or who’s pregnant." He and his father, who these days can often be found in the front of the house "shaking hands and kissing babies," have long treated their customers as extensions of the family, and they won’t be 86ing that approach, come what may. "We have to stay true to who we are and what we think hospitality is."

Dicecco and most other restaurateurs appreciate criticism more than you might expect, although there are limits. Since opening last August, almost all the online reviews of Pecado, a busy new Mexican spot in Bay Shore, have been positive, according to owner Ian Coughlin, but he approaches the negative few as an investigator might, poring over footage captured on in-house cameras and interviewing employees. One review chastised Pecado’s hostess for texting instead of greeting guests ("She was actually texting me"), another called the food bland. "What did they order, you ask? A quesadilla and apple juice. And that’s how they judge my modern Mexican restaurant." And then there was the guy who tried to send his entrée back after he’d eaten 90 percent of it, prompting a table visit from Coughlin. "‘What was wrong with it, sir?’ ‘It was cold.’ ‘You ate the whole thing!’" Nonetheless, Coughlin offered to reheat what was left, and later a cocktail on the house. The man refused both. "He proceeded to give me two bad reviews on two different platforms, to which I replied in kind."

Left: Ian Coughlin, owner of Pecado in Bay Shore, greeting customers. Top: Pollo en mole at Pecado. Bottom: At Pecado, fragrant burnt sage garnishes the Sage Jalisco cocktail. Photo credit: Newsday/ Alejandra Villa Loarca

Somewhat unusually for a new restaurant, Pecado’s service has been singled out for praise by many diners, a feat all the more impressive when you consider that staffing challenges have meant that Coughlin sometimes busses and waits tables himself, roping in his wife as needed. And while hospitality remains paramount, he also rejects the old model of the restaurateur as a paragon of deference. "I don’t bow to every request," he said. "I operate on the idea that the customer is not always right, more so now because of the amount of debt, the amount of risk." And as chancy as that might sound, no less a dining arbiter than Food & Wine agrees. In September, the magazine generated buzz with its "New Rules of Dining Out," which decried such kowtowing as "outdated, a servile relic of a former (pre-pandemic) time."

Relic or not, if there’s one dining category where customer entitlement will likely continue to reign supreme, it’s steakhouses. Joe Bruton, a managing partner of Scotto Brothers, which owns Opus, demurred when asked if the customer was always right. "Whether they’re right or wrong is irrelevant—I need that guest to come through the door," he said. Fewer people are eating out these days, Bruton explained, and com- petition for high-end diners is fierce. "So if they’re not enjoying the steak, I’m making another one."

Complicating matters are those little words rare, medium and the like. "In my opinion, out of any restaurant, steakhouses are the most difficult to work in, to manage and to be a chef at," said Sean Whalen, general manager of George Martin’s Strip Steak in Great River. "Because the main event, the reason why you’re here—it’s so easy to not get right." Many diners have an image in their mind of what a medium steak should look like, for instance, but steakhouse kitchens use the only gauge that truly matters, the meat’s actual temperature. "Sometimes we’ll get a steak back and it is medium," said Whalen. But, he then added, what many people think of as medium is actually something else.

Sean Whalen, general manager at George Martin Strip Steak in...

Sean Whalen, general manager at George Martin Strip Steak in Great River. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

It helps to have an experienced and proactive waitstaff. George Martin’s patrons ordering the marbled rib-eye, say, are forewarned that it’s the fattiest cut on the menu. Even so, some will send it back for the filet mignon. "We’ll still fix it," said James Cavorti, the long-time executive chef. "But when they go from a rib-eye to a filet, you know that they’re really not sure what they’re ordering or eating."

Good communication is vitally important, and it goes both ways. "If you call and say, one of my party is a little overweight and we don’t want to walk far," Whalen said, "I’ll put a note in the reservation that puts them at a table that’s probably bigger than I would normally give them, because I want them to be comfortable." From the moment guests are seated, servers will watch for nonverbal cues as well. "If you even suspect that there’s a problem—it could be a marital problem—I want to know that something doesn’t feel right," Whalen tells his servers. "They have to be able to read people. That’s what sets you apart from Outback and other places."

During this unprecedented period, communicating with diners about staffing issues is critical. Consider La Coquille in Manhasset. The restaurant, which made its debut in 1969, was started by the founders of Lafayette, a legendary Manhattan spot in the ’70s, also known as the place that once turned away Jackie Onassis for wearing blue jeans, and John Wayne for not wearing a tie. (The Duke fashioned his shoelaces into a bolo.) "Even now, people expect more professional service, delivery and execution here," said Michael Miller, who for 15 years has owned the white-tablecloth establishment.

Left: Michael Miller owner of La Coquille in Manhasset. Top: Pan seared wild halibut at La Coquille. Bottom: Chocolate mousse at La Coquille. Photo credit: Newsday/ Alejandra Villa Loarca

COVID did present huge challenges. "We ran into some serious problems. There were definitely nights when we had to apologize profusely to customers and say, yes, we’re understaffed. For the most part, though, with a little gratuitous dessert or cocktail, as well as a good apology and a smile, I’d say most were understanding."

They could certainly see that Miller was trying, dividing his time between giving tours for the New York State Liquor Authority, which at one point was making unannounced COVID-compliance visits twice a week, and hurrying through the dining room bussing tables and tending bar.

"The hardest part is, people recognize you and want to chat a little bit, and then you have that fine line between being polite and running for your life to put out the next fire."

They haven’t been putting out any actual fires since the pandemic, as La Coquille’s most popular dish, duck à l’orange, is no longer flambéed tableside. Gone too are the dessert carts that used to be wheeled around the dining room. But the treats themselves are still made in-house, said Miller, and flambéing was always a mixed blessing. "Tableside creates its own issues. Some people always got upset about the flame."

Five of the six restaurants I visited are doing better business than they were before COVID, and Pecado, the post-pandemic spot, is enjoying crowds as well. Great service is undoubtedly one of the reasons, but there are others. Outdoor tables, which La Coquille didn’t have till 2020, turned out to be an excellent advertisement for the half-century-old Northern Boulevard restaurant. "People who had driven by here for 10 or 20 years said, ‘We never even knew you were here.’ It opened up a whole new customer base for us."

All said it’s been worth it—the staffng short- ages, impatient diners, supply chain issues, occasional bad reviews—for the pleasure they get from cooking food and serving it well, even now. Or in Elmer Rubio’s case, especially now.

"I had COVID in 2020, right in the beginning," said Chachama’s chef-owner. "Anybody who’s had COVID looks at their life a little differently. After that, it feels like a gift to be healthy."

Restaurant information

CHACHAMA GRILL: 655-08 Montauk Hwy., East Patchogue; 631-758-7640, chachamagrill.com

GEORGE MARTIN’S STRIP STEAK: 60 River Rd., Great River; 631-650-6777, georgemartinsstripsteak.com

JERRY AND THE MERMAID: 469 E. Main St., Riverhead; 631-727-8489, jerryandthemermaid.com

LA COQUILLE: 1669 Northern Blvd., Manhasset; 516-365-8422, lacoquilleny.com

OPUS STEAKHOUSE: 4 Old Jericho Tpke., Jericho; 516-605-1400, opussteakhouse.com

PECADO: 49 W. Main St., Bay Shore; 631-992-7717, pecadomexican.com