Nick Peyton, Maître d’ at Cyrus, Knows How to Handle Drunks

Nick Peyton
Nick Peyton Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus

This spring, Healdsburg’s Cyrus celebrated its fifth anniversary, and the restaurant’s accolades only grow with each passing year. Chef Douglas Keane’s food is known for its innovation, precision, as well as its respect for traditional techniques, and partner/maître d’hotel Nick Peyton is an old hand at fine dining service of a sort that grows rarer with each passing year. Known as “the French Laundry of Sonoma,” Cyrus is the kind of place one goes for an intensely luxurious dining experience, spanning hours and a minimum of five courses, and encompassing everything from a molecular-gastronomic take on caviar condiments, to table-side cheese service from an Old-World-style cart.

As French gastronome Brillat-Savarin once said (something we’re sure Nick Peyton would agree with), “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” and Cyrus is nothing if not thorough. This is all the work of Peyton, who previously served as maître d’ at the Dining Room at the Ritz and at Gary Danko, and who is one of the Bay Area’s most seasoned restaurant managers.

Grub Street sat down with Peyton on the occasion of the restaurant’s anniversary to try to understand, in his words, what this kind of service is all about, and also to ask him how he handles a nightmare customer in an environment as rarefied and refined as Cyrus.

As far as the Cyrus clientele, what would you say is the breakdown between local and nearby residents and tourists?
Nick Peyton: Local people are by far our largest client base. 60 or 70 percent, I’d say. Both from the wine country and elsewhere. You’d be surprised how far people are willing to drive. I’ve had people and I ask them ‘Where are you from?’ and they say, ‘San Jose,’ and I say, ‘So you’re staying up here tonight?’ and they say, ‘No, we’re driving back.’ Sometimes I look at them and I’m like, wow. Good luck staying awake.

Tell us about your approach to fine dining.
I very much believe in a relationship that is about the people who are at the table. I believe in a communion of the guests at the table. The mechanics of fine dining should be formal, and exact. Everyone in our dining room does everything exactly the same way from the beginning to end, but their personalities are their own. It’s not stilted, it’s not canned. The things I look for in servers is that they’re caring — you can’t teach caring, or kindness — and I look for them to show some intelligence about what they’re doing. You can’t do things blindly or by rote — you’ve got to be able to think on your feet, not just in timing out how your station works, but in knowing who’s at the table and knowing how to personalize the service.

You read all this stuff… Zagat always says the number one complaint they get is about service. And when I read all the blogs, and Yelp and whathaveyou, everyone says nice things about our service. Even if they have negative things to say about the restaurant, they still say, ‘But the service was good.’ One person called our service ‘fawning’… but you know, I’d rather err on the side of generosity.

In recent years we’ve heard service like yours, and service at places like Gary Danko where you used to work, described as ‘intense,’ and some people seem to be put off by the sheer number of people who visit their table.

Yes, but you know, if you do it right, people get comfortable with it pretty fast. The trick is to be briskly in, and out — not intrusive. We keep our descriptions quick and concise, and try to let the food speak for itself.

How much of your staff has turned over in the course of your five years?
For Doug, in the kitchen, he looks for a year-and-a-half commitment. And there are a number of people who don’t fulfill that commitment, because you know, they’re on a ladder, they’re building résumés. My people, it’s not really like that. This is a career job. Well over 50 percent of our opening crew is still with us. The longer they’re with us, the better they get — which isn’t really the same for the back of the house. There are so many nuances and complexities to our service, it takes at least two years to master it.

What’s one of the most frustrating details that takes the longest for a server to catch on to?

There are a million tiny details, and codes. Let’s take, for instance, a bottle of sparkling water: If that water is being served to everyone at the table, there’ll be nothing on the cap. If it’s only going to certain people at the table, back at the servers’ station there’ll be a dot on the cap and the number of people at that table drinking the water. If that bottle is empty, and if the cap is on the coaster and facing down, the table has been offered another bottle and they’ve turned it down. If it’s facing up, they’ve already been asked and there’s another bottle coming out of the kitchen. You have to be able to read that code, and that’s just for a bottle of water. There’s code like that for a million other things we do, and that code is our language so that we don’t have to speak extraneously with each other during service.

Where in your career would you say you learned your most important lessons in terms of service?
I think the most important lessons came in going out to dine, and a lot of those lessons were negative lessons. Example: Going out to dinner with my mother, at age fourteen in Vancouver, and the waiter comes to clear my mother’s plate for the first course, and he takes the fork that she used and puts it back down on the table and picks up the fork she should have used, and puts that on top of the plate he’s clearing. This was at a place called The Sylvia, whose slogan was “Dine in the Sky,” and just so you know this restaurant was on top of a four-story building.

Also, I always hated when I went to New York and had to somehow prove my worth to a restaurant’s staff in order to get them to treat me in a respectful manner. At Cyrus we treat everyone with absolute respect. You can be flat-out weird, and we will still show you respect. Service is like a spiritual calling. You are there to figure out how to give this person a great experience, no matter what they’re like as a person.

Do you have a particular nightmare story about a customer who was impossible to please?
You know, there’s a million of them and they happen all the time. But I’ll give you one from just the other week.

Four people come into the dining room. They’re inebriated. I didn’t realize how inebriated. But by the time I start to serve them dinner I realize they are very inebriated. They start as four people, and they order in very rapid succession, between the champagne and caviar, close to $1000 worth of product. At a small restaurant like ours, that’s a lot of money. So by the time I realize exactly how inebriated they are, I have to figure out how to take care of these people.

The party of four quickly becomes a party of two, as one couple realizes that they’re simply too drunk to be sitting here eating dinner and they go off back to the hotel. I then sort of have to babysit these remaining two people for the rest of the night. They ask me if I would get some food for the people who’ve left, so I go down the street to the Healdsburg Bar and Grill, get them some food, send it back to their hotel room.

Now, the tendency of drunk people is of course to get loud, and I keep having to go over to this table and try to, kindly, quiet them down, and of course you walk away and eventually they’re going to get loud again. And I end up having to move three tables away from sitting beside these people. And they oscillate all night long between hating me and loving me. At one point the wife would be saying, ‘I can’t believe you talked to my husband that way.’ And it was obvious to me that this was an abusive relationship, and I could sense this tension throughout the meal. So at the end of the night, the guy gets the check and sees how much it is, and he tells me he doesn’t particularly want to pay it. And I tell him, ‘I’m sorry but you’re going to have to, because you consumed all of this,’ and he says, ‘Well fine, then I’m not going to tip.’ Fast-forward a few minutes, and the couple is arguing, and the situation has become sort of teary. The wife is crying. So I say, ‘Why don’t we move this out to the bar.’ We go out to the bar, the husband storms out. The wife ends up signing for a gratuity, and she leaves.

I clap my hands, ‘Done!’ and say, okay, I’ve managed to preserve the income of our staff and investors, and everyone is safe and sound. But then she shows up again, a half-hour later, barefoot, in tears, and she tells me that she now feels it was wrong that she left a gratuity, and can she please have that refunded. Now it’s really obvious that this guy is abusive, and I say, ‘Well, that’s up to you… if you feel that way, I can refund it.’ She ends up, still very inebriated, saying to me, ‘Well what do you want?’ and I tell her, ‘Well, I don’t want anything. But I think you should go home and go to bed.’ And she of course says, ‘You can’t tell me what to do,’ but then says, ‘Okay, I’m going to bed, but not because you told me to.’ That would be a nightmare guest.

Well, just to end on a happier note, where have you had the best meals of the past few years?
I used to lead a pretty grand life… I love dining out. But I have a young daughter and I bought a house last year so I don’t get out as much as I’d like. I recently had a lovely dinner at Quince. I miss the intimacy of the old place in Pacific Heights, but they’re doing a really nice job in their new digs. That was a special evening. Up here, I recently ate the new Santi for my birthday and that was quite nice. Since the new chef arrived at Barndiva, that is really a terrific place, too. And also I had a wonderful meal at Commis in Oakland. I was really impressed with that place.

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Nick Peyton, Maître d’ at Cyrus, Knows How to Handle Drunks