Hardcore Coddling: How Eleven Madison Park Modernized Elite, Old-School Service

Readying the tables.
Readying the tables. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

At 3:30 p.m., in the back office of Eleven Madison Park, maître d’ Justin Roller is Googling the names of every guest who will come in that night. It’s a well-known tactic of the restaurant, an effort to be as familiar as possible with the diners. But anyone can Google some names and faces, so Roller is going deeper. “I’m looking for chef’s whites and wine glasses,” he says. A shot of a guest wearing whites means a chef is probably coming to dinner. Wine glasses signify a potential sommelier (or at least a wine geek). This is just the beginning. If, for example, Roller discovers it’s a couple’s anniversary, he’ll then try to figure out which anniversary. If it’s a birthday, he’ll welcome a guest, as they walk in the door, with a “Happy Birthday.” (Or, if it seems to Roller that a guest prefers to keep a low profile, “I’ll let them introduce themselves to me,” he says.) Even small details are useful: “If I find out a guest is from Montana, and I know we have a server from there, we’ll put them together.” Same goes for guests who own jazz clubs, who can be paired with a sommelier that happens to be into jazz. In other words, before customers even step through the door, the restaurant’s staff has a good idea of things it can do to specifically blow their minds.

Even as chefs have become the undisputed stars of restaurants, the minor uproar over Charles Masson’s recent departure from La Grenouille is a reminder that this wasn’t always the case. For a long time, dinner at a nice restaurant meant crisp linens and unabashed pampering. Maîtres d’hotel and managers — stars in their own right — patrolled the room, their mere presence an assurance to diners that the evening would unfold in a most civilized fashion.

There aren’t many restaurants where this level of care and attention still exists, and even fewer if you eliminate fussy French places where the service can feel like a parody of itself. But Eleven Madison Park does it as well as anyone — old-school, no-holds-barred customer devotion without overt stuffiness — so I emailed the co-owner, Will Guidara. What I wanted was to actually see how he put together a staff where every person working the dining room can seem as charming as Sirio Maccioni in his prime. Guidara invited me to come in for a few hours before service one day last week.

Sommelier Caleb Ganzer quizzes the wine staff during family meal. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

As you might guess, management of the front of the house is as detail-oriented as anything that happens in the kitchen. It’s not surprising, but it is thorough: The training manual is 97 pages long. It covers both the correct way to serve coffee and where wine glasses get set depending on whether a customer orders a bottle or pairings. FOH staffers’ socks have to be a certain length. Nail polish must be in approved shades (“Bridal colors” are generally allowed). The dining-room pillows must be fluffed and creased in a very, very specific manner. And as with kitchen hiring, everyone who works in EMP’s dining room starts at the very bottom, as a kitchen server, tasked with running plates and polishing silverware for hours at a time (seriously — seven people per night alternate three-hour polishing shifts). One kitchen server I met has been on the job for three weeks. She used to be a captain at Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next — not exactly entry-level. Her job the afternoon I’m there is scooping granola into Mason jars to be handed out as gifts after dinner. (That night, she’s also assigned the dreaded prime-time 7:30 to 10:30 polishing shift.) It will likely take at least a year before she can work her way up to captain at EMP.

But that’s the whole point: This weeds out anyone who won’t cut it. The restaurant needs someone who has the necessary aptitude, who can be both humble and confident. Then, as general manager Kirk Kelewae tells me, the training is “about giving precision to their instincts.” (Kelewae started as a kitchen server six years ago. It was his first full-time job out of college.) That means every person on the floor at any given time has devoted countless hours to learning the exact way EMP’s staff does everything. Kelewae gives the example of a great sushi restaurant, where it might take an apprentice ten months to learn how to properly make the rice. “Here,” he says, “it takes ten months to learn how to pour water.”

The result of all this training, though, is that the restaurant has a 60-strong army of people prepared to disarm customers with their graciousness and care. As the service staff sees it, the dining room consists of four stations, broken into groups of seven or eight tables. (The entire dining room is 29 tables.) Each station gets its own dedicated four-person staff: A captain, a sommelier, a server, and an assistant server. Four people are assigned to the bar, and five get stationed at the front door. The door staff, as anyone who’s been to the restaurant can tell you, is particularly effective. All that Googling pays off when the maître d’ greets total strangers by name and wishes them a happy tenth anniversary before they’ve even taken off their coats. (“We want to evoke a sense of being welcomed home,” Kelewae says.) An additional staffer is referred to as the “Dreamweaver” — like the song — and is tasked with handling special projects and requests from guests.

Readying the bar before service. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Of course, Eleven Madison Park holds itself to the same standard as the very best restaurants in the world (and, it’s worth noting, charges accordingly). Even a restaurant like La Grenouille probably doesn’t have the resources, or the inclination, to hire five separate people to basically open the door and say hello or good-bye to customers.

All told, Eleven Madison Park has about 40 people working in the dining room on any given night (including an upstairs private dining room). Yet even with all these moving parts, what’s truly impressive is that, as a diner, it doesn’t just feel like three dozen people offering good, or even professional, service. It feels like they’re working to make a connection, to really let you know there is a person looking out for you all night long. Even that connection is systemized, though, through what the restaurant calls “captain non-negotiables,” a set number of dishes — at least four, but often more — spaced throughout the meal for captains to return to their designated tables and check in. The effect: Even as a small swarm of servers replace silverware, ferry nearly 20 courses, replenish water or wine, and wheel over cocktail carts, diners have a single face to associate with the meal — not unlike the customers at other restaurants who devote their loyalty to someone like Masson. (And, as Kelewae tells me, even if a captain doesn’t very quickly jell with a table, the somm can take over as the lead.)

Will Guidara runs the nightly line-up. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

At 5 p.m., a half-hour before service, Guidara gathers the FOH staff for their daily meeting, line-up. They quickly touch on notes for the night, such as menu tweaks and what beers are on tap (the printed notes handed out to servers even detail the types of flowers that are in the dining room that night). But the meeting is less about service changes and more about rallying the troops. On the night I’m there, Guidara mentions my presence and uses it as a jumping off point to discuss Masson. Today, when all the talk of new restaurants is about the food, why, Guidara asks his staff, would customers return to a restaurant specifically for the service, the same way they might return to eat an amazing steak? What’s so special about someone like Charles Masson?

The answer is obvious: He makes his customers feel good. Really good. So good that they wanted to experience the exact same kind of care again and again. After making the point, Guidara looks around at his own staff: “There’s nothing wrong with us being the stars of the show.”

How Eleven Madison Park Modernized Elite, Old-School Service