“I was telling my mother I was meeting up with Robert and John to do an interview,” Declan Maxwell begins, “she asked about what and I told her well, to talk about ourselves basically. She just said ‘Oh sure God help her!'” The table erupts with laughter, that would be the first of many times that afternoon.
I’m at Ross Lewis’s Italian Osteria Lucio, beneath the railway arches of Grand Canal Dock, sitting at a long, high stool-flanked table with three of Ireland’s best known and loved restaurant managers.
The restaurant’s own Robert Scanlon is playing host, inviting into his realm myself and two of his esteemed colleagues and close friends Declan, restaurant manager at Luna, ex-Chapter One, and Suesey Street‘s John Healy, of TV3’s The Restaurant fame.
All three are frank, unflappable, fierce and fabulous front of house experts who agreed to grant me an insider’s look at how a restaurant really ticks, chatting about the art of table reservation, what it takes to get ejected from a restaurant and a host of other revelations – or, in the words of Declan, “to dish the dirt.”
But first, what is there secret to each of their long standing careers in such a fickle industry? What makes for a great restaurant manager? “You have to read the room and see who needs a top up of attention,” Robert begins, “some are happy to be left alone for the most part, others want the full show and a big chat.”
John agrees that the ability to put on that ‘show’ is essential: “You are on the whole time, you are never off. You give each table a piece of you. A little bit of show, theatre, one liners, humour, all that kind of stuff.”
“We create the ambiance. We are responsible for that. We dictate the atmosphere of the restaurant – so you can’t bring your own issues with you onto the floor.”
“More than anything you have to be on the ball and keep an eye on what’s going on, the who’s who and trends,” he continues, on the wealth of knowledge a great restaurant manager must mentally hoard.
In today’s social media led society, they say that scrolling Instagram pages is just as crucial a habit as is flicking through glossy magazines, newspaper columns and keeping up to date with court cases, as is proactively Googling heads of nearby companies, the departments within them and basically anyone else who makes a booking – “Wikipedia was invented for that!” Declan says.
This knowledge is what informs their reservation strategy, which from the outside might seem like a functional operation but in reality it is a strategic, complex and emotional charged affair.
Declan stresses how important it is to have acute understanding of the sensitivities of society and relationships when arranging table plans to avoid awkward situations. “You have to know before they even come in.”
Like how John was so up-to-date with the recent divorce proceedings of a couple from two ‘powerful’ families in Dublin that despite two different surnames he recognised that her brother and his mother were about to come face to face and averted a scene by whisking her away to another table just at the last moment.
“You will find that particular groups will go to certain places, the lawyers will go there, the barristers will go there, but when I was in the Four Seasons in London everybody was there so strategically you had to put people in certain places so they wouldn’t be beside each other.”
They concede that every restaurant always keeps a few tables just in case they are booked up and need to accommodate a regular or distinguished guest – yes, even when they have solemnly sworn to you that, sorry, they really can’t squeeze you in tonight.
They also reveal that most restaurants have a ‘hidden table’, with all three of their restaurants having a designated zone where diners can go incognito, sitting largely out of sight with their backs to the rest of the room.
At Suesey Street this table is requested once a week by a business woman who wants to assure her meetings with high profile clients stay out of the public eye, and when in town for the recent U2 concert Chelsea Clinton took advantage of Luna’s best dark corner, “not a soul recognised her.”
Other guests have less virtuous reasons for wanting to go under the radar. “We used to get people coming in with their mistress on one night and their missus on another,” says John, “so you had to be very discreet. you couldn’t say ‘Oh, didn’t I see you in here last week?’”
Robert’s experiences when managing Residence Private Members Club are even more devious: “I had to deal with situations like someone having an affair inside and having to stall their wife at the door! One night I found a couple under the table when we were closing the restaurant, I had to drag them out by their legs!”
A common practice in the States, Declan says paying cash up front to the restaurant manager to secure the best table and an upgraded service never really came to Ireland, but John says that during his time at The Four Seasons in London diners “paid for the suit.”
“As in if you wanted a suit at a table it cost you. It wasn’t known but for me to go to a table that’s what it often took.”
“It’s all to do with money. These people get the best service, food, wine and table, but they pay for that. It’s not just that you are ‘someone’ but it’s because you tip generously when you come to the restaurant.”
Declan talks about ‘proper restaurant etiquette’, carried out by those in the upper echelons of Dublin who dine regularly and give gifts accordingly.
“Here they don’t hand me cash every time they visit but Christmas time many give very generously. We’ve all got our Hermes ties and bottles of Cristal.”
“There’s an unwritten rule that if they take care of you, you must take care of them.”
Is the customer always right? “They are until the manager says so!” John asserts. “There is a line and only I can draw that line.”
For Declan me that line is crossed when someone starts swearing at him. “Some people can be so unreasonable and we’ve all had people who turned around and said ‘I’m going to ring Joe Duffy about this!’”
“But to be honest with you it takes a lot to get to that point,” says Robert, “we all have our own little skills of dealing with difficult customers so we rarely actually have to throw someone out.”
Declan agrees: “Obviously with alcohol thrown into the mix there are lots of high jinx, but a good restaurant manager can control it. I have a good country accent and that can help a lot when I go to a rowdy table of lads!”
So coaxing people down from tables and turning the volume down on a sing along they most often handle with ease, but something that’s less within their control, but no less irksome to all three admitting they are very ‘old-fashioned’ in their approach to dining etiquette, is the declining standard of table manners.
“It’s really declined,” Robert says, gravely. “Just the basics, I see guys marching ahead of girls to the table and then taking the inside seat.”
Misuse and misplacing of cutlery makes them all cringe, and Declan in particular grimaces when he sees a woman applying makeup at the table.
“No woman of my mother’s generation would dream of doing that, they’d go to the loo! I don’t take out a bottle of aftershave and spray myself!”
On the matter of phones at the table they are less black and white. “The phone is a difficult one, because on one side you want people to photograph the dishes and put it on social media, we all do, so it’s hard to criticise the implement that allows for that,” Robert muses, the others nodding in agreement.
“But to be on a call in a restaurant is very different,” adds Declan, “that’s very eighties, that’s Wall Street style!”
But despite cranky clientele, the decline in table manners, and peculiar and sometimes shocking behaviour overall Declan says that “the easiest part of our business is the customers,” and stresses the importance of leadership and team building skills.
“For me what makes a good manager nowadays is the team that you build around you. I’m very lucky in that I manage the floor and Jane and Karen do everything else.”
“I shouldn’t be stuck on the phone doing a booking when there are five tables out there who’ve got their main courses and haven’t been seen to. I’m old school in the sense that I believe if someone is paying 100 a head they need to be paid attention to.”
This brings us to how the role of the maitre’d changed over the years. “When I started there was a maitre’d in the traditional sense of the role,” John explains.
“They were the host, the face of the restaurant and they did nothing else. They didn’t serve tables or wine they just made sure the customer had a great dining experience.”
“The role has changed now because it is so expensive to run a restaurant. You need to be all things to all people; a maitre’d, a restaurant manager, a head waiter and a sommelier” – and a therapist, Robert adds.
They are exasperated by the younger generation of restaurant managers paying more attention to spreadsheets than customers, spending less time on the floor and more in the office, and seeing the service suffering as a result.
“A lot of complaints can be deflected if you check your tables,” Robert insists. “It’s very easy to fix an issue with a dish but there’s no point in saying something when the evening is over and we can do nothing. You have to follow it up as the meal is going on and that means being on the floor and not in the office.”
A wave of emotion descends on the table when conversation then turns to how young people are failing to consider the job as a lifelong career choice, a strange mix of frustration, sadness and pride in their profession.
“I have experienced things that I would never have if I was an accountant working in an office nine to five. Because in this industry you places and you know people and we all look after one another, it’s an unwritten rule,” says Declan.
“Whoever reads this I want to stress one thing,” Robert says firmly, “this is an amazing career and we’ve all had amazing experiences and one on one time with the kinds of people, opportunities that not even a multi millionaire could arrange.”
“And when a room is rocking at night and you know that you’ve created that, there is no better job in the world.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.