When it comes to where she’s seated for dinner, Heidi Minora is very particular. “I always want to sit with my back to the restaurant,” says the general manager of Commissary in Logan Circle. “I’ll face a wall or a window … because if you’re facing out, you can see everything that’s happening and that’s when the brain starts going. You’re so attuned to the details, it can really give you anxiety.”
It’s the general manager’s responsibility to patrol the restaurant and notice anything impacting the customer experience. These perspicacious masters of ceremony can hear a fork drop over the din of the dining room; discern whether or not a diner is enjoying their food; and recognize when a server or bartender is in the weeds and in need of help.
General managers occasionally have a night off during their work weeks. But when they choose to spend their personal time in someone else’s restaurant, they struggle to quiet their inner monologues. Often they notice things the average diner might not.
Like Minora, Leah Glantz, the general manager of Bloomingdale’s Tyber Creek Wine Bar & Kitchen, has trouble living in the moment when she’s in a restaurant. She’s worked in the hospitality industry since she was 14. “I can’t turn it off—it’s so terrible,” she says. “I’m constantly a crazy person.”
Her biggest pet peeve is when a server or busser clears her utensils between courses and does not replace them before her next dish arrives. “How do I eat this lovely food without a fork and knife?” she asks. If she locates the restaurant’s service station, the kiosks where clean silverware and other necessities are stored, she’ll retrieve a knife and fork herself.
“If it’s right there and I can see it and no one is around to help, I’m just going to do it,” Glantz says. “But it depends on the atmosphere of the space. I’d never do it at The Dabney, but if it’s Guapo’s or something, I’ll do it.”
Mike Deery, the general manager of Sakerum, has also helped himself to silverware. Before landing a job at the clubstaurant on 14th Street NW, he worked at both lowbrow (McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon, a favorite of GW students) and highbrow (Del Mar at The Wharf) restaurants.
“I try to touch every table just to make sure that everything is perfect,” Deery says. “The term we use is ‘hyper awareness.’ When you go out to eat, you cannot turn it off. It’s almost impossible … It’s not that we’re judging, it’s that it’s stuff we’re paid to notice.”
Restaurants that provide customers with stained napkins and silverware with traces of food still attached particularly disturb him, as does visible dust, fingerprints, or stickiness on bar bottles. Deery says if he knows the manager of the restaurant, he’ll tip them off to potential shortcomings to prevent the restaurant from getting dinged in a review.
But what Deery notices most is an unkempt staff. “When you’re in the restaurant, you put your best foot forward,” he says. “I hold myself to a high standard, appearance-wise, in terms of overall professionalism. It’s tailored suits for me.” He believes customers notice and cites a very specific OpenTable review to support his claim.
In December 2018, JennyM wrote, “Also not one to comment on manager appearances ever, but the one who stopped by our table was like a mix of Hugh Jackman and [Christian] Grey and was dressed like he modeled suits for a living.”
Blake Smith, the general manager of Iron Gate in Dupont, agrees that presentation is important. “I know there’s no direct correlation, but if I see a server looking dirty, wrinkled, with stains, it makes me wonder about the standards everywhere else,” he says. “It drives me nuts, with my own staff and elsewhere.”
Smith likes being a general manager because it forces him to see the whole picture and interact with every staff member. He, too, can’t turn off his internal monologue. “I don’t want to say I’m running a constant comparison between where I’m eating and where I work, but some part of me always is,” he says. “But I always go into dinner with the same perspective I want guests to come into my restaurant with—I’m not looking for a fight, or looking to find things wrong.”
That said, Smith cringes when servers address a table of diners as “you guys.” “That bothers the ladies I’m eating with,” he says. “They’re not guys. That happens almost every time I go out.” He attributes mishaps like that to the city-wide restaurant staffing crisis. Servers, bartenders, and support staff like bussers and bar backs are in high demand and turnover is near constant.
“Staffing levels is something I notice right away,” says Geoff Bosworth, the general manager at Le DeSales downtown. “From a diner perspective, there can never be too many. There’s definitely a level when you notice they’re understaffed. If you look around and someone is running, or if they’re a little disheveled because they might have too much going on.”
Bosworth is able to enjoy himself when he dines out until he notices a slip up. Then the floodgates open. One of his pain points involves the bathroom. He’s learned to “keep looping through” the loo at his restaurants during service. As the late Anthony Bourdain wrote in Kitchen Confidential, “If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like.”
Staffing issues can impact a diner’s experience from the moment they’re seated, according to Nick Seo, the general manager of Haikan in Shaw. “When tables don’t get greeted quickly enough, it drives me insane,” he says. “If I’m sitting down at a restaurant with my friends and I see a table next to me and I notice they don’t have waters and haven’t been greeted within 60 seconds, it makes me want to jump up and talk to them.”
Davis Green, the general manager at The Dish & Dram in Kensington, agrees with Seo. “I get frustrated when I’m sitting for too long before server recognition. Just coming over and saying, ‘I see you, I’ll take care of you,’ goes a long way,” Green says, adding that it’s hard to tell when hiring if a server is “going to put that extra effort in.”
What’s more offensive for Green is when a server overshares with a customer. When he was dining at a chain restaurant, for example, a server made an awkward plea. “He started talking about how someone dissed him on a check earlier today and asked if I could pay in cash because it would help things go over more smoothly,” Green recounts. “I got so weirded out by that and frustrated … Once you cross that line, I don’t want to go back to that restaurant again.”
Despite this incident, Green says he notices more positives than negatives when dining out because he has an appreciation for what’s going on behind the scenes. Chris Van Jura, the general manager of Casolare in Glover Park, agrees. “Every table is a puzzle and each piece has to come together to fit and work,” he says. When he dines out on his days off, he sets out with a good attitude. “I’m able to turn it off to the degree where I’m going to enjoy my meal, whether it’s at The Pug or Le Diplomate.”
But if there’s one thing that makes Van Jura twitchy it’s light bulbs. “When was the last time they were dusted?” he asks. “It’s a detail thing, kind of like when Bubba and Forrest [Gump] get to the camp in Vietnam and first meet Lt. Dan. He tells them, ‘Try and keep your feet dry.’” When Van Jura hires new managers, he instructs them to check the light bulbs daily to make sure they’re shining bright.
Light bulbs irritate several general managers. “I can notice a light bulb being out faster than everyone,” Minora boasts. “It really gets under my skin when you see a light bulb out.” She’s had owners chew her out about bulbs and ask why she isn’t looking up. “Now when I’m in a restaurant, I look up.”
The same goes for Mike Stiltz, the director of operations for Rebellion in Dupont and Commodore Public House & Kitchen in Logan Circle. “When I started being a restaurant manager we had a checklist—one of the things was to make sure all of the lights are functioning and not burned out,” he says. “This restaurant was 8,000 square feet. There were light bulbs everywhere.”
While Stiltz tracks burnt-out bulbs, he’s generally able to relax in restaurants he doesn’t run. “I think you’re always going to notice things,” he says. “If you don’t, then you’re probably not a very good general manager.”
He continues, “You’re always going to be like, ‘oh man look at this, oh man look at that,’ but if you go to a place and they’re doing some really great, you’re like ‘oh wow, maybe we should try that.’ It goes both ways.”
Green acknowledges how hard it is for everything to run smoothly. “For people who haven’t worked in the industry, sometimes they can be impressed by the wrong thing. They think there’s some kind of crazy magic. It’s just hard work, long hours, and a lot of people being on the same page.”