Occidental server Lindly Haunani has a pet peeve. “I’ve had people Yelp when I was still waiting on them while their food was getting cold,” she says. She’ll ask, “Are you enjoying this?” “Oh yes,” they’ll respond, before going home to type something trivial on a review site. She remembers a time when customers gave waitstaff a chance to fix mistakes while they were still present.
Haunani started serving at Occidental in 1986, 18 years before Yelp existed. “It was my first opportunity to work fine dining,” she says, adding that she was among the first women hired to work the floor of a local white tablecloth restaurant. Her original plan was to move on to The Palm or The Prime Rib, but she never left Occidental, which was founded in 1906 and is best known for its historical gravitas and hospitality.
“I’m proud of this restaurant—it’s a beautiful restaurant that’s been around for a long time,” Haunani says. She doesn’t mind that it’s not the hippest of establishments. “We’re not going to have Korean chicken wings and ramen.” Haunani also hasn’t moved on from the restaurant because she skirts change.
“I’ve had the same apartment for 17 years and the same boyfriend for 18 years, but also, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” she says. Haunani remembers when Mark Miller’s Red Sage opened downtown, luring numerous Occidental employees. “I think it’s a TD Bank now, so you just don’t know.”
During her 31-year tenure, Haunani has waited on George H.W. Bush, Bob Hope, Betty White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John F. Kennedy Jr., and Quincy Jones, among others.
She is one of a handful of D.C. servers who has worked at the same restaurant for at least a decade. They’re self-taught experts in recent fine dining history, food and drink trends, and even political parties. Their restaurants are control environments—the only thing that changes is the world around them.
These seasoned servers are anomalies in D.C., where restaurant owners are quick to vent about high staff turnover and new restaurants poaching employees. Talk to them, and you’ll learn that the job of a server is as challenging as it’s ever been.
Those taking orders have to contend with increased competition, pressure from social media, knowledgeable and demanding diners, and a litany of allergies and aversions. Then there are more extrinsic factors—the pendulum swing of political administrations, the dot-com boom, and the Great Recession.
Naji Neisi, who has worked at 701 Restaurant since 1998, and Jalal Hanouni, who has been at Central Michel Richard since the bistro opened in 2007, agree with Haunani that the advent of social media changed the industry. Chefs aren’t the only ones feeling the pressure from tweets and tags.
“You have to pay attention to details and everything has to be top notch,” Hanouni says. He’s seen the king of Jordan and cabinet members come through the restaurant. “With social media, you can do it at the table. You used to have to go home and write a letter or something. It’s extra pressure.”
“With social media and bloggers, things are under a microscope,” Neisi echoes. He calls his section at 701 Restaurant the “magic kingdom” and once took care of former FBI Director Robert Mueller. “I don’t see him now, that’s the problem—he has a lot of stuff to do.” He also waited on a table of former CIA directors. Like spies, Neisi says, “Everybody could be a food blogger or food writer with a phone in their hand because they can take pictures and record you.”
Neisi also points to competition. “When I came here, at night time I was warned not to go two blocks over to F Street,” he says. “Now it’s completely different.” His boss, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, has even given himself a healthy dose of competition within the neighborhood by opening Rasika, nopa Kitchen + Bar, and Bibiana.
Finally, Neisi says customers have gotten more sophisticated. “They check and they ask and they demand more, and rightly so,” he says.
Evan Labb has worked at Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria for 13 years. He says he’s never considered leaving, even after he spilled 15 flutes of Champagne on someone. He couldn’t agree more with Neisi that diners’ deeper breadth of knowledge about food and drinks is a tectonic shift. “I remember countless times explaining what pork belly was,” Labb says. “Now the question is, ‘What are you brining the pork belly in?’”
Drink trends are tougher to master. “When I was in server training we went through unbelievable amounts of literature on wine,” Labb says. “We had to learn to pair every menu item up with wine around 2005.” Now he’s expected to do the same with cocktails, beer, and nonalcoholic drinks. “That’s a big increase in responsibility for a server to need to know—customers’ knowledge has gone through the roof.”
A trip to L’Auberge Chez Francois, located in Great Falls since 1976, presents a time warp. The family-run restaurant serves boudin blanc and baked Alaska in a dining room where the tables aren’t on top of each other and there’s no such thing as a “small plate.” Pat Harding has been a server there since 1991. “I’ve seen infants that I now serve alcohol to,” he says. “I used to warm up baby bottles and now I open Champagne bottles.”
He’s noticed a march towards more casual dress. “People used to dress up,” he says. Then the dot-com boom hit in the mid 90’s. “You had all the high-tech business people from the area who would come in,” Harding explains. “They were traveling in and out of California—it was a little more casual and that continues to today.” It’s nice to see men in a jacket, but they’d never turn away a diner. “There’s so much competition now you have to be open.”
The changing of the guard in the White House also shifts the mood inside restaurants, especially those concentrated near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Server Randy Cole has seen several presidential peaks and valleys in his 15-year career at Equinox.
“Republicans eat more, drink more, and spend more money,” Cole says, calling himself a geek when it comes to politics. “The Obamas were good for the food scene, but that was just the two of them dining. They were instrumental in getting the food scene to explode, but that’s all share plates and millennials.” Comparatively, he says, political bigwigs dining during a Republican administration come in droves, order bigger, bolder wines, and would light up cigars in the dining room if they could.
Equinox has long stood out for serving vegan cuisine in a fine dining setting, and Cole recognizes that as a plus because it’s a differentiator. However some culinary accommodation requests can be frustrating.
“I grew up as a kid where I ate everything,” he says. “This was the day when you didn’t hand-sanitize every couple of seconds.” Customers will ask for broccoli that’s been cooked on a grill that’s never been graced by meat. “That’s a little much unless you have an allergy,” he says.
“I remember when no one could have butter,” says Haunani of Occidental. They wanted margarine instead. “I understand there are people who are gluten and dairy sensitive—certainly that can be accommodated. But someone had me go through the whole menu about gluten-free and they ordered bread pudding for dessert because they were ‘saving up.’”
Nevertheless, both Haunani and Cole love their jobs. What keeps them and other veteran servers content is having regular customers. Regulars often request specific servers and over time build relationships that can evolve into friendships.
Giuseppe Racioppa has enjoyed a steady stream of repeat clientele since he started at Oceanaire in 2002. “I know people from all over,” he says. “People text me and ask me to make them a dinner reservation.” He’s off on weekends, but will come in if a regular requests him. Racioppa, who goes by Pino, epitomizes warm, professional service. “I come from a country where if we didn’t have the hospitality mindset, especially down in the southern part where I’m from, our economy would really suffer,” he says of his native Italy.
Racioppa, whose most cherished memory may be waiting on George Clooney, says the Great Recession had the biggest impact on the downtown seafood restaurant. “From 2002 to 2008 people would come in and use their corporate expense account freely,” he says. “The restaurant was packed every day for lunch and dinner. Now a lot of people come in and have a salad or sandwich with iced tea instead of a martini at lunch. Their needs are more about enjoying a good product than impressing whoever they brought in to dine with them.”
Though a number of job opportunities have presented themselves, Racioppa sticks with Oceanaire because, he says, if you remain at a single restaurant instead of churning and burning your way through eateries, you gain invaluable institutional knowledge. He’s already passed the torch to one of this three sons, Marco Racioppa.
Marco started as a busboy at Oceanaire before taking a hiatus. When he returned to D.C. he wanted to be a server. “He knew nothing,” Pino says. “‘Papa, what is a cabernet sauvignon?’ he’d ask. So I taught him the basics.” Now he’s the number one server at RPM Italian, and everybody asks for him, according to Pino. “You dedicate yourself a little bit every day and learn one thing at a time.”
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