It was going to be a special shared birthday; drive to Portland for an upscale getaway dinner during a particularly bleak time of year in the Northwest. We enjoy everything from dive bars to special occasion restaurants so long as they’re unique. In September, we ate at four very different restaurants in New Orleans, all James Beard award winners, so when I told a friend of our birthday plans he suggested we try Jory, the restaurant at the Allison Inn and Spa, a luxury wine estate, near Newberg south of Portland.
Several days before the trip I went online to make a 6:30 reservation using the Open Table link on their website. I was given 5:45 or 8pm as their openings. Neither was good, but of the two, 5:45 seemed like better timing. It was the first in a series of disappointments. Not a great start.
In an earlier life I owned a small upscale Italian bistro called Piccolo in Sun Valley, and when I was new in the business I was mentored by Wolfgang Schmidheiny the Swiss CEO of Napa’s Cuvaison Winery. Early in our friendship I asked him to talk to our staff about wine. He agreed but redirected the discussion to what it takes to give the customer a good overall restaurant experience. With respect to wine, he told us to keep it simple; let the waiter in the tuxedo down the street talk about “notes of blackberry and chocolate on the nose.” He suggested the waitstaff say the wine in question was “representative of the varietal, well reviewed by the experts, and one of our best sellers.”
Then he talked about the restaurant experience itself. He told us that there are four things to consider in evaluating a restaurant – food, atmosphere, service, and “recognition.” Food preparation, he told us, may be simple or complex but all restaurants worthy of a review use high quality seasonal ingredients and prepare them well. Consequently, food was the least important of the four considerations on his list. The most important was recognition, by which he meant how the customer was treated. If he was a returning customer, he should be recognized and greeted warmly by name. If new, he/she should be welcomed cordially and made to feel comfortable? Service was the second consideration, essentially an adjunct to the first, and atmosphere was third.
This leads me to the crux of my review of Jory, the Allison Inn restaurant. On Tuesday, M and I drove to Portland. My friend told us to take a “bag full of cash,” but cost wasn’t going to determine our restaurant choice. We had looked at the menu and knew what to expect.
Sadly, the evening didn’t measure up – but it wasn’t the food that disappointed. When we arrived at the Inn, in driving rain and heavy traffic, we gave the car to the valet and presented ourselves to the maître d’hôtel. His welcome was cold and unsmiling. He seemed distracted, surprised to see us, and asked “Would you like to wait in the bar until your table is ready?” Really? Does ten minutes early mean you have to sit in the bar when the dining room is empty? We told him we preferred to be seated, and with reluctance he led us to our table in the totally empty dining room. Not long after we were seated another couple came in and the four of us sat alone in the room until just before 7pm. There is nothing less enjoyable than watching the wait staff fidget while you wait for your food in a large empty dining room. I wondered why my 6:30 request had been denied. If we had been seated at 6:30 our orders would have been in the kitchen queue before the 7pm arrivals. Were they understaffed and unable to handle a full dining room? Didn’t they realize an empty dining room always raises questions about a restaurant?
Despite the bad start, our servers were attentive and there were a couple of nice surprises including a mushroom amuse bouche with our drinks and sorbet between courses. Our waiter was knowledgeable, and when I asked about a local Pinot Noir his recommendation turned out to be just right for the octopus and chorizo pappardelle starter and later with the seared Pacific scallops with a pomegranate garnish. Marilynn’s Australian Wagyu striploin was cooked to a perfect medium rare but delivered to the table on the cool side. Not fatal but not up to her standard. The service was competent throughout and, all in all, the food part of our meal was good. Unfortunately, the overall experience was degraded by the 5:45 start, the empty dining room, and the imperious greeting by the maître’d. On the way back to our hotel we didn’t discuss the excellent food flavors. Instead, the conversation turned on how ridiculous and condescending the maître’d had been. Our special occasion dinner experience fell flat, and though we got away for $200 we would rather have spent more for a memorable birthday dinner.
The lesson is obvious; if your business depends on the customer experience, the staff needs training. You never know who that customer is going to be. The Jory didn’t know I was a freelance travel writer or that we had restaurant chops. My friend Wolfgang was 100% right; with three of the four factors on the right side of the ledger the experience was still disappointing. Even with special touches like the suite of chocolates on a Happy Birthday plate (below) we left the restaurant wishing it had been better. It’s a shame that Open Table and a condescending host can turn a special celebration into a disappointing occasion. It takes such little effort to do it right.