Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From one hostess to another

I have good news for the travelers among us: I have just returned from Savannah (that's right, Georgia), an arresting beautiful town in an equally as radiant state. And I am armed with enough information to make me a threat to Fodor's restaurant section: Being at the same time more witty, beguiling, and a generally merry than that bunch and being perpetually sensitive to what it means to be a good hostess.

Hostessing is not a responsibility which exists only in one's home. It is a profession. Indeed, a craft involving hotels, restaurants, and all manner of people who welcome. We are, as a group, pleasers. We are created to invite, serve, enjoy, and move off and on, to the next party, meal, or service. And we are not, in my mind, separated by those in business and those who hostess at home. I know, because I learned both sides of this trade while hostessing in college. There are many schools in the United States for hospitality, and every chef, every front house manager, hostess, B&B owner, hotel steward, and bus boy has some form of education in the art, whether it be from the Culinary Institute or the school of life. It is real, and to be respected. It is what brings customers back to a restaurant and guests back to your home.

There is a convivial tone of voice which greets you just after a neat and carefully considered appearance is presented to you. Things are manicured: Nails, lawns, cabinets. Preferences are taken, imperceptibly, into account. As a host or hostess, you make decisions by asking as few questions in relation to your invitation as possible. I pride myself on remembering what people would and would not care to eat. And if I do not know, I will make the extra dish to be sure all possibilities have been addressed. Meat and meatless. Red and white. Nut and not. And then, I watch. And I capitalize on my observance to heighten the experience the next time: My sister-in-law likes spicy food and sateen sheets, one friend will not eat fruit in dessert, another does not care for tarragon. You see, the specifics are crucial, and a host drills down on them to hone their craft.

I am sure the fine Deen family of Savannah spent a good many years being hosts and watching, learning how best to serve their patrons and increase their business. I believe this because I have more respect for Paula Deen, for a number of reasons, than most people on earth. And I think she is a capable and exacting hostess whose empire has grown to a point requiring the help of many others and possibly some trade-offs of the basic principle of the craft as I have just stated them to you.

When I go to Savannah, I always try to give The Lady and Sons an opportunity to shine the way Paula Deen does, but twice in the last six months the experience there has been disappointing, to gently understate it. Even when I am not eating there, I will go by to watch the craft dwindle and ebb. The whole concept of the "no-reservation" reservation system is now so convoluted, it is hard to understand why they would have walked away from the first-come approach: You need to be there at 9:00 am to stand on a long line and they will give you a time to come back for lunch or dinner. Fifteen minutes before that time, you need to be standing on the opposite side of the street from her restaurant. Then you may wait 30 minutes more to be seated. But my husband and I witnessed a perfectly ridiculous additional insult to these loyal patrons when a woman came out from the restaurant, forced the crowd to chant "Yes! We are ready to eat!" to which she finally responded, "Then come and get it!"

Well, the whole crowd, I am guessing a hundred people or more, streamed towards her to cross the street and go into the restaurant. At that moment, bull horns were raised and the hostess shouted the crowd back across the street to continue their wait. It was perfect insanity to our eyes.

I know a little about the place and I have a measure of patience for it. I generally tolerate this nonsense to give our lunch to Mrs. Deen because I also know a little about where she has been and I would rather her future see the benefit of our dollars than any corporate enterprise. But my attachment to the craft of hostessing got the best of me today: A quick inspection of the place revealed lines at the elevators to get upstairs and be seated all at once, at the buffets, at the restrooms, at the retail store.

This hostess wants that hostess to continue to succeed. But I also hope a reining in of the appearance of the hostesses, their demeanor, the bull horns, and the lines will rapidly ensue. There is something decidedly not promising about today's events and given all of Mrs. Deen's talents, effervescence, and promise, I hope the best parts of our shared craft are revived at The Lady and Sons.

But, looking up and forward and wishing I could always and only have glowing notes on everything, I have many regarding Savannah not only for those who can and will visit, but for those of you reaching out to Savannah on the Internet. Stay with me, tomorrow is a wonderful day of notes on some truly noteworthy businesses in sweet Savannah.

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