Over the clatter of pots and pans, the waitress addresses the party of four dining just feet from the hot line at Buca di Beppo restaurant in Washington, D.C. “You’re at the best seat in the house tonight,” she smiles.
Sitting near the kitchen used to be less than desirable, but today some diners can’t get close enough. Customers are clamoring to sit at special “kitchen tables” or “chef’s tables” that provide a front-row view of the culinary action. Buca di Beppo is among those operations setting a place in the kitchen for customers. The casual restaurant chain offers a kitchen table at about half of its 97 units.
Customers who crave an entertaining dining experience, in addition to good food, are attracted to back-of-the-house tables. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2010 Restaurant Industry Forecast, 64% of adults say they would patronize a chef’s table and private tastings.
“The kitchen table is our most popular table,” says John Thall, Buca’s senior vice president of business development. “The tables are usually reservation only, and are sold out every weekend and holiday.”
Boston-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group features a chef’s table/room at seven of its nine steakhouse locations. “Guests love the experience as they are treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the action in our kitchens and a visit to the table by our amazingly talented chefs, who convey the passion they put into each dish,” says Kim Giguere-Lapine, vice president of marketing.
The kitchen/chef’s table experience differs widely from one restaurant to another. Buca di Beppo puts customers right in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. At some of the Smith & Wollensky units, a special glass-enclosed room provides diners an up-close view of the culinary action, without the heat or noise.
The kitchen ambience at Park 75 in Atlanta’s Four Seasons Hotel changes depending on the day and time. Most evenings the restaurant offers its “chef’s table” experience. For $150 per person, guests dine on a seven-course dinner customized for special requests. Executive Chef Robert Gerstenecker introduces each dish, and the sommelier explains each wine pairing. The table is reserved for private parties up to 10.
Thursday evenings, the restaurant offers its more casual “kitchen table,” which seats up to 14. Lights are turned down, and the music turned up. Parties are seated together, providing a chance to meet people and network. For $75, customers are treated to a five-course menu, served family style, complete with a make-your-own-brownie finale. Hot caramel is poured atop a chocolate sphere, melting the top and revealing ice cream to accompany the brownie.
On Wednesday afternoons, the table transforms to Chef G’s Burger Bar, offering diners a kitchen view while they enjoy specialties like the “Buford Highway Duck Burger” or the “Greek LamBurger.” “It’s about making the meal fun and exciting, rather than just grabbing something to eat,” says Gerstenecker.
Before you set the stage for a kitchen/chef’s table, remember to:
Check your script. Some local health codes do not allow a table in the kitchen, or require that a low wall separate the table from the rest of the kitchen.
Prep the set. Place the table a safe distance from the food line. Consider noise and heat factors. For example, Park 75 places screens around its dishwashers to reduce noise. Get your kitchen ready for public viewing. “A kitchen table keeps staff on their toes and helps keep the kitchen clean,” says Thall.
Give customers a starring role. Be open to questions about the food, preparation techniques and more. Gerstenecker says some guests even don an apron, toque, and gloves to help plate their food.