12/14/2012 02:38:00 PM

Providence's Donato Poto on Service Secrets, Fumbles and More

Donato Poto just knows how to work a room. At Providence, voted number one for service in the 2013 Los Angeles Restaurants guide, you'll find him in suit and tie, greeting guests, touching tables and making sure that every guest is as comfortable and content with their lunch or dinner experience. He's quick with a smile and has charm out the wazoo, which comes after years and years in the hospitality business, from running Piero Selvaggio's Primi for 13 years, to managing the Water Grill, where he met current business partner Michael Cimarusti, and opening Bastide with Alain Giraud. Early next year he and Cimarusti will open Connie & Ted's, an East Coast-style seafood house that will be more casual than their haute Melrose restaurant.

Congratulations on Providence topping the Zagat list for service. Why do you think it's number one? I think that the service at Providence goes hand in hand with the food, quality and presentation, the service of the wine and the bar program. In order for us to be at the level that we are, we try to teach employees what we want to achieve. If the food was awesome and the service was just OK, I would feel like we were failing somewhere. Each area of the restaurant should feed off the other areas of the restaurant. It should go hand in hand.

What makes for great service?
It’s not just to serve people, that they get their food on time, but also involve them in the experience of the restaurant that allows people to remember. That they feel a part of the experience. There are a lot of details people forget to let their staff know. First, that the diners are important. Not to invade their space too much. To read your guests, allow them to be as comfortable as the want to be, but not to be cold and stuffy. In LA, people think high-end restaurants are stuffy, at Providence we want people to be comfortable. When somebody leaves and makes a reservation on their way out, and says they want to to be in the same section of their waiter, that’s a success to me.

Do you think LA gets unfairly bad wrap for having bad service?
Compared to certain cities like New York, there is a lack of professionalism here. Or maybe a lack of competitiveness among restaurants that pushes them to do better. We also have very demanding guests here. In LA, for some reason the restaurant business is treated as a job and not as a profession. Unfortunately, there is less commitment here. It sometimes comes form the management, from the head of the house. If there is no management control, no training behind it, then there is no way of doing it differently.

So it's difficult to find good servers in this town?
Absolutely. We are opening a new restaurant, and if we put an ad up, we get 200 to 300 responses. Out of those, there are maybe 10 that I feel we can train. Actually, more than service, it's hard to find good managers. With a server, someone who has good experience, you can mold them, make them great servers. But to find an honest, willing-to-work manager to fit the profile you're looking for is difficult. There isn't one Wednesday at the famers market that a colleague doesn't ask me if I have a manager to spare.

Biggest service pet peeves?
I am very particular about things. I believe every restaurant should have great service. At Providence I want to go above and beyond. Starting at the beginning, the first impression counts. Eye contact is important. Greeting the guests, or if I see someone leaving and no one around to say goodbye, it drives me crazy. When they are too busy working too fast and dropping things, it can be irritating. When I'm out, I don't like when a server needs to be the center of attention. I hate when they have an 'I’m doing you a favor' attitude. Or sitting down and socializing with other guests. That means they have no sense of timing, they aren’t paying attention. And I don't like someone without a sense of humor. They have to have a personality.

You worked with Piero Selvaggio for many years. What did you learn from him?
Piero taught me how to be a complete successful restaurateur. It’s not just about numbers or how shrewd you are. It’s very important how to read the guests, how to please people, how to change a bad situation into a positive successful one. He may be the most charming host that Los Angeles has. He could turn vinegar into wine or sugar into honey. I’ve never seen anyone do it better than Piero.

Any horror stories?
I don't think it's really a horror story, more like a learning experience. We had four people come in, two younger ladies and two older. The two younger ones came in and went to the bathroom. Then the other two showed up and joined them. The whole table was in the bathroom. We finally get them sat down, and little by little they were getting really loud, with the servers, with each other. Just a lot of foul, obscene language. It was really disturbing the other guests. I asked them a couple times if they could keep it down, to be a little nicer. Meanwhile, several tables around them came to me and asked to be moved. Luckily, we had some room that night and I could move people around. I used all of my tools to be nice, but I finally had to ask them to stop dining and leave. That they were disrespecting the restaurant and our other guests. They wouldn't leave. They stayed through their main course and finally left. On the way out, one of them wrote a message saying service was great, so was the food but that the request to leave sucked. She said, "Thank you Donato Poto, we will give you a dollar tip." And then they wrote: "And we'll see you on Yelp." I have that note in my office, a reminder that we can always improve.

That sounds like some of the stars of a horrible reality TV show.
Well, to me the restaurant business is like a show, a never-ending theater. That’s why I still do it with much love. One day it could be a boring night, others can be crazy like that. You never know what each person’s expectations are. Especially in a city where food and service is not the priority of a lot diners. You have to know how to give the type of service to each person. Every person is different.

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