12/12/2012 11:01:00 AM

Service Secrets: Island Creek Oyster Bar, Ceia, The Painted Burro

Nancy Batista-Caswell of Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport
You know it when you get it: a great server who helps you navigate a tricky menu, suggests a killer cocktail and puts you at ease with the wine you’re about to order. What’s behind this subtle art of steering customers in the right direction? Knowledge. Whether it’s between the lamb and the gnocchi, or the way we feel after we’ve paid the check, a server’s understanding of how to help a customer is often the difference between a guest that returns, or not. Here are how a few Boston area restaurants do it right.

As soon as a few new hires start at Island Creek Oyster Bar, the staff heads down to Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury. The field trip, which includes a tour of the farm and hatchery, teaches ICOB servers and cooks about the life cycle of an oyster - an initiation that equips the staff for better service by being able to impart that knowledge to guests. After all, the eponymous restaurant in Kenmore Square bets its reputation on these luscious cold-water gems. “It’s part of the training that’s required,” says Melissa Romanos, a manager at ICOB.

At Ceia in Newburyport, owner Nancy Batista-Caswell does many things to train her staff to be top-notch servers, including intensive wine classes and even etiquette training. It gives her servers the wherewithal to take hospitality to the next level. And they do. When a party is about to leave its table, the server is right there. “They should walk them to the door, help them with their coats,” says Batista-Caswell. “We always talk about the genuine approach, ‘finishing the table.’” The result? Loyal customers who feel cared for and want to come back.

Imagine being faced with a list of more than 100 tequilas. Nice, right? Well, more daunting when you’re not familiar with what their nuanced differences are. That’s why Somerville's The Painted Burro, which has such an extensive list of tequilas, mescals and beers, requires its servers to study up. Once a week a server is required to pick a tequila, research it and present on that tequila or mescal to the rest of the staff. Twice a month tequila representatives come in to inform and conduct tastings with the staff. The intensive training not only helps servers better inform guests, but it’s a way to help them, too. “We’re not doing this for the restaurant,” says general manager Alejandro Mesa. “This is to help [the servers] get more money in their pockets.”

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