Reading Alan Richman’s latest GQ article, 15 Tips for Ordering Wine in a Restaurant, got me thinking about my own experiences ordering wine while out to dinner the past two evenings. Both dinners were at hot, new, San Francisco restaurants that appear at the top of every must try list, so I was extremely excited to dine in them both.
From the get go, I had a bad feeling at last night’s restaurant. Our server seemed scattered and harried, even though we had an early reservation and the restaurant was half empty, and his unpolished style was off putting to our entire party of four. After we ordered, I asked the waiter to recommend a wine that he thought would be complementary. Instead of offering any recommendations, he instead told me that he would send the sommelier right over, so I sat back and waited. After more than 10 minutes there was still no sign of the sommelier, or our waiter, and I was getting antsy as we all wanted our wine poured before our first courses arrived. Flagging down our waiter from the next table, I held up the wine list and asked, again, that he send over the sommelier. He responded with a bemused giggle and poked his head into the air, scouring the room with his eyes. At long last the sommelier arrived, but unfortunately he did so with all of the pretense and airs that gives sommeliers their often undeserved reputation. In this case the reputation was more than deserved.
Once I got past the feeling that I was inconveniencing him, I told the sommelier what we had ordered, and giving a general idea of what we liked in a white wine, asked what he might recommend. He offered up two choices, using the sort of generic terminology that could apply to any number of white wines, and never once provided any clues as to why he thought these wines would pair well with our meals. We finally agreed to try one of them because we really wanted it there quickly, and as we had dreaded, five minutes after our appetizers arrived, our wine was at last delivered. It was a decent enough Chablis, but it didn't particularly stand up to anything we had ordered and I really felt as if he had just sold us one of his go-to wines rather than putting any real effort into offering us something great.
Now, let’s contrast that experience with tonight’s dinner. After ordering, we asked our waiter to recommend a bottle that he thought would be complementary. He asked us a few questions and then mentioned three bottles that he thought would go well with what we had ordered. He detailed the nuances of each wine, and not only explained to us why he thought each was a good choice, but also gave us some ideas as to what we could expect from each of them when we drank them with the various appetizers. When the bottle we chose arrived (long before the appetizers I might add) it was just as he had described and matched each of our dishes beautifully, even though they were all so different from each other.
Before our entrees arrived, two of us also asked the server to recommend wines by the glass that would complement what we had each ordered. We could not have been more pleased with the way he described the wines he was recommending, nor with the wines themselves, which were just as he had described them. Each was perfectly suited to our entrees and not just complemented them, but truly enhanced both meals. It was so clear that this guy was really determined to offer great pairings and had a very solid understanding of both the food and wines that he was selling, as well as the dining experience as a whole.
In a restaurant heavy, highly competitive city such as San Francisco, I am always amazed by how many restaurants manage to miss the mark. Starting with the wine service, and extending out to all other areas of service, the two restaurants I dined at could not have been more different. I certainly know which one I’ll be recommending.