Dining: The Sacramento area’s best servers

12/22/2013 12:00 AM

12/22/2013 8:28 AM

Great servers can be the most powerful people in a restaurant, for they are the direct link between the kitchen and the customer.

They are in the business of serving. They are in sales. They are explainers, advisers, observers, amateur psychologists, problem solvers, masters of timing and, beyond all that, they know how to put on a show. When they step into the dining room, they are in their element, bringing to bear their commitment and passion for executing at the highest level. They can be witty, charismatic, intuitive, serious or solemn, but they are never dull, and they are always on.

With their skill, talent and attention to detail, they can influence your mood, make good food taste better and affect just how happy you are with the overall dining experience.

Yet, this crucial role is often overlooked when it comes to recognizing the Sacramento area’s restaurant scene and its continued rise in stature. During this summer’s Farm-to-Fork Festival, we celebrated chefs and we honored farmers, but we neglected our many passionate and devoted servers who make it all come together.

For several years, I have sought to remedy these recurring slights by honoring the best servers I have encountered. Each year, the competition is tougher and the standards to make the list higher.

This is the first time a restaurant (Kru) has two servers on the same list; the first time a restaurant (Formoli’s Bistro) has had a third server named to a list; and, for better or worse, the first and only time a server (Chloe Henry) found herself suddenly without a gig when her restaurant closed without warning – bad for her, since she’s struggling to make ends with Christmas looming, but good for the lucky restaurant that is able to snap her up.

You may wonder why some restaurants touted for excellent service do not appear on the list this year. Part of that has to do with timing and some, as in the case of Ella Dining Room & Bar, which I awarded four stars overall this year, relates to a service style in which teamwork throughout the restaurant shines through more than individual prowess. The other explanation is that the competition is extremely tough. My list also seeks to include a variety of restaurant styles – fine dining, neighborhood bistro and even order-at-the-counter eateries.

Chloe Henry, 25

formerly Blackbird Kitchen & Bar

Strengths: Attention to detail, elegant demeanor and knowledge of food.

I first noticed Henry’s potential when I reviewed Hot Italian in early 2010 and she was in her second restaurant job. She made it look so easy and seemed to exude a certain joy and charisma as she went about her work. At Blackbird, she was even better; her repertoire had expanded, the restaurant had a more sophisticated menu, and Henry was up for the challenge.

She was my server on two consecutive visits, and her stellar performance single-handedly lead to a higher overall rating than I had originally intended. That’s power. Since then, I visited several more times, and she never disappointed, handling her tables and setting an example for other servers.

When I assess servers, she is my benchmark. She possesses a rare combination of intense focus and ease that allows her to size up a table in seconds without seeming overbearing. When you need her, she’s there, when you don’t she’s invisible. Henry is so good at what she does that I would find it entertaining and inspiring to simply sit and watch her work.

Sadly, that is not currently possible, as she has been unemployed since Blackbird closed in early October. Henry bided her time and finished a few college classes. She has since committed herself to making a career in the hospitality industry and is looking for her next opportunity. Restaurants seeking a real talent with leadership skills would do well to reach out.

“Every time I serve, I try to imagine if it was me sitting at the table, and it was my first time there,” she said. “When you have a good shift and everything is on point, it feels like you’ve done your part to sell the restaurant’s vision, not only because you want to sell it, but because you believe in it yourself. Every time I’m out on the floor, I have the game face on. When I serve, I’m representing the chef, the other servers, the bussers, the entire restaurant. It’s a team.”

Jennifer Lambros, 30

Kru

Strengths: Knowledge, commitment to excellence, understated style.

Lambros is not flashy, but if you are a foodie and ask a detailed question about cooking technique or ingredients, be prepared to be wowed by the answer. Lambros comes by her skill set honestly. Her mother is a retired schoolteacher, and she is a full-time elementary schoolteacher in the Elk Grove Unified School District.

At the depths of the economic downtown, Lambros was in danger of getting laid off, so she got a second job as a server at Magpie. Here was a highly regarded teacher with a master’s degree from the University of California, Davis, working all day and then, after a quick change, showing up for a completely different second job.

“It was never an issue for me,” she said. “There were people in my field who couldn’t believe I would do that, like I was taking a step back. But I had so much pride in doing it that it didn’t bother me. I expressed to them that I loved what I did and it didn’t matter how many degrees I had.”

I have encountered Lambros’ work on many occasions and she has always made the dining experience more meaningful with her knowledge and passion for what she does. Beginning in 2011, she worked at Magpie for two years before recently moving to Kru – amazingly, she still takes occasional shifts at Magpie and does catering assignments.

Not surprisingly, Lambros doesn’t have time for extracurricular activities.

“I tell people I have two passions – kids and food,” she said.

William Tan, 35

Kru

Strengths: Background as a chef, ability to guide diners to make more interesting menu choices.

Tan has been in the restaurant game since he landed a job peeling potatoes at midtown breakfast fixture Cornerstone.

In addition to serving, Tan has a background as a sushi chef. To the uninitiated, his approach may be surprising. He doesn’t simply stand back and take orders. He involves himself in the process and often challenges guests to have a more meaningful dining experience. Given the sophisticated nature of Kru’s food, that approach can be enlightening.

“I see myself as an intrusive server. I always want people to fully experience the menu we are serving. It’s just a light push here and there. In most cases, they appreciate it because they feel happy they have tried something new.”

Tan is a consummate professional and excellent host, and he knows how to make customers feel special.

Quinn Farragher, 34

Hook & Ladder

Strengths: Top-to-bottom restaurant knowledge, sincerity, people skills.

One night during dinner, I had the pleasure of watching Farragher in action – she wasn’t even handling my table. I saw a true leader who not only worked her tables but taught newer servers how to handle all the little things that add up to good service. On the floor, her role seems more like a player-coach.

I was not surprised to learn that she used to own, with her mother, the former Cafe Milazzo in east Sacramento. She’s also a culinary school graduate. But five years ago, when she had twins – her third and fourth children – she sold the restaurant. Serving was a way to have regular hours and make good money.

One of the things that shines through with Farragher is trust – when she tells you what’s good on the menu, you believe it.

“I have a lot of knowledge of food and what it takes to run a restaurant from every aspect,” she said. “I enjoy training, being a manager or being the den mother.”

Sarah Gonzales, 25

formerly Formoli’s Bistro

Strengths: Overall command of service, warmth, sincerity.

When I first encountered Gonzales one day before the lunchtime rush, she lit up the restaurant with her smile. And there was plenty of substance to go with it. I asked her a couple of questions about the menu, and it became clear that she truly believed in the mission of the restaurant.

Only after I selected her for this year’s list did I learn about her restaurant pedigree. She is the daughter of Bobbin Mulvaney – wife of Patrick Mulvaney, the celebrated chef and owner of Mulvaney’s B&L.

Gonzales has been in the restaurant game since the cradle. Her first job was at Marie Callendar’s, and she has worked at Ella, Mulvaney’s, de Vere’s Irish Pub and OneSpeed, and recently moved to San Francisco, where she serves at George’s Restaurant in the Financial District. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her running Mulvaney’s someday.

Of her enthusiasm for the food at Formoli’s she said: “I love the food and I love talking about it. I have so much respect for (chef Aimal Formoli and wife Suzanne Ricci). They just show everyone a great amount of respect and you just want to work harder for them.”

Amy Alfaro, 48

Juno’s Kitchen

Strengths: Engaging personality, attention to the little extras.

Alfaro may take orders at the counter, but that’s far from the end of the interaction. She has such sincerity, and it is clear she believes in what the restaurant is all about. Of all the servers on the list, her background is the most diverse. She has written about food, taught cooking classes, was a chambermaid in Switzerland, worked in a vineyard in Provence and was a nanny for the ambassador of Australia in Geneva, Switzerland. At Juno’s, she also does the baked goods under the name Joe Bickies.

“The key at Juno’s is I really like working there and seeing the people who come through the door,” she said. “I want them to feel it is a comfortable environment.”

Indeed, a visit to Juno’s when Alfaro is working feels more like you’re dropping by a friend’s house – that just happens to have a great chef.

Mallory Nowak, 23

Jamie’s Broadway Grille

Strengths: Smarts, people skills.

This is a tough gig. The place looks like a dive. The chef is a big talent, the food is fantastic, and the place is teeming with regulars, many of them discerning foodies.

What’s a server to do? You’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to have lots of personality, and you definitely can’t be a shrinking violet.

Nowak has been in the restaurant business since she was 16 and knows how to interact with people. We thought her combination of professional service and personal charm was the perfect fit for this Sacramento culinary institution.

She started at Jamie’s bussing tables while enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, and worked her way up to server. She recently earned her degree in nutrition and plans to continue serving before pursuing a master’s degree.

“Usually, they only hire really experienced people, but they said I made it through Jamie’s school of hard knocks,” she said with a laugh. “I try to make sure the customer has a good time. It makes it a lot easier that Jamie’s makes such great food.”

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