Food & Drink

Sacramento servers spiel off specials and deliver dishes with panache

Daniella Jankovic is a server at Nagato Sukiyaki.
Daniella Jankovic is a server at Nagato Sukiyaki.

Great servers can elevate any dining experience. They can make you happier, more at ease and better informed. And, yes, great service can make the food taste better.

Each year, I recognize the very best servers I encountered during my 200-plus restaurant visits because service is a crucial part of the restaurant equation, and it is not celebrated nearly often enough.

The servers on the list this year and in years past have much in common. They do their homework. They are personable. They understand the importance of their role. Almost all are serious foodies themselves (in fact, two on this list are also restaurant owners). But more than anything, they seem to have an innate ability for making your restaurant visit a memorable one. Not lost on them is the financial correlation: Great servers earn more money.

The servers from last year’s list continue to thrive. Jennifer Lambros, a full-time school teacher, was recognized for her work at Magpie Cafe. She is now at Kru. Chloe Henry, whose fine work at Blackbird put her on the 2013 roster, is now working at Mother and Grange. Quinn Farragher? She continues to be awesome at Hook & Ladder.

Joe Shay, 26, Trick Pony

When I returned to the midtown pizzeria Trick Pony in recent weeks to give it a fresh look and possibly elevate the rating, I was thinking about the pizza. Was the crust going to be improved? Would the pizzas be as good as the competition nearby?

I was not expecting to be blown away by great service. Joe Shay, who comes from Illinois and has only been in town for a few months, was excellent. He has been waiting tables since he was 17. In a casual setting like this, he was very friendly and upbeat, knowledgeable without being stuffy, prompt and attentive without seeming overeager.

An avid foodie himself, Shay is at his best when you ask him about the food. He knows his stuff and believes in what he is doing.

“You can cook dinner at home, so people go out to eat and be waited on and be taken care of,” he said. “I really enjoy wine and food, so I really enjoy getting people to try good food.”

To Shay, the ideal customer is “somebody who is open to being guided through the menu.”

If you’re looking for that kind of elevated experience and are willing to take his recommendations, drop by Trick Pony and ask for Shay.

Alexis Johnson, 30, LowBrau

Because I also write a beer column called “Beer Run,” I often visit places with great beer lists. LowBrau, where Alexis Johnson works, is one of them. It didn’t take many visits to realize that she’s a skilled server and fount of beer knowledge.

Ask her for a recommendation, and she is able to make informed suggestions because she’s clearly put effort into learning about what she’s serving. If you’re a regular, she will probably recall what you drank last time and, if you ask, can steer you to something different. These days, that’s not easy. There are so many breweries, so many styles of beer and so much to know. In this field, Johnson is a true star, and she has made my visits to LowBrau better.

“Once you become educated and learn about something, you become more passionate about it,” she said. “People are stoked to drink beer and eat food. I am just helping them do that. It’s super fun. I just imagine myself on the other side of the table and think about what I would want.”

Johnson says she hopes to continue to grow as a server in the years ahead. She also waits tables at Centro Cocina Mexicana in midtown, though I did not have the pleasure of encountering her work there.

“It was never a career choice for me,” Johnson said of serving. “Now that I am a beer nerd, I absolutely love it. I want to be involved in the Sacramento restaurant scene, and I want to be involved in what (LowBrau owners) Clay (Nutting) and Michael (Hargis) do.”

Adam Chaccour, 58, Moxie

Adam Chaccour is destined to go down as one of the great people in Sacramento restaurant history. He is not only the owner of one of the city’s most interesting and endearing restaurants, he is the star waiter. For years, he and Bill Curren owned and operated Moxie and gave the place a very special charm. A couple of years ago, Curren stepped away and Chaccour took over.

He is arguably the finest waiter in the city. He is so poised and personable. His gentlemanly Lebanese accent only adds to the charm.

Moxie is known for its lengthy list of unwritten nightly specials, presented by Chaccour at the table. He is so good, it is practically a performance piece. To my friends, I refer to him as “Mr. Smooth.”

“So many people go into this business because they need the money or because it is a stepping stone to something else,” Chaccour said. “There are not many people left like me who are still doing it after 35 years. We are a dying breed.”

Let’s hope there are more Chaccours to come, for his presence and his professionalism make the dining experience significantly better. He takes nothing for granted. He is constantly assessing his performance and looking for ways to get better.

“Every night I go to bed, and I feel terrible if I think I have failed anyone,” he said. “Every day is like the first day for me. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. It defines me.”

Daniella Jankovic, 21, Nagato Sukiyaki

Despite her relatively young age, Daniella Jankovic knows this restaurant, which opened 44 years ago, inside and out.

“I’ve been eating here ever since I was born. I love the food,” said Jankovic, who is one-quarter Japanese.

I enjoyed the way she handled our table during a recent visit. Not only does she know the menu, she has personal insights into – and enthusiasm about – the food that you simply cannot teach. I also appreciated her quirky sense of humor and quick wit, traits she gets from her father, who she says is forever making people laugh.

“I always try to break the ice and make some jokes,” she said.

Beyond the personality and personal ties to Nagato, Jankovic is a true pro.

“The service is what makes the restaurant, besides the food,” she said. “You have to make everyone happy. I always want people to feel like they are at home.”

Azziz Belarbi-Salah, 29, Aioli Bodega Espanola

The son of the restaurant’s founder, Azziz Belarbi-Salah has poise and knowledge beyond his years. That comes from hanging out with older waiters who embraced European standards of professionalism and who saw their jobs as helping to provide the full expression of the dining experience.

Like Chaccour, he is both a server and an owner, meaning what he says carries an extra degree of gravitas. He tells a customer the kitchen can prepare something off menu, he doesn’t have to go ask permission. If you ask him about the wine, he’s the one who tasted it and decided to buy it.

“Basically, we all work in service – we’re all in service to people in one way or another,” he said recently while running errands for the restaurant. “I have a hard time imagining doing anything else. This type of interaction is such an integral part of my life.”

Belarbi-Salah is personable. He can be funny. He knows every detail about the food. He talks about wine and pairings like the expert he is. In fact, he can talk to you about nearly anything. In every way, having him as your waiter makes the experience at Aioli something special. In order to show his personality, he has to be able to determine what kind of experience each client is seeking. That’s a skill that comes from many years of experience, of seeing what works – and what doesn’t.

“There are cues in body language and smiles and everything,” he said. “The clients will give you everything you need to know about how to serve them. In this day and age, the level of formality, the type of humor, changes from table to table.”

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

The photos: We asked each server to send us photo – or “selfie” – that captured something special about their personality and how they do their jobs.

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