Plenty has been written this year about the thrills and complications of Rene Redzepi’s Noma pop-up in the jungle of Tulum, Mexico. What no one appears to have discussed yet: the storms. Seven of them roiled the tropical skies during the restaurant’s nearly two-month run in April and May, and when wind and rain bore down on the open-air dining room — as it did the night I had dinner there — it sent the staff scurrying into well-rehearsed emergency mode.
Around the time my friend and I were dunking our spoons into a bowl of limey masa broth covered in edible flowers, the first raindrops started spattering on the sand around us. Immediately, a staffer appeared at our table, and he grinned like a teenager spelling out a backup plan with friends in his tree house. “You’re just under the thatched roof here so you should stay dry,” he said, “but we’ll be checking on you. Please let us know if you’re at all uncomfortable.”
We watched tarps appear and saw other tables physically moved to the edge of the covered kitchen. Strangers made eye contact and smirked conspiratorially. Nothing about this stir felt like panic; it felt like exhilaration, as much a part of the pageantry as the showstopper tostada piled with escamoles (pale ant eggs).
Palm branches swayed and bucked and the occasional orange or purple blossom somersaulted through the air. No matter. We were snug. Plates of astonishing food continued to arrive at a soothing pace. The storm dampened neither our meal nor our spirits.
With tax and tip, diners paid $750 a head for their Noma Mexico outing — not factoring the cost of airfare and lodging. It was an exorbitant happening, a fleeting experiment. I mention it now because as this experience crystallizes into a special memory, I’m surprised at what stands out most in my mind. I’ll spout poetry about Redzepi’s tropical fruits in a smoky broth of chile de arbol and the octopus wrapped in corn husks, but first I’m going to tell you about the histrionic weather and how the staff rescued the moment in ways both well-planned and playful.
Dramatic storm or not, this sense of benevolent control should be par for the course when a diner is spending an obscene amount of money on dinner. Most of us obsessed with restaurants can afford this kind of splurge only rarely, a special-occasion odyssey often arranged months in advance. Reacting to thunderstorms — literal, but also metaphorical — is part of the promise of extraordinary service, a silent contract, a gilded framework.
But the exceptional competence and warmth of Noma’s staff was proof of a shift in service philosophy I’ve noticed in recent years — a reaction to the changing relationship between restaurant and customer. At dining’s loftiest cathedrals, the fulcrums on which spectacular hospitality pivot have subtly recalibrated. If the underlying motto of luxe hospitality has always been "let us take care of you," the finest practitioners now convey an additional message: "We're in it together." That attitude isn't meant to let service pros shirk their responsibilities. Instead it acknowledges the improvisational nature of genuine interaction.
Even in the best restaurants, things go wrong. Platters topple. Glasses break. Preferences are forgotten. Words are misunderstood. The finest hospitality pros I’ve seen in action understand that they can’t control what they can’t control; they can only control their reaction. And so they choose to react with sincerity, imagination, and diffusing levity.
I still think about a charming malfunction at the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley two years ago. Halfway through dinner, a candle had been discreetly placed on the table; it turned out to contain a bloomy rind French triple cream warmed to runny lusciousness by the flame. Restaurant director Nathaniel Dorn sidled up with a short cheese wire to slice through the candle, but the wax was thick and stubborn, and the top wouldn’t budge. “It’s our first night trying this, and it’s worked at other tables,” he said, laughing. It could have been awkward, but Dorn’s self-effacement made the exchange feel real; I was rooting for him. When we finally used a knife to reveal the cheese, it felt like a triumph for both of us. A few minutes later, Dorn returned with another lit candle. “We're getting this right,” he said. This time, the wax and its flickering wick popped off easily. The trick worked, and as a customer I felt unusually well cared for.
Of course, service staffs don’t always take the opportunity to turn their missteps into triumphs. Am I the only one who somehow winds up feeling guilty or shamed when I have a bad service experience at a fancy meal? It’s so easy for me to recall some standout instances: the time at a now-closed Atlanta luminary where I found my duck breast a shade too rare, and the servers formed in a tight circle near the table, whispering like I was a problem child about to implode. And the way at the staff at Urasawa in Los Angeles treated me like I was lucky to even be in the building, and openly berated me for sneaking iPhone pics. I need to remind myself during these run-ins that as a paying customer I didn’t do anything wrong. The breach in hospitality was on the restaurant, not on me.
Last month I weathered a different kind of climate-related incident that didn’t resolve as gracefully as at Noma Mexico. As research for our annual Best New Restaurants in America list I booked a meal at Single Thread, a high-end restaurant that opened at the end of 2016 in Sonoma County. Other critics have swooned over the farm-restaurant-inn creation of chef Kyle Connaughton and his wife, farmer Katina Connaughton, and their melding of Californian and Japanese aesthetics. The Connaughtons have said they hope diners “feel like a guest in our home.”
They also take a great deal of pride in their rooftop garden. Almost as soon as my friend and I walked into the restaurant for a mid-July 5:30 p.m. reservation, a server directed us to the elevator for short ride to the building’s third floor, and we emerged onto a shadeless roof. It was 90 degrees. The sun bore down. My friend and I looked at one another as sweat started to trickle down both our faces.
Maybe someone could open an umbrella? We were told their folds upturn even in the slightest breeze. With big smiles, servers presented a drink list and snacks like fresh mulberries and a waffle cracker filled with pureed sunflower seeds and arugula. One fellow handed us sunglasses, joking that Ray Ban should sponsor the rooftop experience. They beamed at us. It was if they were willing themselves not to see the miserable and sticky state into which we — and other wilting souls around us — were devolving.
Two women who had arrived just before us asked to leave, and we followed. The women and our party of two were all seated in an otherwise empty alcove off the restaurant’s main, airy dining room. The tables had been laid out with a gorgeous spread of seasonal bites, a variation on the hassun course that comes early in a traditional kaiseki meal.
It was undeniably warm. We kept sweating. The women near us leaned over to talk quietly with their server, and soon they were moved from the room. I hoped the staff might think to extend us the same courtesy. They did not. I called over our server.
“It’s really stuffy in here,” I said. “Could you find another table for us as well?” She looked grave and disappeared to confer with the team.
“The AC compressor gave out just before you arrived,” she said when she returned. “We can seat you at a table across the restaurant?” No smiles, no cheerfulness, no “let’s make this right for you and turn it into an adventure.” The other staff milled about us gingerly for much of the evening. We sensed we’d been labeled a trouble table. It soured our dinner. We certainly didn’t feel like a guest in someone’s home.
It was one evening. Missteps happen. But dinner for two at Single Thread starts at nearly $600; with alcohol that price can easily double. As a critic writing a formal review I would return more than once. As a “citizen diner,” I doubt I’d go back. From my one Single Thread meal, I can poeticize about the poached foie gras in tomato tea, the scallop-stuffed squash blossoms, and the black cod and vegetables cooked in a stunning ceramic pot called a donabe. But I’ll always start the story by talking about how we sweltered on the roof.
Can’t see the above signup form? Click here to subscribe to Bill Addison’s newsletter.