All that’s missing, are employees

“If you happen to know any servers or bartenders, we’re hiring,” said the man I didn’t know.

Which wouldn’t have been so strange, except that he was the person taking us to our reserved table. As first impressions go, that’s not really what you want to hear.

But that’s the new reality for many new restaurants. There’s obviously a demand, an interest and disposable income. What is missing are employees.

Many years ago, I worked for a restaurant group that opened a new fine-dining restaurant in the lower Sierra foothills. It was swanky, cool and expensive. What it wasn’t was very good. And that had to do directly with the staff.

People have high-end expectations at high-end restaurants. And if you don’t deliver on them, you’re going to hear about them, no matter what the excuse.

Fine dining and fine drinking are different than that dive bar serving so-called “craft” cocktails relatively inexpensively. There you just have to deliver. Nobody is expecting to be wowed particularly. They are just happy to get something. But, if you have to make a happy hour reservation, however, things better be pretty good.

It wasn’t my first rodeo at this place. My first experience had been a soft opening, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the view, the delivery was a little shaky. But that first “free” experience had whetted my appetite, literally, because I had a taste of my friend’s cocktail and I loved it.

These days, many new menus are virtually interchangeable. You just know that there’s going to be a raw fish appetizer, a fancy lettuce salad, a gigantic steak and at least one reimagining of an American classic. There will also be one house specialty using something uber expensive like lobster, caviar or crab. And the same is true for cocktails, too — a take on a Manhattan, a take on the Old Fashioned, a take on a Margarita, a take on the Negroni, one fruity thing and one classic drink not really reimagined but simply renamed something clever. Everything will be about as expected, except there will always be one additional weird item added. My all-time favorite was boiled potatoes in a Caesary salad. Don’t know what they were doing there but boy, they didn’t belong.

“You just don’t get it,” people will say. Yeah, that must be it.

All I could think of all day was that specialty cocktail. It wasn’t especially complex. I mean, it wasn’t fat washed or barrel aged, there wasn’t a shrub or sugar-specific simple syrup or even house-made bitters. It was just well balanced and delicious. I could probably have easily made it at home. But going out is going out.

The only server I could see — and it was a big place — was doing the best she could. To make things easier, we simply ordered beers for the first round. But that didn’t make it easier, because of the six microbeers offered, we didn’t recognize any of them. And that is the problem with being so precious in your approach, you better be sure you have the time for that.

“Do you have anything like Stella?” asked one of my friends.

They did, and when she returned again fully 30 minutes later, we decided that maybe we should order our second round then.

“Last week when I was here, you had a drink on the menu featuring dry vermouth,” I said.

“They must have taken it off,” she said, indirectly indicating that she was new enough to be considering her employment as “them” instead of “us.”

“Can you see if they can still make it?” I asked.

Twenty more minutes and it was a hard no.

“That specialty cocktail is no longer available.”

I could see the back bar from where I was sitting, and there beyond the cocktail recipes taped to the underside of the bar were the three ingredients in that specialty cocktail, including the dry vermouth.

“Why don’t you go tell them how to make it?” asked one of my friends.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• If someone says they can’t make you something, be it food or drink, it’s usually not a good idea to try to force them to.

• No bartender is going to appreciate some nameless person coming over to them in the middle of an understaffed rush to tell them how to make a drink, no matter what.

• It’s always the second or third impression that really cinches the deal.

• A reasonably stocked home bar can solve a lot of problems. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to blame any problems on the staff or the management.

• Just “hire up” say the investment people, particularly when they have no idea how to train or how to do the job they are talking about.