Weekly Column by Loretta Redd
There’s a phrase used by insiders in the food service industry called ‘restaurant eyes;’ two simple words describing a rare quality found in either wait-staff or floor managers.
The term defines an employee who can walk through their station or restaurant and, judging from the silverware, wine glasses, condiments or coffee cups remaining, predict with some accuracy when the table will turn for those waiting, or what might be needed next by customers still dining.
It is an art form, rarely taught in training and unfortunately, rarely practiced in Santa Barbara. As a customer, you know you’ve experienced a staff with ‘restaurant eyes’ when no matter how occupied or empty the tables, how frenetic or demure the environment; the timing and attention to detail is flawless and the tempo is consistently smooth.
It can happen with a staff of five caring for 300 customers a night, and it can fail with a staff of twenty-five overseeing a mostly empty dining room. I found the magic of restaurant eyes at its finest last weekend at small establishment called Pace.
I try not to venture to lower State Street on weekend evenings, mostly because I feel guilty that the sight of 60 year olds might kill the buzz of the twenty-something crowd getting primed for a long night of misbehavior ahead. But hey, we seniors deserve our fun, too.
I almost changed my mind as I approached, not because of the restaurant, but because of its neighbor. Unfortunately it is located right next to the Cigar Store. As a friend of mine once said, “If you think one person can’t make a difference, just remember what a single cigar can to do a ten room house.” But, we don’t get to pick our neighbors, do we, so we ventured on in.
Enter Pace and enter a world of contradiction. It is rough, yet sophisticated; it is tiny but smartly designed to accommodate couples and singles, along with a few four-tops. The cardiac-paddle comfort food on the menu, such as Mac & Cheese (that’s fontina, muenster and white cheddar,) Sloppy Joe’s or the Papa burger (whose girth requires you to unhinge your jaw,) are countered by more delicate but still delicious Sea Bass, Baby Clam linguini and Seared Ahi salad.
The first drink I spotted on the bar in front was a tallboy PBR, sitting next to a glass of Luminesce, Rose of Pinot Noir. Now, that is eclectic drinking. Most of the bar patrons were also diners, which keeps turnover steady and increases income, rather than catering to the crash-dieting college clan who can nurse a Cosmo for two hours.
The walls were adorned by fairly imposing artwork. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to appeal to the Muddy Waters crowd or just short of funds when they went art shopping, but they might want to tone down the Ziggy and Bob Marley tribute. Okay, stoners do love comfort food, but it doesn’t really do this establishment justice.
Mid way through our meal, a band began to set up. Now, this isn’t a place to come if you are in search of intimate conversation, or ready to propose, but my fears were assuaged when a melodious and exceptional saxophone combo started to play at a volume and selection than actually enhanced the environment.
Here’s what sets Pace apart. Open all of 16 months, it feels as though it has been there forever. You also feel as though the wait-staff is family, without being overly familiar. They don’t insist you call them by their name, they don’t have to reassure you that they’ll “be taking care of you this evening,” and they don’t wait until your mouth is full to ask how your dinner is, or snatch your plate away while others are still eating.
The small band of Brittney, Brian, Jeff, Kim and Moses do it all, and they seem genuinely enthusiastic about what they do. The service, no matter how busy, was effortless and perfectly timed. I observed Moses hoisting a tall chair over his head to accommodate one more diner at the bar in a way that no one barely noticed. Cirque du Soleil morphs into the Restaurant Guy.
Creating an unexpectedly enjoyable dining experience is mostly about anticipation: understanding that people ‘eat with their eyes’ when creating food, glasses refilled without request, plates removed with permission, questions answered with patience, and always- a smile.
A manager of a successful group of eating establishments once told me, “Opening a restaurant each night is like giving a special dinner party, except you don’t know who’s on the guest list.”
There’s a paragraph on the dinner menu at Pace that reads: All our food is prepared fresh from scratch when you order it, so it may take a little longer than most restaurants, but we feel confident that it is worth the wait. If you have a time constraint please let your server know prior to ordering and we will do our best to accommodate your specific needs.”
Worth the wait, indeed.