Secret Service

By Jane Black | Boston Magazine |

When Sam Merlin got a stellar report card, his parents, Keith and Heidi, took him to the Capital Grille to celebrate. On their arrival, the hostess congratulated Sam; later, their waiter, Vinny, brought a complimentary dessert. When good old Sam was named MVP for his school lacrosse team, the family returned.


When Sam Merlin got a stellar report card, his parents, Keith and Heidi, took him to the Capital Grille to celebrate. On their arrival, the hostess congratulated Sam; later, their waiter, Vinny, brought a complimentary dessert. When good old Sam was named MVP for his school lacrosse team, the family returned. Remarkably, Vinny was able to remember what they’d ordered and what they’d liked best. “It was most impressive,” says Heidi Merlin. “Either they kept track of the orders via computer, or this guy had a phenomenal memory.”

No disrespect, Vinny, but it’s the computer. Like 180 other restaurants in the Boston area, the Capital Grille uses the electronic reservation system OpenTable. Diners know it as a fast, easy way to book a table and give their preferences (Keith Merlin used it to tip off the Capital Grille folks about his son’s report card and award). What most don’t realize, though, is that OpenTable and other, in-house programs enable restaurants to practice exceptional customer service by noting special occasions, tastes in wine, even food allergies. “OpenTable has revolutionized the way we do business,” says Simon de Swaan, maitre d’ at Aujourd’hui. Regular Denise Dunbar agrees: “We don’t even look at the menu anymore. They know what we like.”

Every restaurant uses its system differently, but essentially it works like this: Before you arrive, your waiter receives a printout with your likes, dislikes, favorite cocktail—whatever the restaurant has logged from your previous visits. Cambridge’s Craigie Street Bistrot, for example, has a database of nearly 5,000 guests, the names tagged with codes indicating whether they’re wine or charcuterie lovers, Harvard affiliated or just in the neighborhood, and so on. Chef Tony Maws also keeps track of birthdays and anniversaries, and sends cards inviting regulars to celebrate those occasions at the restaurant. “It was just astonishing that they remembered our anniversary,” says Dr. Bernard Katz, a frequent patron whose only complaint is that Craigie Street isn’t closer to his home in Newton. “We were planning to go there anyway.”

How to Ensure you Get Great Service

Don’t be shy: The more a restaurant knows about you, the better the service. When making an online reservation, detail any allergies and wine and food preferences, and indicate whether it’s a birthday or anniversary meal (they’ll probably remember it next year).

Be honest: Waiters aren’t mind readers. If your dinner isn’t up to snuff, say so, advises Aujourd’hui’s de Swaan. The restaurant will thank you for it, and likely try to make amends.

Be a regular: Even the best technology is no substitute for a personal relationship. Be loyal to your favorite spots—they’ll reward you.

Be persistent: No availability online? Call the restaurant directly. Sometimes the maitre d’ can make accommodations the electronic system can’t.