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The Quest for Great Restaurant Service

By: Tim Russell Posted: July-31-2009 in
Tim Russell

Last Wednesday I took a potential partner for dinner at Saigon bistro The Refinery. The food and service were, as ever, amongst the best you’ll encounter anywhere in the country - unlike pretty much anywhere in Vietnam, the restaurant’s staff manage to provide service that’s confident, laid-back and friendly, while remaining efficient and professional. That’s something that Vietnamese waiting staff regularly fail to pull off, more on which shortly.

A couple of days later I was very surprised to read a post by someone calling himself The Saigon Critic, claiming that the service was “terrible” (and that the kitchen was “a joke”). Ignoring the issue of a newcomer to Saigon’s tourism/hospitality scene publicly running down a well-respected and popular business in the public domain, and under a pseudonym, it highlighted how one man’s great service is another man’s nightmare. I personally prefer the friendly, western-style service at The Refinery to the overly formal, fawning service one gets at the city’s upmarket hotel restaurants, which can make a relaxing evening rather difficult, but I guess it’s horses for courses.

Service in Vietnamese restaurants usually means one of two things. Shoulder-shrugging, halfhearted incompetence, or stifling over-attentiveness, several waiters/waitresses watching your every move, topping up your beer glass every couple of minutes, moving plates around unnecessarily and so on. Try going into a local restaurant alone and relaxing over a meal with a good book. I tried it once, and the only use I got out of the book was waving off waiters left, right & centre as they simultaneously tried to top up my beer (I HATE that!), pile food onto my plate, and put more shrimp onto my table barbecue, all things I prefer to do myself. This is not good service, it’s highly annoying. Even worse is the look of terror on the faces of the waiting staff that are the usual result of a foreign diner showing up, or asking them a question they don’t understand.

Thankfully an increasing number of restaurants, such as the aforementioned Refinery, are doing their best to improve matters and provide service that is relaxed and friendly without being lazy or halfhearted. And it isn’t just foreign-run restaurants - dine at rooftop barbecue restaurant 3T and you will witness the most highly-drilled, ruthlessly efficient team outside the average army training camp.

And it’s important - with most mid-range to high-end restaurants in town all offering good quality food & wine and a pleasant ambience in which to consume it, service is frequently the only differentiating factor. I can name at least half a dozen places that offer acceptable food but to which I won’t be returning because of the poor service, and another half dozen that I visit regularly because the service is so good - and the quality of the service dictates the kind of word-of-mouth marketing each establishment will receive from myself and other customers. Bad service = bad reputation. Good service = free advertising!

How about you - got any good/bad service stories to share?


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