HOCAS-NOCAS: Making Restaurant Magic Happen — Or Not

CLASS. SOPHISTICATION. Applied with sincerity to a restaurant that
takes pride in hospitality, these words make service charming rather
than servile. Dropped like banana peels on the floor of a restaurant
that feeds ’em and shoves ’em out the door, they are ironically
hilarious, the verbal equivalent of an angora twin-set. Whatever tone
they have, though, Class and Sophistication are not about anything as
discrete as the cost or scarcity of the ingredients a restaurant uses.
Class and Sophistication are all about attitude. Checking out a
restaurant’s attitude starts with two questions: Do they want me to
come into their restaurant? If so, what are the signs?

A few examples point out how a restaurant can zoom to the Height of
Class and Sophistication (HOCAS), or sink to the Nadir of Class and
Sophistication (NOCAS). A HOCAS restaurant can be a mom-and-pop that
sends out a glass of wine on your birthday, or a mid-price place that
always deals graciously with that member of your party who wants
everything “on the side” — and gets the order right. A HOCAS does
everything within its powers to please. It’s smart to do so because
every restaurant makes mistakes.

Ah, but the NOCAS restaurants. They’re the three-stars where your
server answers all of your most basic questions with, “I’ll check,”
and never does. Where they lose your reservation and shrug, or send a
steak back out three times — still well-done — until you give up in
disgust. A NOCAS restaurant isn’t a NOCAS because they make mistakes.
They’re a NOCAS because they don’t care about making people feel
welcome. Without a protective cover of concern — however thin a
veneer — shortcomings are exposed and they are not a pretty sight

Who am I? Well, clearly not a food industry professional. I’m a person
who eats out with friends when we want to celebrate. Or when we’re all
kind of beat and we don’t want to cook, or when we want to enjoy the
kinds of recipes that are beyond our perceived abilities. We’re
deliberate. We plot the next Big Night Out well in advance and we do
our homework — on eGullet and elsewhere. Consider me a devoted amateur.

Defining Our Terms

Quite simply, HOCAS restaurants are the ones you never want to leave.
NOCAS restaurants are the ones you can’t get out of fast enough. But
if more criteria are needed . . .

HOCAS: Like happiness, hard to define. A guest feels like a guest,
even though she knows she’s a customer and all that. The staff is
welcoming and knowledgeable about what they offer, the food is
delicious. Mistakes and inconsistencies are mitigated by graciousness.

NOCAS: Egregious rudeness or incompetence in service and bad food, or
such bone-headed management that ordinary food and service cannot hope
to overcome the idiots in charge. The latter can be as painful to
staff as guests.

Scenes From a HOCAS

A truck-stop outside St. Louis. Talk about low expectations. Well,
hesh mah mouth because the vegetables had just been yanked out of the
garden, the chicken was free-range, and the strawberry pie was
composed solely of local fruit and crust made with lard. The hostess
dealt with the waiting horde like she was wrangling puppies and our
server, a motherly woman, called me “Doll.” I loved that. The service
really complemented the meal. HOCAS out of nowhere.

My favorite Chinese restaurant. Three thousand miles away from me now,
alas, in DC’s Dupont Circle. Years ago, Mom visits and I want to show
her the sights and treasures of our nation’s capitol, i.e. the fried
dumplings from this restaurant. Although three blocks away, I call for
delivery, impressing Mom with my James Bond-like worldliness. We
unpack the bag, mmmm dumplings, but — no sauce! The dumplings are
good, they’re more than respectable, but it’s the sauce that makes
them the little pork pouches of heaven that they are. Mom says,
basically, Shut up and eat. I shoot her the look of, Don’t tell me
about dumplings while you’re under my roof, and call the restaurant.
The delivery guy is back in fifteen, shrugging at my thanks and
nodding at the tip. Mom uses this story to this day to explain how I
always get what I want. I use it to explain how a restaurant cared
more about me than my own mother. HOCAS at my door.

In-n-Out, to me, is a HOCAS restaurant. How can that be? Some clues
came from a random round of free association with friends. The phrase
“fresh buns” kept coming up, as did “safe meat,” and its treatment of
vegetarians as first-class customers despite it being a burger joint.
Far and away, though, was a variation on “friendly, competent staff
that doesn’t look like they’ve been beaten down by The Man even though
I was a little weirded out by the Bible thing on the cups.” The
element of surprise — the good kind — shows up. I remember very well
eating my first burger there. I was shocked, absolutely shocked, at
how good that Double-Double was. But I was just as surprised by how
nice the counter staff was, how carefully they checked our order.
Perhaps, you will say, the day was already memorable because it
involved a Bugs Bunny cartoon festival, making it arguable that I was
primed to love In-n-Out. Au contraire. A good mood does not dampen
reason. I found fault with the fries then, and still do. I may be
cheap, but I’m not easy. HOCAS on a budget.

I like two related San Francisco restaurants called Chow and Park Chow
very much. Both are often jam-packed, but the service just seems to
get better the busier it is and the kitchen turns out excellent food
that looks deceptively simple. They know what they do — Cal-Italian
primarily – and do it very well and consistently. What makes them
outstanding is that I always leave thinking, “That was even better
than I thought it’d be.” That little kick of surprise, here as at
In-n-Out, makes the difference between good and HOCAS. Take the family
HOCAS.

I have a couple of nominees below for My All-Time HOCAS Restaurant and
My All-Time NOCAS Restaurant. Interestingly, it was easier to figure
out the HOCAS one. Either I’m eating in better-than-average places, or
there are not as many disasters out there as I feared. It certainly
isn’t because of an all-forgiving attitude on my part.

Keep in mind that no individual server can earn a restaurant the HOCAS
badge of honor, just as no mere host, however rude, can bring down the
ignominy of a NOCAS ruling. Like our government in this ol’ USA,
restaurants are supposed to have a system of checks and balances. The
front and back of the house can be feuding like the executive and
legislative branches, but that’s not supposed to stop them from doing
their jobs. Customers are not supposed to suffer for their failure to
get along. Real achievement, therefore, should reflect their ability
to work together.

The Winner

I have to give a little background before I describe My All-Time HOCAS
Restaurant. I can’t use my hands very well anymore, so I ask servers
to please have the kitchen cut up my food. I’m not doing anything
inappropriate, but I still dread the subtle brush off: “Well,” (heavy
sigh) “I’ll see if the kitchen can do anything.” Out and out refusal
is actually easier; it gets my back up and I brook no nonsense. “No,
my friend cannot help me. The kitchen can cut a chicken breast in two
seconds.” Generally, though, servers’ attitudes are great. But I often
get food that is indeed cut up but not anything close to bite size.
Whoever I’m eating with has to pitch in and do the finish work.

When I eat out now, the response to this request serves as a barometer
for whether the restaurant is heading toward HOCAS or NOCAS. My
request is unusual but reasonable; a well-run restaurant can take it
in stride even at the busiest time.

I take you now to La Folie, a small French restaurant in San Francisco
that I don’t go to nearly as often as I would like. One night I was
there with two friends, and we were dithering over the menu. I wanted
to order the quail stuffed with foie gras, which was roughly an 11 on
the scale of Cutting Up Difficulty. A ballsy choice, nothing shy about
it. My friends said, Go for it. They refilled my wine glass. Moments
later, I agreed. I doubled the burden on the kitchen by choosing the
lamb sirloin as my next course. In for a penny. (For those of you
questioning the wisdom of selecting two such heavy courses, I say
this: You should have seen the soup and dessert that I had as well; La
Folie’s menu demands nothing less when it comes to capacity. Their
lobster made a pregnant friend consider naming her child
“Butterpoached.”) Our server simply said, “Of course, we do it all the
time,” when I put in my request. If she was lying, she was lying well.
I basked in the glow of not being special after all.

We drank our wine; breads were offered from a big basket; soups were
dramatically presented via domed bowls and mini copper pots; we were
all of us lightly facialed from the fragrant steam and spooning up the
goodness. Then. Our main server appeared holding a single domed dish
which she lifted to reveal the quail pour moi, saying the chef wanted
me to see it before carving. Well, isn’t that the most savory-looking
thing I’ve ever seen. I thoroughly approved, both of the chef and his
proxy, the quail. We all agreed this was our favorite restaurant for
good reason. The team reappeared with our appetizers. I figured the
quail with foie gras would be a pile — a delectable pile — on the
plate. It was not. It appeared as before until I looked more closely
and saw the cuts. It had been cut into perfect bite-size cubes and
reassembled, if indeed it had ever been disassembled. As someone who
can’t cut an onion in half, I was deeply impressed. I was also glad I
went with the lamb as well, which was later deconstructed and
presented as artfully as the quail.

Jump to the end of the evening. Chef Passot was out saying goodnight
in his whites, somehow more pristine than our crumbed and wine-smudged
selves. No one minded, they were all getting our coats, calling for
our car, hanging by the neat little bar near the door to see us out.
We were effusive in our thanks, but it wasn’t just because of the wine
and food. This restaurant has the warmth of family concern, albeit a
family with better manners, grooming, and access to truffles than
mine. It comes across as someone’s personal expression, and not the
result of a restaurant group’s decisions based on dining trends, or (I
laugh at the thought) a franchise. Though dependent on the
marketplace, it’s nevertheless based on providing a unique vision of
culinary craft and hospitality. Whatever challenges they may or may
not have business-wise, I don’t doubt the chef is up to something in
the kitchen that he genuinely cares about. I think the entire staff
cares about what they’re creating in the kitchen and on the floor.

Not that it was all so very serious as I’ve made it sound. Bottom
line, we had fun. Not stuffy, “Oh, Biff, you slay me,” kind of fun.
I’m talking about the real kind, the kind that is peculiar to each set
of friends — especially when those friends are, like mine, peculiar.
That was what made us effusive when we were leaving. Many restaurants
offer good meals, even great ones, in beautiful surroundings, and do
try to pamper their guests. What seems truly unusual to me is a
restaurant where the staff can go, what I call, “off script.” In
short, where the interchanges are as uncanned as the vegetables, even
with a very ordinary guest, not an insider or celebrity. I felt that
this was what made La Folie the HOCAS to end all HOCAS. The sommelier,
for example, had a splendid suit and polished accent that left us
abashed at first. That ended when this seeming pillar of Gallic
propriety punked us — lightly — that same evening. We were in the
throes of wine selection, behaving as if we were choosing a new house.
We finally named a wine and waited for the standard, “Very good
choice.” What we got was an infinitely regretful, “You have made a
terrible choice,” before he chuckled at the horrified looks on our
faces. “No, no, it’s a good wine. I will get it right away,” he said,
vastly amused. “But I got you.” Now there’s a man who understands
hospitality, we said. He saw that the way to make us feel at home was
to abuse us — and then get some wine in us quick.

Based on that pervasive and stubborn desire to please us, a rather
quirky group, I name La Folie as My All-Time HOCAS Restaurant. This
makes them, I suppose HOCAS-POCAS (Pinnacle of Class and
Sophistication). Doubtless, other people will have their picks for
this title.

I’m not going to name My All-Time NOCAS Restaurant because it would be
just the sort of place to employ a squadron of web-savvy flying
monkeys who would read this, get into flying formation, and carry me
off with their long monkey toes to drop me in the Pacific. My little
dog, too. Suffice it to say that it was on the route from LA to San
Francisco and that the only thing tackier than their attitude toward
guests was their well-known decor.

I was with a friend. We stopped for lunch and all seemed well despite
our having to wait for ten minutes in a room filled with empty tables.
After our order was in, my friend started a minor flirt with a
bus-person, saying, “It’s my birthday.” (Yes, he’s always been that
smooth.) Attractive bus-person runs away, and I laugh at my friend for
scaring off another one, but then attractive bus-person runs back
holding a lavender balloon, which he bestows on my friend. They
continue their flirt which I now fear is leaving the minor leagues for
the majors, unaware it is doomed and will soon return to the minors
dissatisfied, washed up, and prone to wearing old-man t-shirts even
though it doesn’t have the shoulders for them. My friend confesses
it’s not his birthday; attractive bus-person gazes lovingly at the new
liar in his life and runs back to work.

All was well, right? A grown man got a balloon, two people had a
chance encounter just off the highway, and I had a BLT. Well, no.
Don’t ever discount the flying monkeys. They must have made quick work
of attractive bus-person because he returned moments later and said he
had to repo the balloon. Painfully embarrassed, he apologized for
letting “them” know it wasn’t really my friend’s birthday. There was
an awkward silence as he untied the disgraced inflatable from my
friend’s chair. This was an average restaurant until this point. But
average cannot compensate for something this unpleasantly petty, the
repo of a balloon from a friend who has both a PEZ and a Mr. Potato
Head collection.

Suddenly, all I could notice were the flabbiness of the fries and the
server’s rough touch with a ticket as she pounded it on the table
without a word. And was that a box of wine in the corner! Dear god,
what a hell-hole. Poor attractive bus-person. Hard to give your all in
a soulless life-sucking pit of despair done in way too much pink. The
BLT and attractive bus-person’s humanity notwithstanding, management’s
commitment to stinginess and by-the-book mania really took the cake.
Er, balloon. One more thing about a NOCAS restaurant, it’s better in
the retelling than the experiencing. NOCAS, NOCAS, NOCAS.

HOCAS-NOCAS, HOCAS-POCAS — it’s the language of secret powers and
spells and charms and potions and poisoned apples. Like all good
magical words, they’re just the thing for summoning forth power and
focusing it. The words are knowledge. Knowledge is power. Up to a point.

The public’s focus has increasingly been on the inner workings of
restaurants. The idea that seeing the nitty-gritty details (carefully
chosen, of course) will build interest is sound. And it is
interesting, whether because there are theatrical personalities on
display or because someone like me has an interest in how cooks figure
out their purchasing. I’ll never do it myself but oh that sense of
vicarious knowledge.

None of this copious out-pouring of food-service industry information
necessarily explains why dining in this or that restaurant is more
desirable than another. Nor does it touch on the central delight of a
good restaurant. The feeling of walking into a bustling room, a
stranger or nearly so, and being greeted by name, then taken into the
unknown interior and given to eat exactly what you want by people who
are there to take care of you. Romantic nonsense? Of course. It’s
called charm and it overcomes suspicion, pragmatism, and
world-weariness. It works even when I know the staff is working its
collective tail off to support themselves and not because I’m so
swell. It works when I consider my money well spent on a meal out, a
meal that a more practical me would have prepared at home. It works
when a leisurely lunch in a sunny courtyard makes me feel like I went
away for the weekend. In the end it doesn’t matter if I know how the
magician is counting the cards or sawing the lady in half because I
just don’t care. I’ve been bewitched. Call it class, call it
sophistication, or simply call it a job well done. Magic enough for me.

Originally published in The Daily Gullet
2003

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