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Five Cardinal Rules of Hospitality from Restaurateur Bryan Dayton

A Southerner with a strong hospitality gene, Dayton doesn't mince words when it comes to the importance of a great experience in his dining rooms

Oak at Fourteenth
Oak at Fourteenth
Adam Larkey

On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Bryan Dayton, who spent five years as the bar manager at Frasca and went on to open Oak at FourteenthAcorn, and Brider, talks about his philosophy on service and hospitality.

Books have been written about hospitality and all of them share valuable lessons. Some of the best servers have never read a page from those books and will never need to. Some can read every page and article written and still remain unable to excel at it.

That is because hospitality is the most basic and most complicated job all at the same time. It grinds the body and mind, it solicits the heart and the soul, it exposes emotions and weaknesses in ways most other jobs simply cannot. Hospitality is about giving generously and about letting empathy be your guide. For me, it is a way of sharing myself more freely than I even allow myself to outside of work. I know in my dining room I have the power to make people happy and that is a privilege.

My rules, my guidelines, those that I talk about with my staff are, like hospitality itself, the most simple and the hardest to make reality at the same time.

Mind your manners. In its purest form, this is what it all comes back to in hospitality. Humanity, common sense, flexibility, and awareness come together and allow us to be the best of caretakers. From opening doors, taking coats, and pulling chairs to offering water, a beverage, and food, manners are the big and small pieces of the puzzle that paint a guest's experience.

Turn up the empathy and self-awareness. Emotional intelligence, the mother of empathy, is actually expandable. It is the hardest to teach and the most important thing to hone in my industry. Empathy is softness, understanding, selflessness. It connects and tunes servers on the radio-frequency of the guests. Self-awareness is a close cousin of empathy. It allows us to softly step out of a guest's way, to ghost through a dining room smoothly without disturbing its rhythm, to slide into a party's conversation without abruptly interrupting it.

Shift your attention to the guest. There are harsher ways to say this: Leave your baggage at the door; remember that this is Hollywood and your smile should look real; keep your emotions in check. You don't need to be a robot, you need to genuinely care. For loved ones, we put ourselves second. In the dining room, we come second to the guests, no matter what goes on before or after work. The biggest service snafus happen when the needs of the guest are not the priority.

Take pride in your work. This is a life rule. Whether you are a ditch digger, a bank clerk, an athlete, or a server, be the best one you can be. Your job doesn't define who you are, the way you do it though shows your character. Taking pride is that extra ingredient that engages and motivates a person to follow through and make it all happen. It's a building block to a great guest experience in the dining room.

Finish strong. Keep the heat on to the very end. It's not over until it's over. Until the door closes behind the last guest, I, as a server, give at 100%. It's easy to get tired and worn at the end of a long day on the floor of a dining room, but guests at 11 p.m. should get the same service as guests at 5 p.m. The same genuine attention, the same quality of interaction. Good byes are as important as hellos. Thank you for coming in. Thank you for being here. Thank you for choosing us. Last impressions are as important as first impressions. Consistency in the experience of the guests from top to bottom and start to finish is what I strive for.

All of these ideas can be expressed in other words. There is no clear recipe to great service and mistakes invariably happen. What gets me going is the challenge of finding the right combination of things that gives my guests a lovely experience. That's an ever-moving target, an ever-changing formula that keeps me on my toes, stresses me out, and pushes me to try harder. With each guest that trusts me with their evening, I find gratitude for the lessons I get to learn every day.


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