Service is everything. The diner waitress, in her soft-soled shoes and pink uniform, calls you "hon" and keeps your coffee cup fresh. The kid at the ice cream store scoops just-that-much more onto your cone. At the take-out counter, they stuff extra napkins in the bag as you reach to pay.
It matters. Just as dining is more than nourishment, service elevates a meal from a transaction to an event.
To enjoy the fine-dining restaurant at National Harbor on the Potomac River, I wore a dress and fancy shoes and carried a beaded bag. The waterside establishment offers patio seating by piers at which small yachts and large sailboats anchor. Indoor tables are arranged along enormous windows to provide the same view. This is occasion dining.
The National Harbor complex is a pure tourist destination. Carved from untouched shoreline across from Alexandria, Va., the $2.1 billion project opened in 2008 and features multiple hotel properties, shopping and restaurants. The sculpture "The Awakening," which was installed at Hains Point on the Potomac in 1980, was excavated and moved to the Harbor as a focal point, around which a small sand beach was constructed.
Children like to climb the sculpture and run through the sand. Along the waterfront, a crushed-shell walkway invites a stroll. In the evening, a band offers live music at the central plaza. On Memorial Day weekend, nightfall was punctuated with fireworks.
The point of the enterprise is pleasure.
But at the restaurant, some of the staff didn't get the memo.
The front-desk attendant barely acknowledged our presence as she snagged a couple of menus and looked beyond us into the dining room. She seated us without a word, and there we sat and sat. Diners who came after us received greetings from servers, water, bread and wine lists.
And we sat.
It seems our server didn't know he had our table. But once he knew we were his, he was ours. Service redeemed itself.
He was new, he said. He was still learning the restaurant and the menu. When I asked about a featured wine, he suggested a half-bottle. Then, he brought just a glass. He said he had misunderstood what the menu offered.
"I'm so disappointed," I said. "I really wanted to have two glasses with my meal, and this is only one."
He responded that he would fix it. And he did. A second glass appeared at the table, but not on our bill. That is service.
Ultimately, what began as a rocky and potentially difficult experience became a pleasant one. It wasn't because of the food, which was fine. Barely breaded oysters, pan-fried and salted. Ahi tuna, crusted lightly with a peppery mix and barely seared, then sliced and served with a complex dipping sauce and a westernized take on seaweed salad, that included peeled, cored cucumber. Soft-shell crab, served over a mix of crispy, sauteed vegetables. House-made apple cake with cinnamon ice cream.
The food at a fine-dining restaurant has to be good. The chef has to be worthy of his ingredients. But diners will forgive a lot. Having invested their time, and later their credit-card balances, in a destination establishment, diners are aiming for satisfaction. We want to have a good time.
All a server needs to do is help us get there. It's only a little, but it's a lot.