Thoughts on Canberra Service

Cocktail hour

Is it time to end the excuses and expect more service-wise from the capital’s bars and restaurants?

But before I dive into what will be a controversial post I’m sure, let me explain where I’m coming from.

The Canberra locals will need to file this post under ‘Tough Love’.

For starters I’m not one of those bloggers who confuse being critical with being a critic. Anyone can have a whinge and share it with the world.

I’m about to deal up some generalisations, but as you read on please try and understand I’m coming from a supportive place.

Been There Done That

PJ at Republic

For over a decade I devoted my life to providing the best service possible in some of the world’s best hotels and restaurants.  I worked my way up from washing dishes, being a room service waiter, working in cafes.

I’ve flipped pancakes, worked graveyard shifts and eventually ended up running award winning fine dining rooms in places like the Bathers Pavilion, Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, The Observatory Hotel, Banff Springs Hotel in Canada, The Republic, Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington in London and the Oak Room here in Canberra.

I also had a hospitality training consulting practice for a while where I trouble-shooted front of house teams and systems dealing with some major egos whilst trying to stop the ship from sinking.

I’ve also dropped things on customers, lost orders, ran away from irate chefs after taking the wrong dish, and if you can stuff it up front of house, then I’ve done that too.

I loved the profession and even now, miss the camaraderie and the immediacy of the work, and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done as a team each shift.

So when I criticise its coming from a place of love and respect, a hope they’ll improve and do better next time. I know how hard it is to pull off great service.

What’s Good Service?


So in this post I’m not talking about casual ethnic restaurants, they have their own premise, economics and set of expectations.

My comments are targeted at modern western expressions of the genre.

So do I mean a formal dining or bar experience?

No. You can have fabulous service in the most relaxed of settings by someone in a t-shirt and some serious ink.

It is about being efficient, willing, knowledgeable, organised, respectful, communicative and doing their level best as a team to deliver a great experience to the customer. Its about having mindset of ‘yes’ for the customer.

Its knowledgable about what their serving, its confident, but not familiar, efficient, organised and respectful and calm under pressure.

At best they should be able to adapt their communication style to suit the guests and meet them on their terms.

Elements of Good Service

For me there are four aspects that make up good service:

  • Systems: how organised is the room, the allocation of roles, the control of the room, are there allocated sections, is there a cycle of service ordering and booking process? Chaos theory has no place in a dining room.  Table service, or help yourself? Someone in charge, or is a anarchist collective? Oh, yes, music level counts too… sorry, can’t you hear me?
  • Training: do ALL the staff know their job, have the basic skills, the menu, ingredients, house policies, and the required standard they should execute these?
  • Resources: Once I worked as an assistant Maitre’d at the Summit Restaurant on top of Australia Square (a long time back), and there wasn’t never enough cups/knives/teaspoons to go around so the staff would bribe the dishwasher to ensure they got enough to service their section. In top of the line place, there was always plenty of everything, and the quality was first class. You didn’t have to worry about the chairs falling apart, or chipped china. Not to mention having enough staff rostered to look after the clientele.
  • Attitude: You can train for the above but you can’t fake this: do they want to be there or not, do they care about serving another person with respect and care?  Great positive attitude will compensate for a lot of things going wrong.

If you’ve had a bad night, chances are one or more of the above are missing or falling short.

Canberra Context

IMG_3750In Canberra it’s usually training where things fall short, then systems.

Staff are sometimes usually aiming to please but are clueless about how to go about it efficiently or effectively.

That’s the responsibility of managers and owners to get right before they’re let loose on customers.

The dining and bar scene is relatively new here, 30 odd years, and the cocktail bar culture not even half that.

But in a global age and a transient population, there are ideas and inspiration from around the world are here too, so we can’t use that as an out.

For at the end of the day the customer is not coming to dinner to pay for training experience for the staff. They’re paying good money to be served properly. So why not make the investment in training and systems?

We want the local places to succeed and be profitable, and bloggers and professional critics offer constructive criticism in the hope they improve and thrive. We often gush with free publicity when a new place emerges, thankful for the addition to the scene. But are all too frequently disappointed with poor execution or consistency.

Then there is the tourism aspect: each time a place gives a tourist a rubbish experience, that’s one more nail in the image of Canberra we’re trying to change.

I was in Green Square on the weekend and grabbed a quick coffee at a place that had a spare table. The couple next to us said not to bother as they’d been waiting for an hour for the breakfast (which turned up eventually with supermarket bread as toast- something you could’ve have made it home) and the next table were clearing their own dirty cups and plates, whilst staff wandered about doing one task at a time.

Sigh. I’m sure we all have our own versions of this story.

History Lesson

IMG_3667I love this city, Its been good to me. Hell, I even made a Martini for it!

My first meal here was as a kid at some anonymous (Great Wall?)  on Canberra Avenue across from Manuka Oval one freezing night confirming all the old Canberra clichés.

It wasn’t till the 80’s + 90’s that the modern era kicked in and places like Fringe Benefits, Cafe Barocca, The Ottoman, The Atlantic, The Republic, Chairman and Yip started offering experiences, not just a place to eat.  For the first time you saw our restaurants in Vogue, Gourmet Traveller and Good Food Guides.

The places were staffed with a mix of professionals and student casuals.

But there was enough old hands about to pass on the old school values in a more casual format.

Know your stuff, have your skills, be personable, and keep the respect of the clients and those you worked with.

You took the job seriously and were proud to it.

Before we opened the modern Oz fine diner The Republic (Gourmet Farmer’s David Matthews was our first chef by the way) in the 90’s I developed a system of service and trained all the team for a week before we opened the doors.

This meant that every single diner got the same consistent service not matter who was serving and the team knew everything about our products, wine, and menu. They were mostly all uni students- it didn’t matter- it was made clear that they were paid to do a job when clocked on and standards were expected.

The training and structure gave them confidence, ensured the customers has a great experience and in time they could do it in the sleep. Yes, they hated me for a while, but it worked.

Our $ yield per pax was high, our clientele loved the experience, it was very profitable for several years and we got featured in magazines and so on.

This was in an era before hipsters and the cult of the barista.

Canberra’s All Grown Up Now

IMG_3638So we’re 100 now, and for a long while we just took what was offered restaurant wise. There wasn’t much on offer so we didn’t want to offend. It was a small town.

We don’t like to complain, we just don’t go back and tell a 100 friends on facebook now.

I think that still holds us back. We know each other, we just take it, even if its average and we’re paying good $ for it

Things are weird in the market though: we’ve got way too many clubs, which distorts the dining market and takes $ away from independent places with their subsidised meals from pokies.

Then we’ve got either independent owner operators, hotels, or empires of similar places that have the best locations, but are insidious in the way they create an opportunity cost of dining creativity by offering the same average dining experience in several places.

Then there us the new wave places like 86, A.Baker and the like which can offer good interesting food, but on their terms, and they’re not always accessible.

But this genre of places are not always what I’d call a comfort zone. Seems loud is the thing now, its apparently ‘atmosphere’. Too bad if I wanted to speak to my friends I haven’t seen for 5 months.

Then there is a paradox of Canberra diners who can be most stingy: the better you are the less likely they are to go to you regularly, saving you for the 25th anniversary or 40th Birthday, and then wonder why that place isn’t there any more.

IMG_0212low res

One the past best dining experiences in country suffered from this: Senso at Fyshwick Markets owned by Jan Gundlach- simply some of the best food anywhere, and he was never busier until he announced his was closing down due to lack of business!

Not untypical.

Too Familiar?

There is also a difference of experience between the regular and the casual diner.

When I go to big cities, its when I get great service when you’re just a stranger that I notice, and reflect that here it more often that the more of a regular you are, the more familiar they get and the slacker things get. Which is not a good thing in my opinion.

Nice to be recognised, remembered, but I’m not paying you to have a good time, I’m paying you to serve me efficiently, politely, in an informed respectful way.

Oh, and yes, I can see you at the bar checking in or catchup with the staff coming on shift whilst i’m waiting to be seated in an otherwise empty room.

Alternately you get places who believe their own PR and get a bit too cool for school thinking that people will still come regardless.  They get so caught up in their own coolness that they’ve forgotten they exist to provide a great experience to the customer, not on the staff’s terms.

Also, this is cheeky: being invited to an opening, then being expected to pay. This is new. Was a time when if you were invited to an opening (like a gallery or bar) then drinks were free as part of the marketing cost.  

Now, we have a lot to thank for this invasion of the bearded and inked ones. They do have some swell ideas and an innovative take on craft. What they can’t always do is execute effective service in my experience. (Not unique to Canberra of course).

Their vision is the thing, which is nice I suppose, but do I really need to buy into your inefficiency, can’t I just my drink or meal in a reasonable time?

OK, then since I’m paying, can I get a bit of service then too, not watch you take selfies behind the bar, or have a chinwag while we’ve been waiting 15 minutes to be served and acknowledged. Just saying.

Value for Money

I’m a realist. It does come down to money and the cost if doing business. But Canberra if wants to be taken seriously as a dining destination, needs to be benchmarked against the other capitals by critics and the dining public.

We’re paying just as much, often more for ‘casual’ dining compared to Sydney and Melbourne, so why can’t we get the same level of service or experience?

Again, I think the staff want to do well, they simply aren’t trained, backed up by the owners or managers, or shown the vision of what good service is.

So Service, is It is a deal breaker for a dining experience? No. But it lift it from so-so to good, and good to great and you’ll tell your pals and come back.

Wellington and Melbourne: buying into the vision

highlightsNow for a tale of two cities.

Sorry, not fair to compare Melbourne to Canberra? Too bad- the city can’t have it both ways: it can’t charge big city prices and attract people from all over, and not deliver a big city experience.

If you’ve ever spent $120 or more in Manuka or Kingston and the same amount in Melbourne you’ll know there is a qualitative difference that leaves Canberra pretty shabby in comparison.

To be clear, there is great produce here, fantastic wine, and there are places doing really good things across all fronts, I’m talking about the mass of places and those who should know better.


If you want to see what Canberra could be like go to Wellington for a long weekend. Really.

It has the same population, a government capital, lots of public servants, but feels like a mini-Melbourne.

All the places are carefully thought through from branding to customer experience, and offer a top notch experience no matter how small or modest.

Oh, and the best coffee consistantly across a city I’ve ever experienced.   if they wanted excellent they had to create it themselves and have. Cuba Street leaves Kingston or Manuka is its dust for execution, finesse and value for money.

They have great produce (just like we do), and celebrate it, but each place has a distinct personality and offers a total experience. Why? I think its because referenced concepts and execution with a global benchmark attitude, perhaps because they are so isolated.

It’s no accident that one of the regularly rated top 10 bars in the world, Matterhorn, is there tucked off a mall that could be City Walk in Civic.


I think most Canberran’s secretly want to live in Melbourne.  They say that in Paris even fruit sellers aim for excellence in their shop.

Some cities have aspirational myths of how they want to be lived and perceived. New York, London, and Melbourne have this.

You see it in the daily interactions between people in shops, restaurants and bars, its like a collective culture where people behave in a way that elevates them from the ordinary because they’ve bought into being citizens of a great city.

I experience Melbourne several times a month in all sorts of places. If I had to distill down the hospitality approach its stylish, knowing, competently relaxed and aiming to be excellent in what they offer whether its a food truck or espresso in a lane way.

They are thriving from the competition, lifting their game to find and keep their regulars, and serve casual guests with the same care.

I don’t think it has anything to do with size of the market, I think its the vision they’re striving for in their chosen business.

So what’s Canberra’s collective hospitality vision?  Are we striving for excellence?

What’s the Fix?

Not one to have a go, and not suggest a solution here’s my take on what might be done.

As customers:

  • Complain more, then and there and expect more from your experience- you’re paying after all.
  • Support those places who offer excellence, and avoid the shabby ones. Let the market forces take care of them.

As an industry:

  • Make a commitment to training and systems to support efficiency.
  • Reward and acknowledge those who shine in service.
  • Model yourself on those places you’ve been to that get it right.
  • If you’re an owner, back your staff and aim higher- get some expert advice in if need be.
  • See your business from the customers point of view.
  • Commit each shift to delivering excellence, and debrief each shift on how you can improve your guests experience.

OK, then, fire away!