Most diners don't know (or notice) the attention to tiny details paired with the extra big hearts required of a successful server. In fact, it's something that goes unnoticed right up until the moment you realize you're being tended to by a professional, someone who can anticipate your needs and make you feel so very welcome. The experience suddenly feels next-level, and these 10 people have what it takes. New life goal: to become a regular with one of these amazingly talented and dedicated front-of-house folks.
Jonathan Crayne at Marcel's by Robert Wiedmaier
Service captain Crayne may have been at Marcel’s for an impressive 16 years, but his career in service actually spans around 43 of his 61 years. His warmth and humor are evident right away, and his legendary ability to seamlessly run the show comes from his training in the ’70s from the old guard of fine dining, including servers who worked the cruise liners in the ’40s and ’50s.
Secret to success: “Know your guests, and never look at them like a dollar sign,” he says. “You have to have that personal side. The last thing they want is an order taker — chicken or fish, chicken or fish.” Plus, he says, “I’m very genuine, and I think my people know that. And that’s why people come back.”
Insider tip: He recommends ordering the wine flight, and not to worry that it might be too much wine. Each glass is a three-ounce pour, and he says it’s the best way to experience the food.
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-296-1166
Jorge Martinez at The Source
In Martinez’s eight years at The Source, the El Salvador native has charmed diners with his calm professionalism and natural gift for hospitality. In fact, some guests will call for a reservation at this Wolfgang Puck restaurant but decide on another day if Martinez isn’t on the schedule. Like any good team member, he says it’s not just him but the whole staff that makes the experience memorable.
Secret to success: “Always a good attitude,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much you have or where you’re coming from — if you wake up in the morning and everything looks fabulous, that helps you a lot.”
Insider tip: Order the dim sum appetizer and the whole duck, which are his favorite dishes.
575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-637-6100
Noemi Zelaya at Bastille
Zelaya has worked for owners Michelle and Christophe Poteaux ever since they purchased Cafe Marianna — where she worked — almost 11 years ago. Michelle Poteaux notes that the native El Salvadoran didn’t know much about French food or wine at first, but Zelaya's determination and willingness to learn makes her an excellent team member. Now, she's the one who regularly trains new staff.
Secret to success: “First of all,” Zelaya says, “you always have to have a smile, make them welcome, treating them like the customer is always right — and serve them the food they like.” She adds that customers love her ability to choose just the right dish for them, and to pair it with the perfect wine.
Insider tip: She loves the cassoulet, but also points out that the prix fixe options — $39 for three courses or $49 for four courses — are a great deal.
606 N. Fayette St., Alexandria; 703-519-3776
Valentine King at Restaurant Eve
Alexandria folks looking for a friendly face during their lunch hour know to grab a barstool and prepare for some pampering from this military man turned bartender. He knows all about his regulars’ families, what’s going on in their lives — and, of course, their favorite Eve dishes. As with everyone on this list, King enjoys going to work every day, and it shows. “I love what I do, and wouldn't have chosen this industry if I didn't like people,” he says.
Secret to success: “I approach customer service with the same enthusiasm as if the guest were entering my home,” he says. “Be warm, inviting and no request is an inconvenience. Be consistent in your actions, be courteous and, above all, be nice to people.”
Insider tip: If you’ve never been to Eve, now is a great time since it’s participating both in the DC and Alexandria Restaurant Weeks, held January 30–February 4 and February 17–25, respectively.
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450
Marco Rodríguez at Woodberry Kitchen
Rodríguez says customers tell him they love his Ecuadorian accent, but his nine years of success at this Baltimore destination goes well beyond his South American cadence. Manager Virginia Allen says he’s considered the “elder statesman” of Woodberry, taking younger employees under his wing and handling many tables at a time like a magician — working particularly well with older diners. “He has a reverence and respect for guests of a certain age,” she says.
Secret to success: Rodríguez says it’s his ability to read a table and adjust. “Sometimes they’re in a bad mood, sometimes they’re kind people,” he says. “You have to deal with everything, and you always have to be smiling and make the experience nice.”
Insider tip: He thinks the free-range chicken with biscuits best shows off what the wood oven can do.
2010 Clipper Park Rd., Baltimore; 410-464-8000
Adnan Haddad at The Oval Room
This Lebanese-born server has been at The Oval Room for a stunning 23 years, working before that at the famed French restaurant Dominique’s. Not only does he still recognize diners he served at Dominique’s, he has a fan base of customers that includes a family who has been coming in from Fredericksburg since the restaurant opened. “It’s not just a customer, it becomes like a friendship,” he says.
Secret to success: "There’s no secret — just, if you like what you do, you try to do the best," he says. Whatever it takes to make the customer happy, starting with respect for the person. I’m a man of principle; I respect people around me and I respect myself."
Insider tip: He says chef John Melfi’s plates are like works of art, and that each item on the menu has its own character. Plus, this edible artwork is often served with a side of political elites — not surprising given its proximity to the White House.
800 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-463-8700
Giuseppe “Pino” Racioppa at Oceanaire Seafood Room
Racioppa has learned during his 15 years at Oceanaire and a lifetime of service that a little bit of thoughtfulness goes a long way. For instance, when a customer was disappointed that a salad was taken off the menu, Racioppa made a special request to the chef and made it happen. The Italian-born pro also relishes describing things in a way that goes well beyond the menu description.
Secret to success: “I believe that you have to love what you do, you have to love talking to people, and you have to want to satisfy people no matter how small their request or want. If you don’t really like it, you can work or try as hard as you want, but people can see right through you.”
Insider tip: He likes to point folks toward the Dover sole imported from England. “It's a true delicacy,” he says. “Also, we get guests from all over when we have big-eye tuna, one of the top tunas available on the market. We have the best fish in town.”
1201 F St. NW; 202-347-2277
David Perry at Ris
Part of the team since opening day seven years ago, Perry says he enjoys everyone he works with, and that shows in his service. He also thinks it’s important to take the job personally, genuinely caring about each customer and treating them not only as a guest of the restaurant but like a guest in his home. He is regularly requested by name when diners make their reservations.
Secret to success: He cites an attention to detail and anticipation of needs as two of the most helpful arrows in his quiver. “My guests should feel like I am reading their minds,” he says. “I try to remember everyone, as well. There is nothing nicer than being recognized and remembered, especially with what beverage you prefer or food preparations you enjoyed most.”
Insider tip: He says Ris offers a great happy hour that flies under the radar. It runs from 4–7 PM and again from 9:30 PM till closing on weekdays, with good deals on bites like sliders and dips.
2275 L St. NW; 202-730-2500
Randy Cole at Equinox Restaurant
Cole has been a host, manager and server in his 16 years serving customers at chef Todd Gray’s Downtown mainstay, so he knows how to anticipate the needs of his tables. He notes that the DC dining scene is dramatically different from when he first started at Equinox, and the competition is fierce. “Our job is that when they arrive here, they feel they made a wise decision by the service they get and the food they eat,” he says.
Secret to success: “People love to be recognized,” he says. “We have a large repeat clientele, especially at lunchtime. If you know their name, their kids' names, their anniversaries — they love that.”
Insider tip: He says many people are surprised to learn that while the food is refined, the service is anything but stuffy.
818 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-331-8118
Wilfredo Canales at The Diner
Excellent, dedicated servers aren’t only found in black vests at white-tablecloth establishments. Canales has been at this Adams Morgan staple for 17 years, wowing with his ability to make people feel welcome, his consistently great service and his bond with regulars. “Every time I see him talking to a customer, it looks like they are friends reuniting after years of being apart — whether it's the first time at The Diner or the hundredth,” says a fellow staffer.
Secret to success: “His smile is infectious, and he can single-handedly change the way you feel about your day,” his co-worker adds. “His positivity is contagious, and his outlook on life is truly inspiring.”
Insider tip: Since the diner is open 24 hours a day, don’t wait for a government holiday or a Saturday night when wait times are long. This place is much more enjoyable during the chill hours when it’s not so busy.
2453 18th St. NW; 202-232-8800