Feature

OG Servers You Need to Know in 13 U.S. Markets

By Zagat Staff  |  January 31, 2017
Credit: Ryan Tanaka/Grill on the Alley

Sure, everyone knows the names of the chefs or the restaurateurs behind their favorite spots, but what about the names of the servers who've been working the front lines for decades? A truly iconic restaurant would be nothing without those employees who have been there to see it all (besides, they have the best stories). Below, here's a sampling of some of the most notable service "OGs" in restaurants around the U.S.

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  • Credit: Melissa Libby & Associates

    Atlanta: Kim Huynh at Aria
    Chef Gerry Klaskala's refined Buckhead dining room Aria opened in 2000, and it's been in the city's top echelon ever since. Server Kim Huynh's been there from the beginning, through a recent remodel, and has ushered guests through elegant dining experiences for nearly two decades. "I've chosen to work at restaurants of the highest quality my entire career," he says. "I appreciate working with a professional team that is passionate about hospitality, and I enjoy the continued education of food, wine and spirits. It's a joy to take care of great people over the course of several years."
    Secret to success: "I always remember to put the guest first," says Huynh, "and focus on one guest at the time. Listen to what they say and pay attention to their preferences. It’s always best to invest in the time to getting it right."
    Insider tip: "Most people don't realize the dining room was designed by legendary Atlanta architect Neel Reid. The room is timeless," he says, adding: "Also, first time guests should always get the slow-braised short ribs. They have been on the menu since day one and they are always delicious!"

    490 E. Paces Ferry Rd. NE; 404-233-7673

  • Credit: Four Seasons Austin

    Austin: Daniel Bedard at TRIO
    After working as a server on cruise ships, Bedard joined the Four Seasons team in 2005 and has been the most requested server since. The restaurant regularly receives comment cards and letters from guests singing his praises, and a few guests even bring him back gifts from their travels.
    Secret to success: Bedard goes above and beyond the call of duty. For example, when he found out two gentlemen were celebrating Persian New Year, he looked up samples of menus served in Iran and printed out recipes for the kitchen, which made the feast a reality. The guests were completely floored by both his gesture and the authenticity of the meal.
    Insider tip: Do like the regulars do, and request Bedard as your server.

    98 San Jacinto Blvd.; 512-685-8300

  • Credit: Courtesy of L'Espalier

    Boston:​ Louis Risoli at L'Espalier​
    Risoli is more than a server: He's the maitre d' who oversees the rest of the iconic fine-dining room's service staff. In fact, he's been at L'Espalier for 33 of its last 39 years — longer even than current chef-owner Frank McClelland, who purchased the restaurant in 1988. Risoli also developed its now-acclaimed cheese program, including its room-roving trolley of 25 local selections. And outside his food industry experience, he's also a painter whose work has been featured in multiple gallery exhibitions. 

    Secret to success: In an age where white-tablecloth restaurants are a dying breed, Risoli is a graceful reminder of Boston dining's elegant history. "I love providing our guests with an experience that is great while it is happening and that will be memorable for a lifetime," he says. "This requires a big-picture consistency, but also attention to every detail and room for fun surprises."
    Insider tip: Check out "Cheese Tuesdays," a 20-year-running weekly series hosted by Risoli that includes a three-course wine-paired dinner followed by a grand cheese tasting and musical entertainment.

    774 Boylston St.; 617-262-3023

  • Credit: Frontera Grill

    Chicago: David Beckman at Frontera Grill
    Right up there with Rick Bayless himself, David Beckman is one of the most recognizable faces at the legendary Frontera Grill. Having been a server and bartender here since 1988, the man has a passion for hospitality and discovering new flavors. “We have menu changes every month, so that’s helped keep things fresh,” he explains. “And we have lots of regulars here, in addition to new clientele.” Regularly working double shifts and typically clocking 55 hours in four days, Beckman bikes to work from Logan Square every day. Another fun fact: He goes through one tube of mustache wax per month. 
    Secret to success: “I really enjoy the food and I enjoy the job. Let things roll off your shoulder and don’t let negativity get to you,” advises Beckman. 
    Insider tip: Though a longtime vegetarian, Beckman makes a special exception for Frontera's cochinita pibil, a weekly Wednesday special of achiote-marinated suckling pig roasted in banana leaves. “It’s just too good,” he says.

    445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434

  • Credit: The Mansion Restaurant

    Dallas: Hugo Reynoso at The Mansion Restaurant
    October 18, 1992. That's the exact date when Reynoso waited on his first table at the iconic fine-dining restaurant on Turtle Creek. He loves getting to know the stories of each guest and being a part of their lives for one meal, or several in the case of the restaurant's many regulars. When he's not tending to the needs of diners, he and his wife of 25 years enjoy trying new restaurants on their weekly date night. And he's also rumored to be pretty darn good at tennis, which he plays twice a week.
    Secret to success: "I really look forward to coming to work. I’m proud of what I do. The Mansion Restaurant is like no other place in Dallas. We offer above-and-beyond culinary experiences for guests."
    Insider tip: "Try things that you would not typically try. The Mansion Restaurant is a place where you can be adventurous and explore. Also, even if it is not on the menu, we are always able to accommodate guests’ needs and requests. It’s our trademark."

    2821 Turtle Creek Blvd.; 214-443-4747

  • Denver: Kari Cummings at Vesta
    Nearly 14 years ago, Kari Cummings recalls, “I found a really cool home with Josh and Jen [Wolkon]” at LoDo longtimer Vesta — the first of many restaurants for the couple’s Secret Sauce group — and she hasn’t left since. Now a bar manager known for her bubbly personality, she says she prides herself on “talking to people like they’re people, like they’re friends. My voice doesn’t get higher. I’m not fake. ‘Do you want to try this tequila? I just tried it today.’” Which doesn’t mean she can’t be sly. “For instance, last night a guy came in who just wanted to talk to the bartenders — he was ignoring his date,” she laughs. “We were trying to throw softballs to get him to pay attention."
    Secret to success: “Going with the flow,” Cummings says. “Some days are gonna be good, some days are gonna be bad. Some days you’re fed up and kinda burned out. But stick with it, and you find passion you didn’t know you had."
    Insider tip: She jokingly estimates that she herself orders the beef tartare “30 times a week.” And the meat and cheese plate is her benchmark for other restaurants: “When I go out, I always want to get one to check it against ours.” To wash it down, she recommends the barrel-aged Diamondback.

    1822 Blake St.; 303-296-1970

  • Credit: Ellie Sharp

    Houston: Gerard Thibodeaux at Rosie Carrabba's
    A series of restaurant jobs around the country and a stint in human relations lead Thibodeaux, a native of nearby Victoria, to Houston where he visited Carrabba's, home of classic Italian-American cuisine, to dine. "That was it," he says. He's been here for 21 years, noting that his original plan was to stay for one. He's watched families grow up (serving four generations of some) and becoming close friends with others. An avid sports fan (Astros baseball and Aggie football), he travels the country visiting major league stadiums and has been to so many it's now easier to count the ones still on his list. Cooking is another passion, which he got from his mother, and he taught the staff at sister restaurant Grace's how to make the étouffée on its menu.
    Secret to success: Thibodeaux has a few secrets, including anticipating his guests needs and "remembering [for them] because they forget what they want." He's also a believer in the Golden Rule and an astute observer. "It's timing. You don't want to rush it, but at the same time you don't want them to wait. You want to visit with the ones who want to visit and leave the ones alone who don't want to visit."
    Insider tip: "My favorite dish is spaghetti and meat sauce because it's like my mom used to make it — it's almost the exact same recipe, same flavor," he says, but that doesn't mean you can't get creative. "As long as we have the ingredients in the house we'll do it for you." 

    1399 S. Voss Rd.; 713-468-0868

  • Credit: Ryan Tanaka

    Los Angeles: Steve Oliva at The Grill on the Alley
    Oliva has seen a lot happen in his 33 years of white-jacket service at one of the entertainment industry’s biggest power-player spots in Beverly Hills. Not only has he worked here since 1986, he’s a second-generation server, having joined his father 18 months after the restaurant opened. "Every night is a puzzle, and you put the pieces together as best you can, to make everybody happy. You bring together the kitchen, the guest, the food and the staff. That's what I love," Oliva says. His memories are a who’s who of Hollywood, from serving Johnny Carson huge portions of ham and eggs to watching Dustin Hoffman and Jennifer Garner work on a script in a booth. "That's just The Grill, being The Grill, being The Grill, and I love it,” he quips.

    Secret to success: "Lead with warmth.
 I try to establish a warm and friendly rapport with the guest and give them options so they don't have to say no. You make them comfortable and treat them as family as much as possible."

    Insider tip: While his favorite dish is the Dover sole, he’ll always try to get the customer to expand their culinary experience. "I like to describe the food in an enticing way," he says.

    9560 Dayton Way; 310-276-0615

  • Miami: Tim Birkholz at Meat Market
    Originally from the BBQ and blues capital of the world, Memphis, Tennessee, Birkholz is a self-described cornbread-fed gentleman shaped by the craft of hospitality and influenced by his father, a restaurant and bar owner. He moved to Miami to absorb the culture and learn about international cuisine, and through his experience in front-of-house management, catering and consulting he ended up landing a gig at the swanky Meat Market eight years ago. It's here where he has blossomed to become one of the restaurant’s most esteemed and knowledgeable servers.
    Secret to success: According to Birkholz, “It is all about taking guests by the hand and leading them through a unique fine-dining experience that not only caters to their needs, but exceeds their expectations. And ‘yes sir’, ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘y'all come back now, ya hear’ is just the cherry on top,” he jokes. 
    Insider tip: Meat Market’s namesake steak paired with the wood-grilled kale Caesar salad with candied bacon, pickled onions, crumbled blue cheese and toasted croutons

    915 Lincoln Rd.; 305-532-0088

  • Credit: A.R. Valentien

    San Diego: Eddie Grader at A.R. Valentien

    One of the restaurant's original servers, Grader started the job with just a year of bussing tables and running requests behind the bar under his belt. Now, 15 years later, he’s often requested by repeat guests who appreciate his friendly demeanor as well as the restaurant's New American cuisine. The restaurant's chef Jeff Jackson and its wine program has sparked an interest in viticulture and enology, and Grader occasionally works part-time at wineries in Fallbrook and Temecula.

    Secret to success: “I really try to understand that every person is different and has different needs. At the exact same time, I think everyone has similar expectations when dining. Meaning, everyone wants to be taken care of, listened to and given a great dining experience."

    Insider tip: “Being a huge fish fan, my preferred menu items would be anything fish-centric. Our fish is always wild, fresh and sustainable and my personal favorite would be the sablefish, also known as black cod. It's delicate, flaky and has a buttery flavor.”

    11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla; 858-777-6635

  • Credit: Poggio

    San Francisco: Karl Knox and Tony Diiori at Poggio
    Having spent 32 years together, these two bartenders at Sausalito’s beloved Italian institution are the Abbott and Costello of SF's front-of-house world. They’re known as much for their menu knowledge and cocktail skills as for their playful banter, whether diners are staring into a laptop or a few drinks on a Friday night. Tony grew up in Italy, while Karl learned the trade through, of all places, a TGI Friday's bartending program. They came together at Larry Mindel's restaurant, Prego, in San Francisco in 1983. They're still working for Mindel, just at his Sausalito restaurant now, and still taking care of diners together.
    Secret to success: "Working behind the bar is a show, and when Tony and I work together at the bar, the show doesn’t get any better," Knox says. "It is one of the few jobs that I have ever had where I do not feel the passage of time."
    Insider tip: Diiori's nickname is "Tony Negroni." On cue, make sure to try his Tony Negroni variation at the bar. What’s his secret? He adds Barolo Chinato as the sweet vermouth element and serves the drink with an orange segment.

    777 Bridgeway, Sausalito; 415-332-7771

  • Credit: El Gaucho

    Seattle: Rebecca Olsen at El Gaucho
    Olsen was first hired at the now iconic steakhouse in 1996, when the Belltown location was still an empty room. For 20 years, she has taken six weeks off during the summer to be a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska — but she always comes back to El Gaucho.

    Secret to success: "Always be early for work and be willing to work until the dining room closes. Volumes can be written about what makes a good server and the components of good service — the mechanics of service can all be taught. What can't be taught is hospitality and joy in the work."

    Insider tip: "Let your server guide you to menu items that suit your taste, or if you want to try something new, be confident that we can help you find a dish you will love."

    2505 First Ave.; 206-728-1337

  • Credit: The Oval Room

    Washington DC: 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