As diners increasingly crave to know more about where their food comes from and acquire unique, shareable experiences, more restaurants are wheeling out the trolley carts to bring cooking out of the kitchen and to the table again.
Tableside service has been an in-and-out trend for decades across the industry. But the latest iteration steers away from the silent, showy meat-carving, Caesar salad-tossing, or Baked Alaska-flambeeing of the past, and more toward pulling back the curtain on food preparation, creating Instagrammable moments, and putting some serious fun into fine dining.
“The restaurant should be fun,” said Sasha Felikson, executive chef of Julii in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. “I don’t think anything else matters.”
At Julii, a French bistro from the founders of Cava Grill, Felikson has created a whimsical ice cream service. When guests order ice cream, Felikson comes out of the kitchen singing his favorite ice cream truck tune while pushing a cart set with copper mixing bowls, a copper whisk, fresh ingredients and a canister of liquid nitrogen. He talks and explains as pours the liquid nitrogen into the bowl of crème Anglaise, making ice cream for two, priced at $12.
Felikson said guests love this experience, and once others in the dining room see it, it sells “like” crazy.”
For Christian Frangiadis, executive chef and owner of Spork, an American small plates restaurant in Pittsburgh, tableside service is an opportunity to showcase fresh ingredients and to talk to guests, many of whom are hungry for information on ingredient sourcing and food preparation.
Currently, Spork is offering tableside preparation of Cacio e Pepe, a rich pasta dish with foie gras and winter truffles, for $26. The service features house-made spaghetti tossed tableside in a giant wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano along with cognac cream, cracked pepper, and finished with seared foie gras torchon and shaved winter truffles.
“The dish is incredibly ingredient-driven; there isn't any culinary trickery going on, so the up-close presentation is all about showing off our giant wheel of three-year aged Parmesan Reggiano and our house-made spaghetti,” said Frangiadis.
Meanwhile, Tiger Fork, a modern Hong Kong street-food restaurant in Washington, D.C., recently debuted at brunch its “congee cart,” a roaming cart with the traditional breakfast porridge, prepared tableside with a soy-poached egg and Chinese cruller, a savory fried pastry. Guests are allowed to choose their own protein add-ins and toppings, such as confit chicken, brisket, cha siu, shrimp or pickled mustard greens. It’s priced at $8.
“We wanted to offer a congee cart because congee is a big part of breakfast in Hong Kong, and the ingredients are unique to what people typically think of breakfast/brunch items here in the states,” said Glenn Hanbury, Tiger Fork’s general manager. “It’s just fun and the guest gets to be the chef and design their perfect bowl of congee and watch it come together.”
While offering tableside service was a minimal investment for these operators — ranging from as little as a few hundred dollars to as much as $1,000 to purchase the cart and its accoutrements — all said it has resulted in cost-savings.
For example, at Julii the ice cream service has eliminated the need to purchase a restaurant-grade ice cream maker, which Felikson says can cost between $10,000 and $20,000. It also freed up coveted freezer space that would be needed to store prepared ice cream.
Transferring the preparation of congee to cart-pushing back waiters has meant less labor for Tiger Fork’s kitchen staff, notes Hanbury. The congee itself, which is currently made in the kitchen but is kept warm, served and then customized in the dining room, is inexpensive, and toppings and proteins are mostly existing ingredients on the menu.
“It’s a cost-saving item,” said Hanbury. “Lots of cross-utilized toppings.”
It’s working so well, that Tiger Fork recently added a second cart and has trained all staff, including managers, to execute the service.
No matter the dish, tableside service is not without its challenges, even dangers.
“You have to be comfortable in that kind of environment because, essentially, you're on stage,” said Frangiadis. “You have to have the confidence to engage with the guest the entire time, be knowledgeable, and speak to what you're doing every step of the way.”
And just as with steaming milk for espresso drinks or working with a fryer or hot butter, if you don’t respect what you are doing, people can get hurt, warned Felikson.
Which is why he said he spends a lot of time training his team how to safely prepare and serve ice cream made with -325 Fahrenheit liquid nitrogen.
“It’s one of the most dangerous things you can do tableside,” said Felikson. "It takes all the ambiance out of it if you mess it up, burn yourself. I’ve seen people lose their skin.”
The unexpected is expected when serving tableside, said Hanbury, who also emphasizes the importance of a well-trained staff.
“I [have] worked in D.C. forever. I’ve had mishaps with many old-school tablesides, [like] sterno flying off the cart,” he said. “I haven’t lost a bowl of congee yet.”
Instead, the most challenging aspect of this dish, said Hanbury, is “making sure the product is fresh, hot, and arrives in a timely manner when there are a lot of orders at once.”
Operators interested, but apprehensive, of tableside service may want to consider starting smaller — perhaps by making a drink, rather than a dish, at the table.
Among the restaurants taking the beverage approach are Nick & Toni’s, wood-oven Italian-Mediterranean mainstay of East Hampton, N.Y., which serves “The Board,” a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary during brunch, complete with choice of vodka, stir-in condiments and garnishes. It’s $29 and serves two to four.
Similarly, at The Keep, a chef-driven brasserie with a speakeasy-style bar in Columbus, Ohio, a Smoked Cherry Old Fashioned is mixed tableside.
A server uses a torch to burn a pecan-wood board and capture the resulting smoke in a glass, then mixes ingredients and shakes with spirits before pouring everything into the smoked-filled glass and garnishing with bourbon-soaked cherry.