One of my last restaurant meals before the shutdowns started last year was at Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. I waited on the street by a fishy-smelling puddle until I was waved toward a seat at the well-worn counter.
Crushed between two strangers on a wobbly stool, I happily ate as much fresh, sweet, cold Dungeness crab meat as I could. Happily, because the server across the bar was making me feel comfortable and cared for, safe and unhurried, though I cant say exactly how he did this.
Unlike service, which is technical and easy to describe, hospitality is abstract, harder to define. It cant be summed up in a checklist. It cant be bought. It doesnt hinge on the quality of the glassware, or the folding of a napkin while youre in the bathroom. And it cant be eroded by a slightly-longer-than-you-expected wait, or other little inconveniences, like picking a piece of crab shell off your tongue.
Hospitality is both invisible and formidable it surrounds you. You can find it at a rest stop on the highway, and miss it at the host stand of a fine-dining restaurant. You feel its presence, or you dont.
But what is it? As chefs, owners and restaurant workers rebuild the hospitality business, the question has become less theoretical, and more urgent.