Food vs. Service: Which Matters More?


Which is more important to a dining experience, the food or the service?

I just love these chicken or egg questions. The short answer is: It depends on your point of view, the venue, the gravity of the occasion, and the price of the meal. Here’s a longer explanation.

If you’re talking about foodies—and I don’t mean people who wait an hour and a half for White Castle sliders—it’s the food. We who travel on our stomachs endure hardships to taste exotic and original specialties, and service is secondary.

By contrast, if dining outing is a milestone event, such as the consummation of a business deal, anniversary, birthday, or marriage proposal, service can be a make or break thing, and that goes double when you’re paying top dollar for a table, where everything has to be perfect.

Recently, a friend from the U.K. dined with her boyfriend at the 3-Michelin star Le Bernardin in New York City, where the waiter elegantly concealed a ring in an appetizer. Needless to say, after pledging her troth, she couldn’t eat another bite. So in that case, it’s safe to say that what she’ll remember was the service.

I also recall places where guests come to be intentionally mistreated. The legendary Edsel Ford Fong of San Francisco’s Sam Wo noodle house was called “the world’s most insulting waiter,” so in a case like that, it’s also the service. For those who dine out rarely, great service is of paramount importance. Those patrons go to a restaurant to feel special, if only for one evening. Indifferent or incompetent service can overshadow the best cooking when that need is not met.

But in the end, the answer is probably the food, for most of us. Just ask yourself one basic question: If you heard a place had terrific food and bad service, would you go? Then do the opposite. Terrible food and amazing service wouldn’t bring in a soul.

Got a question about food, dining or the local restaurant scene? Send it to food critic Max Jacobson at Catch up on Max’s latest restaurant reviews here.