Monday, October 17, 2011

Morocco's of Mountain View & The Issue of Gratuity

Last week the Contra Costa Times ran a small piece ( here ) stating that San Francisco restaurants were pushing for a mandatory 25% gratuity that got all sorts of attention on radio & TV and in various publications around the bay. The piece was even picked up by “The Drudge Report” furthering the “land of fruits & nuts” meme that San Francisco has in some ways rightly earned over the years. The problem is that the piece, penned by Ed Arnow, had no sources, listed no San Francisco governmental champion nor quoted a single San Francisco restaurant or restaurant worker. Much ado about nothing in my opinion and little more than an intentionally inflammatory jab at San Francisco.

So why do I make mention of it in a review of a restaurant that is not in San Francisco but in Mountain View? We’ll get to that in a bit. First the review.

Morocco’s Restaurant in Mountain View is the second of two in Silicon Valley. The original is in downtown San Jose, this version opened in July. The space, on Castro between Yosemite and Fairmont, previously held a Vietnamese joint and before that Filipino if memory serves. The space is small, but doesn’t feel overly packed when full and is nicely, if a bit predictably decorated with draped fabrics suggesting a Moroccan tent and similarly themed artwork. Music is prominently featured and is in keeping with the theme. It was loud at times but not obtrusive.

They have an impressive wine list as well. I will be the first to admit a limited knowledge of Moroccan cultural and culinary traditions so I’ve no idea if wine is a typical adjunct particularly Argentine Malbec but the wines suggested with our meal were excellent and very complimentary to the flavor profiles in the cuisine.

My wife and I started with their “signature” Lentil Salad. The salad is chilled and features onion, cilantro and a balsamic vinaigrette with a heavy dose of cumin. The lentils were cooked perfectly and were firm and the seasoning was excellent. The portion was more than expected the remainder was brought home and enjoyed again.

The next dish was shared as well and was a first for us. The “Briwatts” are phyllo dough turnovers. They have a number of different fillings, ours was crab and are roughly the size of a golf ball and the serving includes 5 of them. Very delicate and really tasty but let ‘em cool for a bit when they come out. Ours were screaming hot when delivered to the table.

For our entrée’s we each selected one of their Tagine dishes. I chose the lamb and Kathy selected the beef. The lamb Tagine is a shank braised with mixed vegetables in a ginger and white pepper based sauce. A dish like this is really easy to screw up in a restaurant environment. Shanks can be finicky depending on relative fat content from one to the next and a diner can be surprised by a shank that could use a little more cooking to effectively break down the connective tissue or one that has been overcooked. This however was absolutely perfectly cooked such that the meat could easily be cut and chewed but not so much that it was falling apart. The flavors were rich and suggested very careful attention to the finished product. 

Kathy’s beef Tagine was even better. Braised with prunes & apricots and garnished with nuts it too was perfectly cooked and exceptionally flavorful. There was just enough savory to offset the sweetness of the dried fruits. I’ve had similar preparations where the fruit dominated the beef and spice but that was not the case here. They got it exactly right.

I found the service to be excellent, prompt and attentive without being overbearing. I’ve grown very weary of wait staffs that push the pace of my meal to turn the table. We were dinning with another couple and were able to converse without interruption and enjoy our meals at a leisurely pace without feeling that we were being pushed. Further, the server had exceptional knowledge of the menu, the ingredients in the various dishes and of the wine pairings. All highly appreciated and all too rare at this price point. The prices are quite friendly and our tab worked out to about $25 per person excluding the wine.

And now we get to the aforementioned gratuity issue. When our bill arrived I noticed an un-labeled line of $25 and upon inquiry discovered that Morocco’s has a set 15% “Service Charge” that they add to every bill. When asked, the young lady who was one of the hostesses produced a card that wasn’t on our table when we were seated stating the policy and explained that they add it for their employees and to “cover extra costs”. Their website states the following:
The 15% service charge gets distributed among all employees of Morocco's Restaurant. We do believe in equity and justice between our cooking team and serving team in regards to revenue distribution based on efforts, performance, and consistency.

We are proud to take care equally well of the charming servers that are hosting you to the fast paced cooks that prepare your delicacies through competitive wages, salaries, benefits and quarterly bonuses.

If you feel that your front of the house serving team went the extra mile by providing you exceptional service, your tips are appreciated! (National average tip is 18.3% and we have witnessed delighted parties leaving a generous 20% to 30% tips).

My first issue is with the hostess’s explanation. If you are adding service charges to “cover extra costs” you haven’t got a handle on your business. Operational costs should be covered by the price on the menu. The second issue is with the premise of shared gratuities. I find this highly objectionable. First of all, the young lady who served us did an exceptional job and we were set to tip her in excess of 20% before discovering this policy. When I leave a gratuity it is expressly for the service rendered to me. I’m not tipping the server on the other side of the room who didn’t do a thing for me. Sharing the tips with “back of the house” staff is similarly, done at the discretion of the server.

Asking me to pay an additional 15% regardless of my satisfaction with the service does two things. First, it dis-empowers the diner from effectively evaluating the quality of service rendered by ensuring the server gets paid regardless of the quality of service. Second, it de-incentivizes the diner from a larger tip if warranted. While the owners of Morocco’s seem to have their hearts in the right place with this policy, they ultimately are preventing their employees from fully realizing the potential reward for exceptional service they provide. I would encourage them to suspend the policy and let their customers reward their excellent staff at their discretion. 

For the record, we paid the 15% service charge, albeit grudgingly, and left an additional gratuity, in cash that I handed directly to our server. I hope she kept it for herself.

Morocco's Restaurant
873 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Phone: 650-968-1502

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