(Bloomberg) -- Turn a corner in a New York City restaurant today, and there’s a good chance you’ll bump into a tableside cart.
The luxe piece of dining equipment, also known as a trolley or gueridon, was once reserved for formal white-tablecloth dining rooms. They were operated by suited servers who deboned a classic Dover sole and portioned a porterhouse for two as smoothly as a TikTok dance move.
Now, thanks to social media and Big Apple operators who are keen to offer a more personal dining experience, the art of tableside service is back in full force, even at casual places.
“People definitely like the show,” says chef Andrew Carmellini, owner of the year-old downtown steakhouse Carne Mare. There, he offers a trio of dishes delivered to tables on carts: a seasonal vegetable salad that’s mixed and dressed à la minute; smoked steak carved in front of diners; and an Italian meringue-encased spumoni for two that’s set ablaze, then served.
The allure of finishing a dish in front of guests “is not a new thing,” says the chef, but platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have heightened diners’ desire for experiential dining beyond the plate.
Dudi Sasson, co-owner of Midtown’s month-old continental spot Monterey, believes it’s increasingly important to create a signature dish that “keeps people talking, long after their meal has ended.” Tableside service provides that memorable element. Monterey offers three cart options: a carved prime rib; flaming bananas foster for two; and bespoke martinis garnished with a briny olive or pickled chanterelle mushroom.
“Visually, it is stimulating for the diner,” says Sasson of the team’s decision to add carts. “There’s “that ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’ moment that brings energy to the room.” At the same time, the videos posted on social media operate as built-in marketing opportunities.
The carts aren’t cheap: Monterey’s custom trolleys cost from $8,000 to $15,000 each; the ones equipped with cooking features are the most expensive. And, Carmellini notes, they take time and extra labor to prepare the tableside items, which “works against the bottom line.”
But the showy presentations help engage guests and often boosts a restaurant’s bottom line. Sasson says his restaurant’s carts generate increased revenue, especially for the martini service.
Monterey sells around 10 martinis per hour from the cart at roughly $24 a drink (one pays the base price of the spirit plus $8 for cart service), which amounts to $240 an hour in martini sales alone.
Drinks carts invariably help boost a restaurant’s revenue. In the West Village, neighborhood fixtures Jack & Charlie’s No. 118 and Hancock Street both use bloody mary carts to boost brunch sales. Since adding a cart this summer, Jack & Charlie’s partner and beverage director Craig Hutson says the restaurant has “seen a big uptick in brunch traffic.” While patrons can order the house bloody mary, built tableside from a rolling cart for $14, the drink comes customizable with a variety of premium spirits and thick-cut bacon for an extra charge.
At Hancock Street, executive chef Ryan Schmidtberger agrees that cocktail cart service helps to upsell drinks. “It’s the visual of seeing what you want,” as well as capturing social media content, which he believes “definitely increases sales.”
The concept of introducing diners to lesser-known spirits was the motivation for the booze cart at the refined Korean restaurant Genesis House in the Meatpacking District. With a focus on sool (alcoholic Korean drinks), the cart comes stocked with sojus, fermented rice makgeollis and cheongju rice wines. At the Flatiron’s Southeast Asian beach-bar-inspired Singapura, the trolley highlights unsung spirits and cocktails inspired by Singapore’s lauded bar culture and local distillates such as Tanglin Orchid Gin, distilled with Java pepper and vanilla bean.
While some operators gear carts to a specific drink or theme, others see them as a way to bring the action from behind the bar to the table. At the new luxe Japanese cocktail bar Shinji’s in the Flatiron, every diner has the opportunity to watch their drink be made: The team designed a custom cart from which bartenders can prepare any of the lounge’s technique-driven libations—like an ultrasonically homogenized dirty martini that can hold a bracing subzero temperature for 10 minutes.
Flaming Eggplant Carts
For upscale Greek restaurants, tableside service is generally focused on breaking open a classic salt-baked fish. But when he was looking to capitalize on an Instagram moment, Iris chef-owner John Fraser designed a tableside presentation for eggplant moussaka. A server pours the Greek anise-flavored spirit ouzo over the top, then dramatically lights it on fire.
At the globally accented 63 Clinton on the Lower East Side, chef Sam Clonts leans into luxury ingredients for his tableside cart service. The $55 Russian ossetra caviar hand roll, constructed at the table, is a supplement to his $92 tasting menu. “It's one of the most photographed moments,” says co-owner Raymond Trinh. Cart service is, he says, a “great way to add visibility to a dish.”
The Sweet Spot
At the casual new West Village Italian spot Ferdi, one of the most popular dishes is a tableside gelato presentation. Customers who order the dessert for two for $28 can watch vanilla bean gelato whisked to order in seconds thanks to a splash of liquid nitrogen, which produces a cloudy spectacle. The cart “captures the attention of patrons dining at surrounding tables, which inspires more orders,” according to executive chef Fernando Scarpati.
At the new Le Rock in Midtown, the baba au rhum cart, operated by pastry chef Mariah Neston, presents slices of the spongy vanilla-, chamomile- and sage-infused cake, finished in front of diners with a choice of four herbal liquors, such as sweet and piney Dolin Génépy, and a dollop of whipped cream. “We are offering an experience over just landing a plated dessert on the table,” says Neston, who notes that a cart alleviates the need for a server carrying multiple liquor bottles to a table.
Still flames are the most popular selling point for a trolley dessert, from Carne Mare’s set-ablaze spumoni to Les Trois Chevaux’s flambéed, kumquat caramel-imbued crêpes to Monterey’s bananas foster. But even a no-gimmicks cart makes an impression on guests. Laurent Tourondel’s year-old Skirt Steak offers a $35 prix fix meal of beef and unlimited fries. What helps bump up the check average are desserts from the eye-catching glass encased trolley that rolls around the dining room. Inside are treats like meringue topped key lime pie, pumpkin cheesecake and Dutch apple tart, each going for $12. Even after multiple servings of fries, it’s hard for most tables to turn the sweets down when the chart shows up at their table.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.