Today, we at OpenTable released our annual list of the 100 Best Restaurants in America, celebrating the best of the best in our dining network. The awards are based on more than 5 million reviews from verified diners (meaning the guests actually dined there before leaving a review) and celebrate long-standing, revered restaurants whose food and hospitality consistently earn rave reviews and attract repeat diners.
At the top of the list is St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, which has earned the number one spot for the second time in three years. That’s especially impressive considering St. Francis provides a decidedly non-traditional restaurant experience with its acclaimed five-course food and wine pairing.
We wondered: what can more traditional concepts learn from the St. Francis experience that may help them delight guests time after time? Here, Barbora Hawkins, who heads up sales and marketing for the brand, tells us all about their five secrets to exceptional hospitality.
Guests at St. Francis range from locals and club members to out-of-town visitors, which means many of them repeat the tasting experience. Part of delighting those guests (and earning five-star reviews) is consistency — making sure the food, wine, and atmosphere deliver every single day.
Barbora says what drives consistent experiences at St. Francis is their three-pronged business of high-quality winemaking, culinary excellence, and great hospitality. Wine is at the heart of the brand, of course, and the tasting experience makes it approachable for both experienced guests and those who are less familiar with wine. By focusing on a few varietals and how they pair with the food, St. Francis encourages and interactive, subjective tasting.
On the culinary side, dishes are created by Chef Bryan Jones, who uses ingredients from the two-acre vegetable garden on site as well as products from local purveyors. The wine always comes first, with the food designed to highlight its distinctive characteristics.
Finally, hospitality: The team communicates with each guest from the beginning, inviting them to arrive early for their seating and describing the communal experience they will enjoy. Every guest is guided through the tasting at the same pace — they are greeted with a glass of wine, walk to the dining room as a group, and interact with each other and with the staff during the duration of the visit.
Guests at a St. Francis tasting sit at a round table, which can accommodate up to 16. (Barbora says seatings are typically all full.) A designated host oversees their experience, talking them through the food courses and the wines that Chef Jones has selected to complement each one.
Tastings last just an hour and a half, so hosts spend every moment either interacting with guests or, if the guests are talking among themselves, simply being available to guests as needed.
“It’s really just anticipating the guests’ needs and being intuitive,” says Barbora. “We live in such a fast-paced world, and sitting down to enjoy a meal with people you know should be something memorable. Half of the memory is what you consume and the other half is the service. What would make that service part of it memorable? We like to have a host on the floor at all times, even if they’re not engaging with the guests in that moment, just watching our guests and making sure we’re not skipping a beat.”
At its heart, the St. Francis experience is a communal, sociable one — and that’s what makes it so special. Barbora admits some guests may bit a bit quiet or uncomfortable when they first sit down, but by the end of the tasting they are exchanging phone numbers and building relationships that they maintain beyond the dining room.
And that connection goes for the staff, too. Barbora hears constant raves from guests about the hosts at the tasting, who invite conversation and interaction within the group. Some out-of-town guests plan annual visits, structuring their whole vacation around their tasting at St. Francis.
St. Francis holds 15 seatings a week for their tastings, and Chef Jones comes out at every single one to introduce himself to guests and invite any questions about the dishes or pairings. The goal, Barbora says, is to put a face to the name and make the experience that much more memorable.
She explains, “It’s very personable — he does take the time to come out and chat with guests at every seating.” The team jokes that he can never take a day off because he’s due to make appearances in the dining room.
The staff at St. Francis truly feel like visitors to the winery are guests in their home, and they value the customer relationships that their work helps foster. Barbora loves coming to work in the morning — and surrounded by mountains, vineyards, gardens, and sunshine, who can blame her?
“We love what we do here,” she says. “We have a great team, we enjoy coming to work every day, and I think that resonates to our philosophy. It’s not just a job for us, we live it and breathe it and enjoy it. Food naturally brings people together, and wine just makes it better.”
Chef and food blogger Leslie Durso paid a visit to St. Francis to chat with Chef Jones and experience the magic herself. Watch her video below: