Synergy’s Best of 2019: Restaurant Discovery

Dec 31, 2019

As we wave goodbye to the ‘10s, foodservice news is chock full of food and restaurant trend predictions for the coming decade. For our last newsletter of the year, we wanted to highlight some of the great dishes and concepts that inspired us during our Discovery tours across the country. Some of these locations just might surprise you:


You might think of this Florida city as the home for Disney and Universal Studios, but “The City Beautiful” is also home to a number of distinctive dining and bar hot spots. At the top of our list is BarTaco, a rustic and beachy destination for amazing handhelds and a margarita brimming with fresh-squeezed lime juice. A small menu on both the food and beverage side makes it easy for the kitchen to pump out freshly prepared tacos, rice bowls, and sides. Guests order using a dim-sum-like menu and everything hits the table as soon as it’s ready.

Tacos from BarTaco

On the bar side, Mather’s Social Gathering delivers quality cocktails and an over-the-top experience. A quick trip up the nondescript Mather Building elevator drops you off in a reimagined 1800s-style speakeasy with soaring ceilings and an impressive collection of antiques. Mixologists behind the onyx bar share and stir a collection of classic libations with twists from today. Notable drinks include The Phoenix with a hit of fresh jalapeño that will keep your lips buzzing, and The Grand Frozé with a float of Grand Marnier. Order your favorite spirit with a square ice cube that’s as clear as the summer sky.

Grand Froze from Mather’s
Clear Ice Cube from Mather’s

Orange County, CA

We thought we’d seen it all in the California county that serves as our home base, but there’s always something new happening in the OC. One of our new favorites is CDM Restaurant and Bar, an elegant establishment in Corona Del Mar that’s thankfully close to our offices. CDM combines the upscale comfort of a plush living room with an industrial central bar and edgy speakeasy downstairs, along with a focused men that celebrates seasonal ingredients. A menu standout is the BBQ Heirloom Carrots with pecan butter and an herb dressing, both unexpected and incredibly savory. We sampled this dish in July and can’t stop thinking about it.

Carrots from CDM

We can’t mention Orange County without mentioning one of most respected restaurant companies, the Hillstone Group. No, their locations aren’t new on the scene but any of their Orange County locations serves as a mini-bootcamp on how to operate a great establishment. From the closely curated menu to ingredient prep to order to their teamwork approach to customer service, Hillstone is the platinum standard for food quality and guest experience. Check out our in-depth article on Hillstone in last month’s newsletter.

Chicken Sandwich


The capital city of Texas has long been known as a center for culinary creativity. Our Discovery tour there this fall revealed a commitment to modern food trends alongside traditional food standards. Odd Duck lets their trend flag fly with their playful combinations of down-home, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Indian flavors. A few standouts we sampled included the Green Chile Crab Pimento with everything-bagel-seeded crackers, and the Chicken Fried Fish

Crab Pimento from Odd Duck

Heads coated in a fish bone caramel sauce. Odd Duck cuts loose with their take on mashups, much to the diner’s benefit.

Fish Head from Odd Duck

Riding the traditional train is Terry Black’s Barbecue, one our favorite spots on our Austin tour. You can’t swing a stick in Austin without hitting yet another barbecue joint, but Terry Black’s stands at the top of the wood heap. They focus on the classics – brisket, beef ribs, chopped beef, and sausage – and put their energy into crafting some of the best smoked meats in town. A few sides and sandwiches round out their offering. You won’t find trendy food here, just amazing ‘cue.

Terry’s Black BBQ Pit


Florida’s sultry city to the south lays claim to tons of nightlife and beautiful beaches, but the city’s downtown core is becoming known for its vibrant food scene. Our Discovery tour in Miami revealed some of our favorite dishes of the year.

You wouldn’t expect a restaurant with a Russian name to offer some of the best sushi in town, but Novikov more than delivers. This glamourous hotspot features new style sashimi and premium sushi along with maki, rice and noodles, and wok-fired dishes. One of our many favorites included a grilled king crab leg with a creamy truffle sauce, where the meat was removed from the shell, cut into bite-size pieces, and arranged back in the shell for easy eating.

Crab Leg from Novikov

Another wonder was braised pork belly pressed for 48 hours, cut into cubes, and kissed on the plancha with a sweet soy sauce.

We also marveled at Zuma Miami, a monolithic space in which a cluster of cooks prepare sophisticated twists on Japanese izakaya cuisine. We enjoyed watching the bartenders craft a few whimsical drinks like the Zombie Cocktail, a tequila concoction served in a Day of the Dead mug adored with a tiny straw hat and mint sprig.

Zombie Cocktail from Zuma

In looking back at the restaurants that caught our eye, a few patterns emerge. One, a focused menu of top-notch dishes and drinks. Two, a commitment to quality and culinary craft. Three, a fully realized concept that provides a memorable dining experience. Solid and timeless lessons for all restaurants to heed instead of chasing the latest food fads.

We are looking forward to our Discovery tours in the new year and to unveiling a new set of favorites. Let the Roaring ‘20s begin!


Exceptional Customer Service: Your New Secret Weapon

Dec 02, 2019

Crush the holiday competition this year by focusing on what’s most important — your guests

With the holidays upon us and restaurants gearing up for that big end-of-year sales push, how can operators grab their share of diners? Lots of chains offer LTOs or double loyalty points to increase foot traffic. Other concepts offer seasonal specials or deals on gift cards. With your competition jockeying for your customers, how can you stand out and grab your fair share?

As with most strategies in the restaurant business, a “back to basics” approach usually reaps the greatest rewards. One of the most essential strategies for success is great customer service. As consultants, we travel across the US and around the world each year, dining in every kind of establishment from fast food to fine dining, sampling every cuisine available. Without a doubt, the biggest driver of a great guest experience is the front-of-house team that consistently delivers warm and engaging hospitality.

As another year draws to a close, we wanted to share some great customer service examples from one of our most admired restaurant chains, the Hillstone Group. Founded in 1976, the company operates 15 separate concepts in a dozen states. Each location offers a menu of around 30 items, all of which are consistently well-executed. While the food is stellar, we regard the Hillstone service model as “the gold standard” in the restaurant industry.

After visiting more than a dozen Hillstone locations across the country, we’ve compiled a list of outstanding customer service techniques that the company employs to turn guests into raving fans:

Take a Team Approach: While each table is assigned a lead server, several waitstaff will touch that table during the guests’ visit. Front-of-house staff are trained to circulate throughout the dining room, looking for empty plates and glasses to whisk away before the guest even notices. Similarly, servers run finished dishes from the kitchen as quickly as possible, even if that food is going to a table delegated to another team member. This coordinated approach places the emphasis on serving the guest and removes the “that’s not my table” mentality from the equation.

The Eyes Have It: We’ve all dined in busy establishments and felt frustrated when it’s hard to catch the eye of your harried server — or any server — when you need more water or another fork when yours hits the floor. Not so at a Hillstone restaurant. Servers and runners are trained to make eye contact with guests as they travel through the dining room. This technique focuses the staff on guests’ needs in an immediate and personal way.

Little Touches, Big Impact: Many restaurants serve their martinis in a chilled glass. But at Hillstone, you’ll get a new chilled glass when you’re half-finished with your drink. This small gesture creates a huge guest impact and enormous goodwill. At Hillstone restaurants that serve water from glass bottles, under-counter reach-ins are strategically placed in the dining room, so the servers always have access to a cold bottle of water for any table. These seemingly small gestures have been carefully crafted to elicit an emotional response from the guest. From a brand standpoint, putting so much effort into something as small as a chilled glass or cold water demonstrates Hillstone’s commitment to making the guest feel welcome and important.

It’s Personal(ity): While the restaurant industry is keenly aware of the nationwide labor shortages, Hillstone maintains strict hiring standards for their servers to obtain the personnel required to execute their customer service program. First and foremost, they hire for personality and attitude before experience. The company knows they can train their recruits on the procedures needed to be successful. Hillstone would rather hire people with less server experience so they can develop them from the ground up and spend less time breaking bad habits.

A dish from Bandera, a Hillstone Restaurant

Train to Meet Expectations: In the Hillstone model, a thorough and detailed front-of-house training program is a given. Servers and runners go through extensive instruction based on specific goals and processes — nothing is ambiguous, and new team members know exactly what the company expects and how to achieve it. While the investment is significant, it’s another way that Hillstone demonstrates its commitment to be the best when it comes to customer service.

How can you adopt a more customer-focused service model? A good place to start is to check your online reviews and any customer feedback you’ve gathered or have been given. Do customers comment on food not coming out hot from the kitchen? Develop a strategy for solving the issue, then train your team on the new procedure. To solve the cold food problem, you can try heating your plates in an oven beneath a stovetop or in a cheese melter. If servers are constantly running back to the kitchen for additional condiments regularly requested by guests, redesign your tablescape to make these items available.

Finally, look for opportunities to genuinely surprise and delight your guests. Maybe that means surprising each table with a sample of a new menu item or creating a Welcome Kit for each new guest that contains the manager’s business card and a bounce-back coupon. Give your team the strategies, tools, and training they need to succeed, and you’ll soon be setting new standards for customer service.