For a restaurant that has staked its business model on providing "emphatic and nurturing" tip-free service – the first of its kind in Canada – Smoke 'n' Water has a surprisingly lousy reservation system. I called three times last week to book a table for Friday night and never received a reply.
To naysayers, this is the danger of a no-tipping system: Without the incentive of cash gratuities, standards are said to slide. In this case, however, I think the slack service can be chalked up to opening-week jitters. The restaurant's voice-mail system apparently was not working.
Yes, Smoke 'n' Water opened only last week. But you'll be excused for thinking it has been around forever. Not since Rob Feenie's falling-out with Lumière has a Canadian restaurant received so much media attention.
If it wasn't for its radical tip-less policy, this small casual joint sheltered in a quiet nook on the east coast of Vancouver Island, otherwise best known for its annual sand sculpting competition, never would have made the news.
As it happened – 40-plus radio interviews and countless print articles later – I was in Parksville, B.C., last week and couldn't resist visiting. Because it was less than a week since the restaurant's opening, I will refrain from giving it a star rating. Yet as anyone will quickly discover, Smoke 'n' Water's tip-less system is only the most obvious of its many quirky anomalies.
"Wild horses couldn't draaaaag me awayyyy."
We were sitting on the patio perusing the menu when the general manager wandered out, strumming a guitar and singing the Rolling Stones' greatest hits. She had obviously been hired for her musical abilities, not her voice.
Smoke 'n' Water is not a typical restaurant. The first thing you notice – after the bulletin board with all its media coverage, the stand for T-shirts showing off Canada's first no-tipping restaurant, and a giant, 600-gallon saltwater fish tank (left over from the room's previous incarnation as the Landing West Coast Grill) – are the prices.
This restaurant sets itself apart by paying a "living wage" to its staff, which equals $20 to $24 an hour for servers and $16 to $18 an hour for cooks and back-of-house staff. In any other restaurant, they'd be paid $9 to $12 (lower than minimum wage). It also offers employees medical and dental coverage, something almost unheard of in the industry.
Yet the prices, increased to compensate for the wages, are not onerous – at least not by Vancouver standards. A regular burger here costs $16; at nearby restaurants they go for $9 to $15.
This is a long overdue "social change," as owner David Jones likes to describe it. But why is the drinks menu so retro?
Seriously. When was the last time you saw Malibu rum in a featured cocktail, or a paralyzer as a special? I haven't had one of the latter Pepsi-vodka-Kahlua-milk specials since I was 17. I had to order one. Then I gave it a second thought.
"Can I cancel that drink?" I asked our obviously inexperienced yet lovely young server. "If you tell me what you want instead right now!" she replied, grabbing my shoulder.
Our first waitress didn't play an instrument or have any previous restaurant experience, but she really was sweet. Then she left. Her shift was over. The next waitress played the viola.
While the sun was still shining and we were sitting on the patio, we ordered deep-fried calamari that was nicely crisped and served with an unexpectedly bold anchovy-mayo dipping sauce.
The pizzas – fired in a gas forno oven – were undercooked. The specialty rotisserie chicken, cooked on a real wood grill, was sold out. But the chef offered us lemon-brined fried chicken (a recipe borrowed from Thomas Keller). The ribs were over-boiled and not charred enough. The sauce was awfully sweet.
But when we went to pay our bill at the end of the night, there was no prompt on the credit-card machine for a tip. That's a sweet I could get used to.