Friday, September 7, 2012

The Sarcoa experience

As I've said before, I'm no restaurant reviewer. But I do think our recent trip to one of the city's newest and most coveted restaurants (Sarcoa of course) deserves a few words!

Let me backtrack a bit....the first time we visited the Discovery Centre down at Pier 4 was last summer, for a charity auction event. The space was obviously fairly new, bright and airy - but there was nothing permanently in place there. How strange? we thought. This beautiful new building on the waterfront with nothing going on. A readymade patio outside, facing the lake, with no chance for Hamiltonians to enjoy it. It turns out that the centre has quite a history, first as a Parks Canada museum and educational centre, before being shut down in 2010.

Soon after we attended that charity event back in the summer of 2011, we began to hear rumblings that the plan was to move restaurants into the centre - a concept which we were obviously very excited about, given the site's potential.

Fast forward to this summer and the arrival of the first such restaurant, Sarcoa, which opened its doors in July.

I'll admit that I clearly underestimated the popularity (and hunger for) this type of restaurant in this location. We called them up one Friday soon after opening and asked about reservations for that weekend. They had nothing available. The same thing happened the following weekend. Eventually, we smartened up and made reservations a week ahead.

Finally, Sarcoa day came. We headed out to the bay and were instantly impressed by what they've done with the space. The patio outside is incredible - a large space with palm trees, a great view of the lake, an impressive bar in the middle and little 'cabanas' (cushiony covered outdoor spaces) for larger get-togethers. Inside was pretty chic as well - large, light and airy with a huge modern bar on one side, and loads of booths and tables and local art on the walls. We immediately thought that this place would be an impressive venue for either a large event or a smaller birthday party. Obviously, the patio likely doubles the amount of seating at the restaurant, so I imagine it will probably be pretty crowded in the winter after they shut the patio down.

In spite of all of these positive developments, our first five minutes at Sarcoa proved to be the only negative part of our night. There was a bit of a lineup at the front to get seated. As we waited, an older couple in front of us was quarreling with several of the 'hosts' over their online reservation (the restaurant didn't seem to have a record of it). The hostess told the couple that they were fully booked up that night and the following night and if the couple wanted to make a reservation for later in the week, she could do that. They stormed out.

We didn't really give it a second thought until we were seated and ordering. We noticed that while the restaurant was busy, there were a number of tables around us that were empty - and stayed empty - for the entire 1.5-2 hours that we were there. Now I'm no restaurant manager, but I'm pretty sure that the couple could have eaten and been out before any late 'reservations' showed up....

This event led to an extended conversation between hubby and I about good business sense, and the fact that those customers will likely never return to Sarcoa. They've lost that couple for life, whereas if they'd just been a bit flexible and let them have a table for two for an hour, all that could have been averted. I don't want to bring up the "T" word, but when we were in Toronto, I did notice that in even the busiest restaurants downtown, they usually tried to accommodate walk-ins, even if it meant a lengthy wait at the bar. Rarely was anyone ever sent away.

But I digress...

The food itself was pretty good - Margherita pizza for me and burger and fries for hubby - as well as dessert (peach cobbler and brownies...mmm...) A great place for date night!

Unlike the couple who we encountered at the beginning of our Sarcoa visit, we would definitely make a return visit (possibly with out-of-towners) as its still such a gem on the waterfront. We also can't wait to try the other restaurant that is slated to open up next to Sarcoa soon!


  1. Sounds Yum-tastic!! I will be your out-of -towner :)

  2. First off, very well written review. My only comments are towards the part where they lacked "common business sense". There may have been many reason that the section was not full, the managers have no control over people not showing up for the reservations. Also because the resturant is new they are most likely trying to space out the volume of customers so that the kitchen can produce chef quality food and not high volume food. I don't see too many other resturants be able to accommodate 400-500 people at a time even in Toronto. A resturant like sarcoa is not interested in turning tables, so to them losing 2 people at the door is better then them sitting and having a bad experience. It's called opportunity cost. From a customers view I rather a resturant be honest and say we cannot accommodate anymore reservations tn then to have a long wait at the table. Personally I would be okay with that. This resturant is in the right direction for Hamilton, only being a month old it has done well with the time it has been opened. I can't imagine it was easy getting qualified servers and kitchen staff to accommodate a resturant this size. These are just some things to think about. Just my two cents.

  3. Josh: Thanks for taking the time to comment. It may be true that the restaurant likely had some kind of plan or strategy in place when it came to deciding not to fill all of the seats when they first opened. My issue is that as a 'regular customer' (not a restauranteur or marketing person) me and everyone else in that lineup were not privy to that information/strategy, so all we had to go by were our first impressions and the conflict unfolding before us, which did leave a bit of a sour taste in our mouths to begin with (fortunately, the food and atmosphere were great, so we left feeling quite positive.) You mention that as a customer, you'd rather be turned away than have a long wait at the table. I'm not convinced that couple would have had a long wait. There seemed to be a more-than-ample number of servers and bus-persons on duty. Nevertheless, the restaurant never gave itself the chance to try to prove that, in this particular case. From our laypersons' perspective, we just thought: surely 'the customer is always right' still applies? (They said they had made a reservation). What if it had been a special anniversary dinner or a first date or even a business meeting? Getting turned away would be downright cringeworthy in a case like that. Anyway - I agree with you that this restaurant is the right direction for Hamilton and has likely done well since opening. I wish it success (it adds a lot to the bay area) and I'm sure we'll be returning.

  4. They were (very) lucky that the couple didn't see how empty the restaurant was that evening. The reality is Sarcoa made multiple mistakes. First, if you can't guarentee that you're reservation system (online or otherwise) is operating properly, then you shouldn't be taking reservations. Once they accepted (and lost) a reservation, they handled the situation completely wrong. As soon as they realized their error (real or imagined), the answer...the ONLY answer, was to apologize to the customer and find them a table (a seemingly simple task that evening). Again, that was the only acceptable answer. Their actual response did not "[lose] 2 people at the door" (it's never that simple); Sarcoa lost those 2 customers (customers or clients, rather than people), a percentage of their close friends and family, and very possibly a number of professional colleagues / associates. And the incident, as it played out, did exponentally more damage than marginally slower service would have caused. The reality is, the customer IS always right (save for scenarios involving legal statutes or regulations, i.e. - maximum building occupancy). You don't lower the bar for customers, you raise (in this case, nominally raise) the bar for the staff. It is that simple.