Twenty-five years ago, when Johnny Romoglia waited tables at Ma Maison, Rex Harrison was one of his regular customers. Harrison insisted that Romoglia looked just like Toulouse-Lautrec — except that the famous French Post-Impressionist was a foot or two shorter. To remedy this discrepancy, Romoglia always knelt to take Harrison’s order.
Today, Romoglia is director of service for Wolfgang Puck’s fine dining establishments, and he works five days a week at Spago Beverly Hills. That’s him — with the distinctive shaved head, black-framed glasses, Hugo Boss suit, gorgeous polka-dot tie — roaming the room, making sure that everything that can be done to make the guests happy is being done. At lunch recently, as a friend and I were served the meat course of a tasting menu — roasted rabbit — Romoglia stopped by to check on us. “Oooh, lookee,” he said, pouring Evian. “You’re eating widdle Thumper! Awwww . . .” Then something at a nearby table caught his eye. A busser had cleared a plate while others at the table were still eating. Romoglia’s jaw set. “Enjoy,” he said to us, then turned and followed the errant busser into the kitchen like a heat-seeking missile.
Johnny Romoglia is a mischievous perfectionist, a whimsical professional, a disciplinarian capable of blatant silliness — he’ll pull the porcelain covers off plates with a flourish, then pretend they’re cymbals, or earmuffs. He can be funny and frighteningly proper at the same time. Just look at him: the elastic face, the impeccable grooming; the officer’s upright bearing, the spirited glint in his eye. He often refers to his “big mouth” (“You know me and my big mouth . . .,” “Of course, I had to open my big mouth . . .”). But the thing is, he knows exactly when to open that mouth, and what should come out. He can be goofy, outrageous, antic, yet remain the soul of discretion. Anybody hoping for some dish about Spago, some gossip or inside dirt, will hear nothing from Romoglia. Over weeks of interviews, he never uttered one disparaging or vaguely dark word about the restaurant or anybody who works there. He’s a company man through and through. Although he does do a drop-dead, thrilling imitation of his boss — nailing the Austrian accent.
Like many people who make a career in the restaurant world, Romoglia had no intention of doing so. His father was in the military, so he grew up “everywhere and nowhere,” attending high school in Germany and receiving a B.A. in psychology at Arizona State University. After college, he taught first-, second- and third-graders for two years, then returned to ASU for a master’s in child psychology.
“I still use what I learned on a daily basis,” Romoglia says, then repeats, “On a daily basis.”
While in grad school, Romoglia bluffed his way into a waitering job at an upscale French restaurant in Scottsdale, the Bistro. (Did his summer job at a bar really count as wait experience?) Luckily, an older, seasoned waiter named Jean took Romoglia under his wing, taught him the mechanics of waiting tables, shielded his mistakes from the management. Romoglia took to the discipline and formality — he’d been born and raised around the military, after all — and Jean proved an apt mentor. The two were hired together “off the floor” of the Bistro to work at a chic new Continental restaurant, Avanti.
Avanti ran at a different pitch: high-speed service with a lot of table-side food preparation — and flagrant showmanship. Romoglia would make all his own orders of fettuccine Alfredo, caesar salad, steak tartare; he’d fillet fish. If one owner, Franco, came by when a caesar salad was in the works, he’d cry, “Johnny never puts in enough lemon!” and squeeze more into the bowl. Another owner, Ramon, would “check” the preparations — he’d taste a big forkful of the pasta or salad Romoglia was making, then kiss his fingers, give his okay. “It was all very showy, and it happened very quickly. The place was always packed to the gills,” says Romoglia. “They’d do 400 covers a night. I learned how to use my personality more, and I learned expedience and speed, and great economy of movement. I learned, for example, never to leave the dining room — or come back into the dining room — empty-handed.”
In due time, Romoglia finished the thesis and coursework for his master’s, but he changed his mind about wanting to teach, and in 1976 he moved to Los Angeles to study interior design at the Fashion Institute. He’d brought with him a letter of recommendation from Avanti to La Scala, but nothing came of it. He applied at all the better dinner houses: Le St. Germain, Bruce’s Le Restaurant, and L’Ermitage, where he was hired, but only as a runner at lunch. “Then I was walking home along Melrose one day, and I passed this restaurant with this tacky fence and all these Rolls-Royces, and a sign that said ‘Bistro,’” says Romoglia. “Me, Johnny No-Stone-Unturned, walked into the kitchen and started talking to a cook. He looked about 12 years old and was very friendly — we must have talked for 20 minutes as he chopped vegetables. He told me to ask the maitre d’ about a job. I thought, ‘What a cute, friendly little prep cook.’”
Romoglia was hired as a runner, and a few days later, when he came in for his first evening service, he was taken into the kitchen and introduced to the chef — the same cute little fellow he’d talked to, Wolfgang Puck.
Ma Maison helped launch the ’80s food revolution in Los Angeles. The clientele were largely film-industry people; the phone number was unlisted, but the place, far from being stuffy and exclusive, was casual and bistrolike in atmosphere, if opulent and formal in its food and service. “Wolfgang’s food was so good and hearty and healthy and so refined,” says Romoglia. Waiters wore white-piqué bow ties with matching white-piqué shirts and vests, a short black tux jacket, black pants and a long white bistro apron. “The evening lineup was very old-fashioned,” Romoglia says. “The managers inspected your clothes, smelled your breath, looked at your hands, quizzed you on the daily specials.” At the same time, Romoglia might take an order on his knees. Personality — in the right context — was an asset. Romoglia clearly had a feel for the right context.
He worked at Ma Maison until 1980, when, having received his degree from the Fashion Institute, he took a job as a furniture coordinator for May Co. He arranged store showrooms. “They put up with me for a year. I got a really bad review — they said I was uncooperative — and no raise.” He quit to work for a designer, who shortly decided to move to Phoenix. Romoglia did not want to move back to Arizona.
Wolfgang Puck had left Ma Maison by then and was working on a new restaurant. He called Romoglia and said, “Johnny, come see the new place. Your mother will be so happy. We’re serving pasta and pizza . . .” And before he knew it, Romoglia was back working in restaurants, this time for good.
Before Spago opened, Puck and his staff sat down and discussed service for the new restaurant. “Technically, we wanted the service to be very, very good, casual and chic, with incredible four-star mechanics. Not robotic fine service, but service with personality. More relaxed and welcoming. Wolfgang wanted people to feel comfortable, as if they were in a home,” says Romoglia. Waiters were to be friendly, efficient but extremely professional. “This was not done at that time. Other restaurants had professional, formal service, but there was more posturing and formality.”
Even before the first customer walked through Spago’s door, Puck knew that the window booths in the dining room would make for a booking nightmare. He also knew that his loyal customers, the ones who would follow him from Ma Maison, would want to have Johnny Romoglia as their waiter. Puck decided to use Romoglia to lure people into a side room. But the clientele didn’t fall for it; they’d demand a window and Johnny. One night, the maitre d’ discovered Romoglia had 14 tables. “Oh, was he furious,” says Romoglia. Eventually, inevitably, he was moved to a window station — the middle window station — and for the next year worked the most coveted station in all of Los Angeles, any waiter’s dream piece of real estate.
But Romoglia had grown up “a military brat.” He was accustomed to moving around and living in different countries. Staying too long in the same place, however ideal, made him restless. In April of 1983, Puck ä asked him to help with the opening of Spago Tokyo for a month. Romoglia ended up staying in Japan for four years. He lived in a Western-style company apartment and served as Puck’s vigilant ambassador at this new Spago, where the clientele routinely included diplomats, the heads of corporations, Mr. Mori, Issey Miyake and members of the royal family.
Romoglia returned to Los Angeles in May of 1987. Puck wanted him back on the floor at Spago, but in a different capacity. “Float the room,” Puck said, and told him to wear a suit. He was to make sure that all the waiters were doing what they were supposed to be doing. At the time, this was a fairly novel concept. “I’d never heard of it before,” Romoglia says. “I was a fifth wheel, sort of like a floorwalker in the old department stores. It was a little confusing for everybody at first. My former customers kept thinking I was a guest.”
Because Romoglia was so particular about service, when Spago started catering, Puck asked him to get the business going. “I knew nothing about catering,” says Romoglia, “so I treated every event just as if it were the dining room at Spago.” Soon enough he was in charge of catering and private parties. Catering is hard work, with long nights and endless logistics of food and furniture and staff. Romoglia’s perfectionism in all these matters paid off. The catering arm grew — one September he put on 27 parties in 21 days. But such a hectic pace took a toll on his health. Eventually, he asked for a change. He told Puck that, for once, he wanted to work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, at Spago Beverly Hills. Puck thought about it. “Okay,” he told Romoglia. “So you take over lunch.”
Thus, Johnny Romoglia began working a regular week. He makes sure the staff is trained and the service is correct.
He also puts out fires. Tracy Spillane, the general manager, might come up to him and say, “Johnny, table 42 isn’t very happy. Go do your thing.”
His “thing” involves going first to the kitchen and bumping table 42’s order. “Although to cure one problem, I’m no doubt creating four more.” Then Romoglia goes to the table, where he starts “the lavishing process.” He smooths ruffled feathers, he sends out dessert, he takes things off the check, and estimates that nine-tenths of the time he’s successful. “With some people, ä nothing you do will ever appease them,” he says. “I feel sorry for people like that.”
Romoglia is also in charge of training the staff at all of Puck’s new fine-dining operations. When the trattoria Lupo opened in the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, he spent a month there training raw recruits in the art of fine service.
These days, Spillane and executive chef Lee Hefter won’t let Romoglia leave, so managers from other operations come work with him at Spago.
To this end, Romoglia is working on a service manual. “It’s so hard to keep it straight when I’m trying to write it,” he says, and begins to swivel. “Let’s see. Take beverage orders counterclockwise, food orders clockwise. But serve everything clockwise, and from the left, except for service à la Russe, and all liquids, including soup, which are served from the right. Pick up from the right. I get dizzy just thinking about it.” Romoglia thumps his head as if to clear it. “But maybe you shouldn’t mention the manual. Or they’ll remember I’m supposed to be doing it, and they’ll start asking where it is.”
So what kind of training does Romo glia insist on?
Depending on how astute and adept a new waiter is, Romoglia explains, he or she will undergo about two and a half weeks of training before being assigned to a station. The training begins with a week in the kitchen, prepping alongside the chefs. This, says Romoglia, is so the waiter can see what the kitchen goes through and puts up with.
“It’s an age-old fact that waiters hate cooks and cooks hate waiters. It’s understandable — a cook slaves over hot stoves with no recognition, and the waiter gets the tips. But this is a dinosaur that needs to be buried. We are all there for one thing: the pleasure of the guest. We work together. Wolfgang and Lee won’t hear of anything else. Everyone works for the common good of the house.”
After a week in the kitchen, the new hire spends a few days with the runners (who serve food and keep track of where a table is in its meal), followed by a few days as a busser (bussers serve bread, ice water, tea and coffee, they clear and “crumb,” and do whatever else the waiter can’t get to).
The new hire is then assigned to a waiter, who explains the service requirements and the “SQUiRREL” computer system, which communicates orders to the kitchen. At Spago, waiters are responsible for all their own mise en place work — that is, setting tables properly for each course, making sure all the implements are there before the food arrives. Romoglia is very strict on this point: appropriate silver for each course before the course arrives. Waiters are also responsible in a social capacity. “They are like hosts in a home,” says Romoglia. “They take care of requests, are available, responsible to the guests. I want them to ‘touch’ the guests as much as possible.”
On the third day, the new waiter takes over one table; by the end of the week, he or she has taken over the station and the experienced waiter is watching. “Not that we’re leaving customers in a bloody heap or anything,” says Romoglia. “The last few days, I watch them as much as possible, to their chagrin. I’ll just go stand at the table and listen — that’s when you see the sweat bead up on foreheads.”
What is he looking for? “Consummate professionalism, ease of manner, warmth, care and caringness,” Romoglia says without hesitation. “You can teach mechanics, but you can’t teach finesse.” He places a high premium on a waiter’s being relaxed, unhurried, “so it all looks like glass.”
A few things make his hair stand on end — or would, if he had any. The biggest offender is overt familiarity. “That, and a waiter who talks too much at a table, especially if he or she has a full station and is ignoring other customers.” Romoglia frowns just contemplating the possibility. “But every house has its own shtick, and some very good waiters from other houses — mechanically good — can fall short if they’re not warm and personable enough for Spago.
“I get very excited when someone works out,” he says. “When I see a waiter with promise and he fits in, I’m thrilled to death. You know, they’re all my children . . .”
Spago is a large, complex operation with a staff of 200 and a demanding clientele. The phones are a constant problem — seven lines, all ringing incessantly; surely there are difficult personalities and egos, feuds, impossible requests, myriad annoyances, irritants, if not daily incitements to homicide. But when asked what the toughest part of his job is, Romoglia has to think. His brow creases and twitches, he blinks: You can see his discretion at work as it filters through possibilities for the least controversial answer.
“The toughest part — the part of my job that hurts me the most,” Romoglia says carefully, “is when I have to send a waiter home because we don’t need everybody . . . or when I have to tell guests that they have to wait a few more minutes for their food. It doesn’t happen very often, but . . .”
Okay, never mind. Next question. What’s the most fun part of his job? No hesitation here. “When the room is full and everything’s running like a Swiss watch, people are laughing and memories are being made, and I know I’ve hit the mark.”
He should have been a diplomat. Although he wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun.
“No,” he says firmly. “Not nearly.”
Like the other day, when he was running through the restaurant, headed full tilt toward Tracy Spillane. “Help me, help me!” Romoglia called in a stage whisper. “There’s a crazy person after me.” His pursuer was only one of Spago’s most valued, long-term customers. What was he doing that was so crazy? Trying to slip Johnny a tip.