Guests at Carmel area restaurants are spoiled. Crisp, locally grown produce fills our plates throughout the year. Meat and seafood options come fresh from area farms and fishing boats. More than 41,000 acres of Monterey County grapes are crushed and made into wines that consistently earn acclaim, and the views at many restaurants—overlooking the Monterey Bay, Santa Lucia Mountains and beyond—are enviable.
Still, even the most delectable meal loses its luster if the service is poor. And here again, residents and guests of Monterey County eateries are in luck. More than 11,400 people work in the local restaurant industry and they are a talented, dedicated and surprisingly modest group. By seating us at the best table, bringing out crayons for antsy kids or suggesting that perfect bottle of wine, they turn a regular night out into a celebration.
These are the people who make our dining experiences memorable. Carmel Magazine is proud to feature just five of the thousands of area waiters and waitresses who keep our candles lit, our glasses overflowing and our appetites satisfied. Read on.
Then, take a night off from cooking, head to your favorite local restaurant and place your order.
And remember, of course, to tip your server.
Years at the restaurant: 16
Favorite Nepenthe drink: South Coast Margarita
Because both of his parents once worked there, Aengus Wagner spent a lot of time at Nepenthe as a kid. He still has scars on his knees from a tumble he took in the back parking lot before it was paved. And, while he always thought he’d return for a spell, he never planned to work at the restaurant for 16 years.
“I came for a summer and decided to stay,” says Wagner.
His employer and guests are glad he did. “Of all my waiters, Aengus consistently comes in prepared and focused each and every shift,” says Nepenthe General Manager Kirk Gafill. “He pushes the envelope on expanding his service skills and knowledge.”
Wagner has earned Foundation Level 1 Certified Wine Professional status, taken classes at the Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.) at Greystone in St. Helena, and built relationships with winemakers throughout California.
In addition, his service is legendary. Gafill says repeat guests will wait more than an hour just to sit in Wagner’s section. “The goal is to treat people well, to help them have a great experience,” Wagner says.
“It’s clichéd, but it’s true. I enjoy the people. That’s what keeps me coming back. Plus, this building is beautiful, the family history at Nepenthe is amazing, and the setting on the coast is unsurpassed.”
After a pause, he adds, “And I like not having to wear a tie.”
Wagner’s advice to guests is simple. “Come to Nepenthe and drink a bottle of Pinot Noir while watching the full moon rise,” he says.“You’ll be in heaven.”
FISHWIFE AT ASILOMAR BEACH
Years at the restaurant: 20
Fishwife table recommendation: Table #3, for its view of the water.
When discussing her two decades at Fishwife at Asilomar Beach, Carol Knox quickly credits her coworkers and managers for providing inspiration.
“The people I work with care about guests,” she says.“They know the menu and they really know what they’re doing. They’re such a pleasure.”
Knox’s colleagues, however, turn the spotlight right back on her.
“Carol is very easy-going,” says Denise Wyer, the restaurant’s general manager. “As hard as some customers can be, I’ve never seen her lose her cool. She is a shining example who reminds everyone why we’re here.”
The California Restaurant Association honored Knox for her service in 2002, and she has been nominated for the Monterey County Hospitality Association’s Papa Vince Award three times.
She won the award in 2000, after using the Heimlich maneuver to save a choking customer. “We were extremely busy when it happened,” Knox remembers. “It took three tries—there was no sound—and I kept thinking, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ ”It did, and Knox still keeps in touch with the guest today. In fact, she labels many of her regular customers as true friends.
“I develop relationships with customers, even if I only see them one time,” she says. “You have to be able to put guests first and have a sense of empathy for them. It’s not about how many tables you can turn. It all really depends on good service.”
When she’s not caring for customers, Knox spends time in her home kitchen (she’s a two-time winner of the Castroville Artichoke Festival cooking contest) and helps her husband run their family business, Sparky’s Fresh Draft Root Beer.
THE COVEY AT QUAIL LODGE
Years at the restaurant: 24
Favorite dishes at The Covey: Foie gras and rack of lamb
When Ernie Felipe turned 50 in September, more than 200 people attended his birthday bash. Felipe asked guests not to bring gifts, instead requesting that they donate to his favorite charities.
“I didn’t want gifts. I didn’t want to carry things home in my car,” he says, grinning. That sunny disposition earned Felipe the 2006 Quail Lodge Employee of the Year award. At The Covey, he is involved in serving, scheduling, shaping the wine list and setting up the dining room. He has stepped in three times as interim manager, and he also lists caring for VIP guests among his duties.
Of course, to him, that means everyone. “Every single guest is my VIP,” says Felipe, who once headed to Safeway, bought Caesar salad ingredients on his own dime, and whipped up a meal for a pregnant woman who came in after The Covey had closed. “Everything Ernie does here makes us what we are,” says Quail Lodge General Manager Sarah Cruse. “Every day he sets an example.”
Guests appreciate Felipe’s service just as much as his managers. Actress Betty White once sent a note of praise to his mother, and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta requested that he make banana and strawberry crepes for former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
Felipe obliged, also preparing a salad for the table. “I kept hoping the egg was fresh. I didn’t want to get him sick and have something to happen to the economy,” he says, with his trademark laugh.
How does he avoid burnout after 24 years on the job?
“Look around,” says Felipe, pointing to the lake and landscape surrounding The Covey. “How could you not love working in this environment?”
Years at the restaurant: 6
Current Favorite on the Café Rustica Winelist: Snosrap, a blend from Parsonage Village Vineyard
Out in Carmel Valley Village, restaurantgoers love Rita Taylor.
“Guests always want Rita. She’s the one locals always ask for,” says Café Rustica owner Julien Belliard.
Taylor has worked at Café Rustica for six years, previously helping out at Taste Café & Bistro and Red House Café in Pacific Grove. The personal relationships she’s built over the years keep her looking forward to work.
“I have a beautiful connection with a lot of local people,” Taylor says. “I don’t feel like I’m a server—I’m part of people’s lives. Customers even ask me to sit down and dine with them.”
A fixture since the restaurant’s earliest days,Taylor helped paint the walls and prepare Café Rustica for its opening. She was a bartender there at the beginning and eventually took over wine-buying duties.
While she has now given that up in favor of serving, she continues to treasure her friendships with area winemakers and enjoys watching their blends gain popularity. “There are some phenomenal wines made here by some beautiful local people,” she says. “It’s been fun to have the Carmel Valley Village evolve into a great wine tasting area.”
Taylor is just as passionate about the atmosphere and the food at Café Rustica. “I’m very blessed with the opportunities I have had here,” she says. “It’s such a nice, family-owned place. We serve real food the oldfashioned way, with real sauces and everything. I’m so proud of that.”
Belliard calls Taylor a great asset to the restaurant. “Without her,” he says, “it would certainly be different here.”
STOKES RESTAURANT & BAR
Years at the restaurant: 7
Favorite Stokes starter: Deconstructed mozzarella tomato tower
Dino Giannetta’s résumé is one of the most surprising in the culinary industry.
The former Monterey Peninsula talk radio host once worked for National Public Radio in Los Angeles. He owned a record label, appeared in movies and choreographed films. As a child, Giannetta trained in opera singing and appeared on screen with the Osmonds. He’s also owned herb stores and has studied nutrition, acupuncture and holistic medicine.
So, why is he now in the restaurant business?
“I do this for fun. I love what I do, so I don’t have to worry about going to work,” says Giannetta, a waiter and manager at Stokes Restaurant & Bar.
He sees in this career an opportunity to unite two passions: entertainment and healing. “Restaurants are my forum and forte,” he says. “I love people, food, laughter and healing. Combining all of these is like great theater— you feel satisfied and elated, but leave hungry for more.”
Stokes owner Kirk Probasco calls Giannetta a “consummate professional” who sets an example for other staff. “He’s one of the most requested servers on the Peninsula,” Probasco says. “He so enjoys creating a dining experience for the guests and he is passionate about food and wine. He has a great sense of humor and an incredibly even keel.”
Giannetta, who has waited on actors, musicians and royalty, sees service as a dying art form. He keeps it live, however, and customers drive from as far away as Santa Cruz and San Francisco to sit in his section. He says success depends on being genuinely service-oriented.
“It has to come from the heart. It can’t be faked. It can’t be taught. It has to be part of your being.”