Food & dining

The perks of being a restaurant regular

Ted O’Neill and Mary Ellen Neylon with Lumiere owner/chef Jordan Bailey.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Ted O’Neill and Mary Ellen Neylon with Lumiere owner/chef Jordan Bailey.

You have a favorite restaurant. The staff greets you by name. You’re seated at a preferred table. That specialty cocktail you like? It’s en route before you’ve ordered. Complimentary small dishes appear. Ah, the joys of being a regular.

While others may dash to dine at new or buzzworthy spots, you are among those who go to the same restaurant again and again and again and again. Like Mike and Leslie Caruso. They’ve supped at Taberna de Haro in Brookline almost every Saturday for 14 years. James Kreis has popped into Loyal Nine in East Cambridge for coffee, breakfast, or drinks more than 100 times since it opened last year. Ted O’Neill and Mary Ellen Neylon, husband and wife, have dined at Lumiere in West Newton about 700 times in the past 10 years. Yes, you read that right: 700 times.

“There’s a rhythm of reliability, the pleasure of intimacy, and the joys of familiarity of menu and decor,” O’Neill says about his dining habit. Mike Caruso concurs. “We like being able to go to a place and have a conversation with people who care about food and what they’re doing,” he says. “It almost becomes a ritual, but it’s not an OCD ritual. It’s loyalty.”

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The perks for frequent visitors are subtle and varied. Last-minute reservations are granted. The chef visits the table. Heads up is given if the kitchen is running low on the daily special. “The biggest benefit is people say, ‘Hi Maria and Murray,’” says Maria Stevens Bollinger, who eats with her husband at Highland Kitchen in Somerville twice a month. “It’s very much a Norm feeling, like in ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows you.” Says Neylon, “It’s like going out with family.”

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The feeling is mutual.

“When beloved regulars come in, they bring a dose of positive energy to the restaurant,” says Deborah Hansen, chef-owner of Taberna de Haro. “Everyone can feel it. Energy in a restaurant is almost as high up on the list as food and service.”

Loyalists are also a plus for restaurants unable to afford public relations blitzes. “We’re just a neighborhood place. We don’t have PR,” says Asia Mei, chef-owner of Moonshine 152 in South Boston, while sitting next to Ryn Miake-Lye, a regular. “We rely on people like Ryn because she’s all about bringing people here.” Says Miake-Lye, “I consider myself an ambassador.”

Catering to frequent visitors is good business. They require less handholding and spend more money than new guests, according to a 2002 study by the Journal of Services Marketing. Benjamin Lawrence, of Cornell University’s Food & Beverage Management program, points out that restaurants have taken a cue from hotels on pampering repeat guests. He notes OpenTable helps analyze a customer’s purchase behavior and dining preferences to prepare for the next visit.

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Meanwhile, Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Legal Sea Foods, developed his own maxim for recurring visitors: “‘Return of Guest’ (ROG) is ingrained in our company culture as a guiding principle,” he says in an e-mail. “Everything we do must translate into the guest wanting to return.”

At the heart of all this loyalty, though, is good food. “That’s the important thing,” says Kreis. “If [Loyal Nine staff] weren’t passionate about food, I wouldn’t be going back. They take the conventional and they step it up.”

Regulars travel the menu, are open to specials, and don’t hesitate to share opinions about the meals. “I enjoy feeding Ryn because I can trust her,” says Mei. “She’ll say, ‘I think there was too much salt in that dish.’ Ryn understands the vision of our restaurant.” These customers also care about how staff is treated. “It’s nice to know we’re frequenting a place that seems like a nice place to work,” says Bollinger.

For some regulars, their favorite spot is already a part of their neighborhood, or at least nearby. Kreis lives around the corner from Loyal Nine, but notes: “If it was a mile away, I would walk there.” The Carusos live a mile and a half from Taberna de Haro. Miake-Lye visits Moonshine 152 from her Roxbury home.

Over time, these regulars become part of the restaurant family. “At this point, it’s friendship,” Mei says about her relationship with Miake-Lye. Bollinger is Facebook friends with some Highland Kitchen staff. O’Neill and Neylon exchange chatty e-mails with chef Michael Leviton, who earlier this year handed Lumiere’s ownership over to chef Jordan Bailey. O’Neill and Neylon have long been fans of Bailey, previously Lumiere’s chef de cuisine.

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Hansen says any guest can enjoy perks if they emulate regulars. “They are gracious and kind,” she says. “You want to go the extra mile for the customer who is polite.” It might be a glass of wine sent your way, or a dessert you didn’t order. The staff will address you by name. Then you will know you are a regular.

Peggy Hernandez can be reached at mphernan1@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @Peggy_Hernandez.