Monday, December 3, 2012

Restaurant Rules

When dining out, do you have rules by which you select a place to eat?  Are there characteristics that tell you a particular place might be to your liking – or not?  What tips you off that you are about to have a great meal or an awful experience?

Here are some of my clues.  Mind you, when I dine out I am as likely to eat inexpensively in the neighborhood with the family as I am to find a great, romantic “foodie” spot for my wife and I.  Wait…I am more likely to find the family-friendly – who am I kidding!?

1.       Laminated and paper menus – Generally, a paper menu, particularly one with the day’s date is a good sign.  They update their menus often, likely with what is fresh and seasonal.  The menu is also somewhat limited to what they will do well and what they want to cook.  They are not trying please everyone.  Laminated?  With pictures?  Probably dependable and predictable, perhaps great for a quick bite with the kids – but fine dining it shall not be.
2.       Does the server interact with the kids? – When we are out with the kids and a server makes eye contact with the kids, asks them what they would like, and offers them some possibilities we are in for a good family experience.  Can they do anything on the menu but in a smaller portion?  Are they willing to give a kid the adult portion because we know they will eat it?  Catering to the kids and treating them like good customers teaches the kids about dining out and makes our experience as parents much more pleasant.   
3.       Music – Live and Recorded – I want the music to match the food and atmosphere.  And it should be loud enough to hear, but quiet enough to allow me to ignore it.  Jazz, emo, classical, softer alt. rock – it all works…but find the right volume.  In a bar and grill or family oriented spot…stick to the timeless hits – the kids love it and it works like comfort food.  If there’s live music volume will be a greater issue, but it adds something wonderful.
4.       Server knowledge – My interaction with a restaurant is primarily through the server.  I hope they will be knowledgeable about all the food and drinks available.  And I expect them to use a foodie vocabulary so they can accurately describe wine and beer.  I once heard a server in a brewpub describe a Scotch Ale as a darker beer with a hint of scotch.  The horror!  In a great restaurant the servers know as much about the food as the chefs.  They can suggest pairings, explain ingredients and their provenance.  If I ask about the source of the beef, either know or be willing to find out.      
5.       Kitchen looks to be more chemistry lab than kitchen – I have yet to have the experience of dining in one of the trendy science-lab restaurants such as Chicago’s Moto or Alinea and El Bulli closed before I could gather the fortune needed to go.  But in any restaurant, should I have the chance to see the kitchen, I want it to look clean.  Busy, cramped and old, new and ultramodern – I don’t care.  I just want to see it spotless. 
6.       Chef wandering the front of house – I have been to a few celebrity spots and certainly a few places where the chefs were in high demand to do some PR.  A quick step out to say hello to a regular or a special guest is fine, but I want to see you ruling the kitchen and turning out great food.   And should I witness calm, quiet leadership all the better.
7.       Small chalkboards with menu and/or specials – I am afraid this might become gimmicky, but the places I have been that used a few small chalkboards as a way to list either their specials or their entire menu (such as Kansas City’s Le Fou Frog or Chez Denise in Paris) have all proven wonderful.  It allows the chef to be flexible and for front-of-house to instantly update patrons as to availability.  For now, I like the chalkboards.
8.       Bills itself as a British/Scottish/Irish pub but has nachos – Lots of restaurants suffer from identity crisis. Just because you serve Guinness doesn’t make you Irish.  The British Isles have some wonderful food – pasties, stews, puddings, fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and kidney pie, and game.  You can sell this stuff.  Billing yourself as British and selling cheese poppers and nachos just tells me you are not all that serious.  Throw in Cornish pasties or haggis, and I know you’re for real and I am in for a treat
9.       Server pulls up a seat – If I am at the Cracker Barrel and you pull up a chair from the next table so we can chat about the menu, I know that’s part of the schtick.  But that practice should be reserved to the down-home, family breakfast spots.  It has no place in fine dining.  But do treat the kids like they’re your customers too.
10.   Early bird special – See number 9.  This clues me into the fact that I will be rushed, served abundantly though not too healthfully, and sent on my way. 
11.   Bread – Crusty, flavorful, warm and just cut by hand…I am likely going to have a good meal.  Fresh butter, too?  I think I will like this place.
12.   Pace – If I am out with family I hope you will keep a swift, but not rushed pace.  When appetizers are done, entrees ought to be coming very soon.  Too soon and we have 8 or 9 plates on a crowded table.  Too long and we are losing the kids.  But if we are all adults at the table, slow it down, please.  A gap between appetizer and entrees is nice for us to chat.  Let me savor a drink after we sit down.  I have been in some wonderful places that didn’t even bring a menu until drinks were on the table.  I like to go out to have an experience, an evening.  Discern from your customers what they are searching for and pace accordingly.  This can make or break my evening no matter how good the food.
13.   Amuse Bouche – Show me a chef who wants to share some wonderful, new flavor, some little morsel of fun, and I will show you a great restaurant.  When my drinks come and I am glancing over the menu and a server walks up with a small plate and announces, “Compliments of the house…the chef would like you to try…”  I am in for a delicious experience.
14.   Tight shorts and tank tops – Really?  Whether it be shorts, animatronic mice, rock or movie memorabilia, or 50 TV screens with every sporting event on Earth, these are distractions designed to get you in to mindlessly consume subpar food.  I know…there are exceptions.  The desserts at Planet Hollywood are good, as are the burgers at Hard Rock.  But you can do just as well without the gimmicks for less money.  The theme restaurants are enjoy?…try food themes.
15.   Televisions – see number 14.
16.   Noise – This is tough.  I want enough noise to know that I can have a conversation without everyone in the place hearing us.  On the other hand, if there’s so much noise that I can’t hear the people across the table, we have a problem.  And with few exceptions, I don’t want to hear the kitchen.
17.   Overly descriptive menus – I much prefer a simple description.  "Cassoulet" is much preferred to "Hudson Valley Duck confit, Baccolone sausage with Piedmont truffles, rosemary from the yard, sage from the window box all picked yesterday cooked low and slow in a vat of white beans from Iowa served with Gayle’s grandmother's super special baguette."  Keep it simple, folks. On the other hand, the places with the over-the-top descriptions are often serving some great meals   
18.   Drink list – The more specific the wine list the better the meal will likely be.  Divided into reds and whites?  Not enough information.  Divided by nation and region and including blends and varietals…now we’re talking.  Throw in a nice selection of bubblies including prosecco and cava and even some rose….ah, a good meal shall be had I think.
19.   Is there a kitchen table available? -  In recent years more good restaurants are setting a table in the kitchen so you can watch the action.  Though I haven’t had the pleasure of doing this, I have eaten in places that offer the opportunity and they were all wonderful.  But if you happen into the Cachagua General Store in Carmel Valley, California….get a seat at the bar and watch an amazing kitchen without the “Kitchen Table” premium.   

What are your tips and rules?  When you are looking for a place to eat, what information do you want/  When you walk in, what clues tip you off as to the experience you are about to have?
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