Adventures in Dining

Just another weblog

What Separates the Good from the Bad, Part II June 9, 2007

Filed under: Philosophy,What makes a good Restaurant — hpandaw @ 11:02 pm

Last post, I introduced 4 determinants of a Restaurant’s performance. In this post, I’ll detail them further and give some context.

I’ll start with the service, since this, for me, is the most important aspect of a restaurant, and the one to which I give the most weight. Naturally, there is the basic contract entered into between every patron and server- prompt attention, glasses full, dirties removed, order accuracy, don’t sneeze on the food/tip like they need it because they do. But there’s so much more that can move an experience from ”pleasant” to “I’m coming back here”. If you can steer me away from menu mistakes and make recommendations based upon what I say I like and not just what’s 6 hours from hitting the Dumpster™ or what’s got the lowest food cost, I’m happy. If you are discrete should my table be in deep conversation, and not use the Royal We every time you check in, I’m delighted. If the staff greets me by name (pull it from my reservation) and/or remembers me from the last time I visited, I’m already thinking about what I’m going to try when we return. You don’t have to chair my hinder or napkin my lap, but I really appreciate when the service is smart about their product and takes the time to learn a little about their guests.


Food, glorious food, there’s really not much in the world more emotion-laced or quick to get people talking. Except perhaps literature… or maybe movies. And there was that one art exhibit- you know the one, had those pictures like the ones you always wanted to take with your significant other, but were too afraid of what the developer at Wal-Mart would think of you .

WalMart Greeter

So maybe other things are equally evocative, but food can be both pedestrian and this-is-too-good-to-swallow. Good restaurants do the latter even when using ingredients that are the former. Not every item has to have a pedigree that makes me feel ashamed to eat it. Nor is the kitchen an alchemist’s playground where chefs with stars in their eyes feign at conjuring gold from lead. Great food comes from great cooking AND great ingredients, but too many restaurants substitute one for the other.


I am reminded of an experience at a Vegas-meets-Miami seafood restaurant where the dishes showed too much effort. The effort of always pairing something with sauce; the effort of mashing together flavors that were not just contrasting, but incongruous; with being so bent on piling on more ingredients that you forgot what the dish was based around. If your kitchen is churning out plates that the waitstaff can’t identify (gee, I’m not sure if that’s passion fruit chutney or chipotle-infused remoulade), they’ve gone too far and need a refresher on the *big picture*. Food should nourish, should comfort, should arouse, but food should not confuse.


It seems to me, and I’m sure there are others who agree, that there is a direct, positive correlation between the number of adjective phrases of a menu item and its cost. Haven’t run the actual stats on it, but napkin math looks something like this:

1.5X<Preparation Method or Cut, preferably in French> +2X<Location/Farm> + 1X<Actual Item>, 1.1X<passive voice verb> + with/by/on/over + 1.7X<an ingredient you’ve never heard of OR pretentious and esoteric form of a common ingredient> = Your Bill

As an example, you could have: Beef stew & potatoes = $16

Or you could have: Slow-cooked daube of Happy Calf Farm’s Belgian Blue shank, accompanied by roasted garlic & Filipino chervil white chuño puree = $42

And if your menu is in a fancy font that is hard to read by candlelight, you can probably add another 2% onto the price.

I’m not afraid to put down my duckets for quality and unrecognized hard work that goes on behind the pass-through, but if the restaurant has to hide behind a slough of adjectives and fonts to gussy up your menu, then the joint is overpriced. Conversely, if the descriptions are straightforward and instead enhanced by the waitstaff’s description, then I’m in a better position to judge value and feel like I’ve got my money’s worth.


Still with me? I hope so because you paid your nickel and I aims to please.


Last piece of the good restaurant puzzle is the environment, which I think is often too emphasized, when instead it could be subjugated. Perhaps restaurateurs believe a sizzling space can fool the taste buds, but that’s hornswoggle. Consider a trusted source for good dining recommendations; has s/he ever said, “the food is so-so but you simply must experience the zinc bar top and subway tile bathrooms!”? And if you ever got such a tip, would you ever follow through?


So the true role of the ambiance is to support, not distract. Our favorite restaurants run the gamut from an oyster bar that looks like it was carved out of an old municipal swimming pool; to a formal hotel-based establishment with service à la russe. We like these places because their environment complements the service, the pricing, and the food simultaneously. Switch the décors around, and they would cease to be our canteens of choice. This is why strip-mall locations have a hard time charging more than $10 a dish, even if they had a celebrity chef in the back shrieking “Bam!” every two minutes and their own foie gras farm in the Hudson Valley.

Emeril Shill's


Common sense, right? Unfortunately, execution must be a great deal harder than it seems.

Next post, we’ll apply this framework to some actual restaurants. Hold onto your hats!


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