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You’ll see me talk about restaurants a lot on this site. It’s what I know. It’s one of my passions. Food is as much an art as it is a vital life fuel. It’s one of the few things that you can take cheap and dirty but at the same time you long for those rare occasions when it takes your breath away.

It’s a little like good women and great love. You can set out to be satisfied and that’s easy or you can hold out for the ones that stay in heart and your head for years to come.

Actually, just like love and women… the reality is that you need both versions to make it through life. The cheap fling with a club girl is very much the dollar menu equivalent to love and life. Sometimes you’re just looking to fill up so you don’t starve.

Same thing with food. When you get in your car and drive down a busy street you are going to see a lot of restaurants. A lot. The restaurant Industry is the largest employer in the United States second only to the Government. True fact.

So you’ve got options. I’m going to assume for the purposes of restaurant reviews that I write that the reader is not out to fill up. If you’re looking to get full I can’t recommend McDonald’s more. For purely cheap food that is exactly what you are paying for they are it. They’re the best in breed for their niche in the food service world. I’ve had the pleasure of being inside their corporate headquarters multiple times and talking with the people that work there. They know what they’re doing and they are masters of their domain. That being said, let’s talk about the times when we’re not just looking to fill up.

I’ve worked in the restaurant world for a long time now. I know what’s going on behind the scenes that other people don’t. If you work in an office setting and have never been paid to be behind the counter of restaurant or in its kitchen trust me, you have no idea what’s going on back there. We all watch these cooking shows on television and think we’re arm chair experts on the food world. The practical everyday restaurant doesn’t work that way. The Top Chefs are all working in silence executing perfectly prepared meals. That’s not who’s in the kitchen of the restaurant you’re dining at. It’s at best a very organized chaos happening that is wholly dependent on iron strong leadership and the ability of the staff to work with both common sense and awareness.

But I do not judge most restaurants on the criteria of an operation run by Mario Batali or Bobby Flay just like I wouldn’t compare Friday’s to some of the five stars in my county. Everything is judged within its realm of expertise. Context is king. Judge them for what they say they are and for what they say they do.

Context. 

The Setting

The setting is the first thing I observe when heading into a new restaurant. Look around you and take about sixty seconds to see how you feel. Not sure what I mean? An extreme example would be to walk into a biker bar on their busiest night. If you aren’t part of the target market you are going to feel very out of place. But that’s the extreme as I said. I look at the floors, I look at the tables, I look at the patrons, I look to see where the kitchen is and I look to see where the wait staff gathers. I’m looking for cleanliness first of all. If there are unchecked tables (Tables that haven’t been cleaned), if there are crumbs on the floor and if the bar has glasses that haven’t been collected I immediately know something.

That something is that this restaurant has a lazy staff and weak leadership. I know for a fact that a worker is never lazy about just one task. There is no worker in the world that does an outstanding job with every aspect of their tasks but skips just one thing. If they skip on one thing they are skipping elsewhere. Unchecked tables and dirty floors tell me I may be waiting awhile and that my food may not be up to par. Remember how I said food is art? Artists are passionate about every part of the work. Great food doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a restaurant. The passion needs to be seen in every aspect, not just the food but the cleanliness.

The other aspect of the setting is the ambiance. Now all I mean here is that the inside needs to make sense. Common décor in some restaurants is the “Junk On The Walls” approach. Ok you have old timey kitchy stuff on your walls. That’s fine if your menu matches that. If your menu is classic French cuisine or some kind of trendy fusion then you may want to take the hub caps down.  The alternative is just as bad. One time myself and a friend wandered into a restaurant at about midnight that was surrounded by college bars after a bit of drinking. We were the only ones there. This place served upscale burgers, poached salmon, lamb, crown roast and a lot of other things that shouldn’t have been served at midnight in a bar zone. We asked about French fries at they got a little insulted. A lot can be said about ambience but at the end of the day its simple, does the place you are about to eat at give you a consistent image from menu, to meal to the time you step out? Are you comfortable? Do you at any point wish you were closer to leaving then to eating?

The Staff and the Service

This can make or break a restaurant. Think about it, how many people do you know go on a regular basis to questionable breakfast cafés and divvy bars? A lot right? When I ask them why the most common answer I get is that they, for one reason or another, like the staff. We men are all guilty of taking a return trip to certain restaurants and bars because we thought a staff member was hot. I myself appreciate a particular local bar called Neighbors because the wait staff is kind and they make a killer Manhattan.

What makes a staff good? Just like with the setting you’ll get a feel for how the staff is going to be from your first sixty seconds in the restaurant. The host, if they have one, is the face of the whole operation. They(Or someone at least) should acknowledge you immediately and they should be pleasant. They should give you an accurate wait time too and take the effort to find you when it’s your turn to be seated. It’s commonplace to put your name into the rotation and go to the bar. If all they’re doing is screaming your name in a crowded restaurant you are going to get missed. There is a local breakfast restaurant that did this to me and my friends. We waited in plain sight of the staff for over forty-five minutes. They said they called us. We went back into rotation and waited 15 minutes. They said they called us. We walked out and never returned.

They have to look good too. Now I’m not a shallow person I promise but I refuse to accept slovenly people. First of all its work. You get paid to be there so you need to be presentable. This is a leadership issue too. Any manager that isn’t sending people home who refuse to adhere to work uniform dress codes, that are unbathed, that are not combing their hair, wearing clean uniforms or making an effort to look good is weak. Weakness in this area is indicative of weakness in other areas too. Someone who comes to my table looking like a slob gives me no reason to believe they’ll take my order accurately, that they’ll be attentive to touching my table (paying attention to the seated tables) and that they have any knowledge of the food they’re serving.

That last point is so incredibly vital. You need to know where you work. I ask a very important question when I go somewhere for the first time. “What’s the best dish on your menu?”, or sometimes “What are you guys known for?” They should know what the answer to this question is and should be the dish that will bring me back in. It should be the one thing that will bring me in again and that can’t possibly be bad. This question and their answer to it is the food equivalent to the first date with a great girl. You and her are probably both going to put your best foot forward that night. Everybody’s on their best behavior right? No lies, be yourself but be the absolute best version of yourself. Same here, give me your best.

A week ago I asked this question at Houlihans’. They are a contemporary American Kansas based restaurant chain that operates in the realm of Steak House. About ten years ago the chain filed for bankruptcy and turned thing around. They transformed themselves into a bit more of an upscale place. Or at least they tried. They’re a classy version of Friday’s. So now that you have some background here’s how the waitress answered the question. “You should definitely try the chicken parmesan.” Ok? I wasn’t going to say no. But considering the theme of steak house and contemporary American entrees listed this person pushed the most common menu item found in almost all restaurants? It’s not what they’re known for, it’s not what will separate them from the pack and frankly it wasn’t something they even did well.

The balsamic running on the lip of the plate happened because the server couldn’t carry the Goat Cheese and Artichoke Poppers level. This is acceptable because they charged 5.25$ for them. If these were ten to twelve dollars it would not be. 

If your server can’t answer basic questions it’s because they don’t care about the menu and they don’t eat at the restaurant they work for. Some questions are out of the realm of what the server will know and they may have to speak with the kitchen. Fine. But if they don’t know signature items, don’t know what some of the ingredients are that are listed as part of entrée and don’t know what the specials are that day you’re in for a long night.

How quickly do you get your food? This is important. Most full service restaurants(Where you are seated and served by a wait staff) not geared toward serving you five star dishes expect that you should be eating within twelve minutes of ordering your meal. Any quicker than that and it means they are not cooking to order. In short, it means everything is prepped way in advance, reheated or just held hot. You are essentially eating leftovers. If it comes later than that it usually means there is a back up in the kitchen for some reason. I’d rather eat later than sooner any day. The chances of better food are more likely.

Some people suggest that for the best service go on a weekday, ideally a Tuesday or Wednesday. Why? Because it won’t be swamped with people and you’ll get more attention. Sure, if you have the chance to do a great meal Tuesday night do it. I’m not forgiving of bad service on a Saturday dinner rush. If you can’t give good service during your busy rush no one is coming back on the slow nights.

The Food

And now we talk about the food. It’s the main reason you went, other than to spend time with a great looking lady or to laugh with good friends. Now you can very easily fail to evaluate the restaurant the right way here. It all depends on the context of where you’re eating. If you went to Friday’s for instace you really don’t need to be examining the knife cuts on your meat, the plating and if the server wiped the rim of the plate before presentation. You know why? Cause you paid about ten dollars for your entrée.

The price you’re paying for your food will be telling you what your base line expectations should be. Now you can always be wowed by cheap food and disappointed by expensive food but the price point will give you guidelines as to what you should expect. When you’re entrees cost more than twenty dollars a plate you’re free to start being critical of things other than the taste. The reason is food costs. Unprepared food is not particularly expensive for a restaurant to get in. Don’t believe me, look at the high end meat cuts at your local butcher and then look at what they cost to be served at a restaurant. At some point the price will hit a point beyond what the restaurant needs to profit and if it’s higher than that you’re paying for how well it’s prepped, presented and seasoned. Now you’re paying for something more than just to get full.

But let’s talk about taste shall we? I want to talk about that experience at Houlihan’s again. They had Chicken Parmesan on the menu. Someone in some position of authority decided that this dish should be part of the menu. This decision means that certain considerations were taken but the primary among them is this: If someone eats this dish they will like it enough to come back into the restaurant and eat it again or have confidence enough in our cooking to try something else. This is the basic purpose behind every item on a menu. People sometimes excuse the quality of certain items because it’s not “what they do best”. Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong. What a restaurant does best is cook food and serve guests. If they do that best with a certain dish, great. But every dish on the menu has to meet the above criteria. Will I either order it again or be impressed enough by it to return and order something else? If a restaurant can only do one thing good it might as well be a operating out of a Hot Dog cart or as a mobile restaurant and have only a few items. If you can’t make it well suggest something you do make well rather than let a guest order a subpar menu item. Or ideally just remove the subpar items from your menu.

Repeat business is the lifeblood of every restaurant. Restaurants and bars have to want me there. I have to be appreciated. I have to like where I am, be treated well and get what I paid for or more. That’s it. That’s all it takes to get me back a second time and with friends.

And that’s my approach to reviewing a restaurant. What’s yours?

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