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What makes a restaurant good? And by good I don’t mean popular. Yes, I know that in this image-obsessed world good and popular could be one and the same. But I still hold out for the notion that you have to be good before you can be popular. So again, ask yourself or your significant other to explain why the place where you ate last night was really good … or not.
Industry experts will tell you that people forgive bad food, so maybe it’s great service that brings you back. Most great restaurants, though, are known for great chefs, and chefs do not affect the service (unless it’s in an adverse way). Wine lists, fresh ingredients, cocktails and ambiance all hold a certain amount of attention and register high on the customer satisfaction scale. But is there a defining yard stick, an unattainable grail that great restaurants hit and miss and that lousy ones never come close to?
My wife and I went out to dinner last Friday. I will not divulge the restaurant, I am not writing restaurant critiques … yet. It’s very rare that we get a chance to dine out. I can’t blame it on the kids anymore; they have matured to the point of boredom with their parents and seem content with some pasta and television time.
Rather, I must be careful not to snoop at all of the sites where my sixth-quarter students are doing their Sullivan culinary externs. I don’t rule those places out, because there are too many, but our rotation is wide and slow so as not to seem to be pressing. We have our favorites (again, no secrets divulged), places where the food is consistently good. Ah, there’s that word: consistently. Maybe that is the secret.
I made a reservation, and it was confirmed. I found the place without much trouble, again that’s a positive. Beautiful inside and out, inviting, stylish and with a good mixed, hip crowd and lots of buzz in the room. So far our experience had been positive. But that was about to change, and with the simplest details starting to tell, the night began to unravel.
I must divulge that both my wife and I are vets of the restaurant business from both sides of the glass and we probably notice and are more attuned to the details good and bad. We also had a set amount of time to dine having to be other places later in the evening. With that being said, the details do not lie; glassware not on the table is borrowed from another, as is some of our silverware. Specials are read which is fine but then mishandled when it comes to pronunciation. The table is small, crowded with a simple flower in the vase that we finally have to push to the corner because it is exactly at the proper height to hide my face from across the table.
Up to this point, no one has poured hot soup in our laps or red wine on our heads, but as things began to add up and become obvious issues (timing of the first course which required assembly only is glacial), no one from the restaurant acknowledges that they’re losing our table. This I believe is called “owning it” for better or for worse, and it’s not just a server issue.
The place is crowded but there are plenty of servers. Our server has several tables, but they are all in later stages of service. As we scan the dwindling numbers of patrons and check our watch (almost 50 minutes since our entrees were ordered, 35 minutes from the time we got our appetizers), we realize we have landed on “the island.”
This is a spot where no one from the staff wants to go and all castaways sense with growing dread that they are truly on their own. “Have they burned the entrees?” “Have they not been fired?” “Will we get them ….ever?” These are all valid questions and all avoidable if someone from the place owns it and communicates to us that there has been a mixup.
It doesn’t happen, and shortly our entrees arrive, I immediately ask for the check and we hurriedly consume the meals that have obviously been thrown together. The flavors are good, concepts sound, but the spell is broken and will not be repaired.
The restaurant is full, “popular” with the locals, but as we leave we both agree that we may not come back for a while, if at all. All places have bad nights, times when they are swamped and can’t gain any traction, but good restaurants work hard in that moment to put things right so even if it was disastrous you still feel like you would try again. They are making an effort to put things right so we should give them a mulligan and start fresh next time.
A cautionary tale from my own past is one I like to highlight to my students when we talk about the very subject of good versus bad restaurants. After an extremely difficult night with one large table in particular, I was forced to take a public lashing by the head of the group at the table. He then thought that I should also get a note detailing in how many ways I was a terrible chef. The note was graphic in its language and rude to a fault. I kept that note for weeks, read it almost every day, and it reminded me that communication of all kinds is the best way to judge the situation. Very likely that gentleman never returned, but the others at his table became fairly good customers and were welcomed as such. A fresh start, back to the beginning; it is one of the benefits of this business and the good restaurants always seem to do it.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.