I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for a great restaurant. Everyone has opinions and criteria – to some, the best restaurants focus on highbrow dishes and complicated preparations. To others, the best restaurants are places where you can surround yourself with friends, pull up a stool and dig into some classic comfort food just like mom used to make. And some people will swoon over any place that has a line out the door!
We’re all guilty of hyperbole. We often say things like “this pizza is the best ever,” or “that place is the worst place on earth!” While it can be an exaggeration, “best ever” could mean “that place is at the top of its game right now and I really enjoy it!” For me, “best” means my favorite, and it comes down to a solid and successful execution of a concept. This is not to be confused with the restaurant that offers a most exceptional dining experience, which can often be one-time, “been there done that” places. But I’ll revisit my favorite places again and again.
If a restaurant is trying to be a snooty, all-attitude French place and does it with full-fledged snobbery and the food is exactly as advertised, then that makes it a good place. If they say that filet is cooked sous vide (a method of cooking in an air-tight bag), and it’s moist with sauces that work with the dish, then that makes a great place (but just because you cook sous vide doesn’t give you an automatic gold star in my book!).
But if service is subpar, the filet is under seasoned and dry, the sauce is broken or separated, that is a failure. That’s not to say the place can’t be great – every restaurant stumbles now and again. Bring it to the attention of the chef or manager. If they do all they can to fix the situation, that’s one of the signs of a great restaurant.
But even a more “humble” joint can achieve similar greatness. If a local deli sets out to make the best pastrami sandwich, using old world style, slow-cured, well-marbled, moist pastrami served on great bread, and it is delivered with exceptional service, then that deli is definitely a great restaurant. If you throw in that it’s been open for a hundred years, that’s the cherry on top (I’m a sucker for history)!
For example, I recently visited the Crouse Cafe in Indianola. I had an old-school, down-home roast beef sandwich. No frills, no “new world” techniques, but a perfect example of comfort food at its best: tasty roast beef, fresh sliced white bread and home style mashed potatoes that your grandmother would approve of, all topped with a rich beef gravy that was so good I was wondering if they sold it by the gallon! I finished it off with a coconut cream pie as good as any I’ve ever had. Service was brisk, friendly and helpful. Bottom line: as soon as I left the restaurant, I was looking at my schedule to see when I could return and honestly I haven’t stopped thinking of it since!
I’m never one to say one style of food is better than another. How could you say deep dish pizza is inherently better than thin crust? A smashed, crusted burger or a thick, juicy burger? Mention “the best BBQ,” and you can get 10 different opinions from 10 different people. These things are a matter of taste.
At the risk of repeating myself a little (from my recent blog about Zombie Burger), I will briefly touch on the criteria that I believe has to be in place for a restaurant to be in the running for my own personal “best” list.
The restaurant must:
- Honor the basics while being creative and experimenting. In other words take chances here and there for the sake of taste or flavor.
- Offer a diverse menu. No, that doesn’t mean hundreds of menu items. But offer some options. (One thing I’m especially proud of about Zombie Burger + Drink Lab is that we offer more non-beef options than beef.)
- Focus on service. The front of the house has to be solid. The wait staff has to care about customer satisfaction.
- Commit to quality. Ingredients need to be specifically selected for the unique characteristics they bring to a specific dish. The preparation has to be well-thought out.
The bottom line: Personally, if you tell me we’re going to a little shack that presses its own corn tortillas or spot where the pho broth has been cooking for days, I’ll get pretty excited. If you tell me we’re going somewhere with the best foie gras ice cream… not so much.
But like I always tell my chefs, “I want our customers to be thinking of these lobster tortellini when they’re putting on their shoes in the morning!” Regardless of size or stature, if I’m still remembering the restaurant I visited a day or two ago (or I can’t stop thinking about that one place where I plan to dine tonight) that restaurant is a nominee to my “best” list.