One of the most common questions people ask me is, “What’s your favourite restaurant?”
I often hum and haw, and make it seem like it’s difficult to answer. The short of it is it depends on my mood; if I want something fancy or specific, casual, spicy, convenient or cheap.
Throughout the years, cooking my own food has tainted my view of restaurants and thus, I wanted to open up a conversation [if anyone wants to jump in, feel welcome] about what makes you want to spend money at any given restaurant?
My thoughts boil down to a couple of factors when I have a restaurant experience:
1) Could I make this at home?
This is a very real consideration when I buy something out at a restaurant. I like cooking a lot at home so a lot of the times I can answer, “Yes,” to this. But, spending eight hours cooking something that I’ve made before, versus buying it already prepared without dishes or prep or shopping is a very different story.
Some things that impress me are presentation, the effort and technique it takes to prepare certain dishes and new/innovative flavours. I like eating at restaurants and having new experiences or trying new foods that I haven’t encountered in a grocery store. I also appreciate when a chef presents a dish that I’ve eaten at home before but completely re-imagined.
2) Did I feel welcomed and taken care of?
This starts from the moment I walk into a restaurant. Did someone who works there greet me or at least acknowledge me with some eye contact. If I’ve had a long week and go out for a meal because I don’t want to cook, it’s nice to be greeted and know that the establishment is there to take care of things. It may be a small thing but for me it really sets the tone. Any server can give a reasonable level of service, the bare minimum: introducing themselves to the table, asking for and bringing beverages, taking food orders, delivering food, asking for anything else like dessert or coffee and bringing the bill to process a payment. But what sets apart a good server from a memorable server is in the finer details. Did they hear something at the table as they were walking away and came back to confirm the information? Did they interact with the guests in a genuine manner, sharing either their own personality, making jokes, etc.? No one wants to be rushed out of a restaurant nor do they want to be waiting for the server to dictate their timing (i.e. waiting for a bill for more than 10 minutes when they have a show to catch or something.) If I liked the way the server spoke to me or if they went above and beyond the basics, I’m happy to tip 15-20%.
3) Was I happy with the amount of money I spent for the experience?
A lot of what you are paying for at a restaurant is the service. The tip you give your server, ideally ends up being shared amongst staff in varying percentages (although being a server for five years, I personally don’t think chefs and supporting service staff get tipped out enough).
But there are so many other costs that inflate the price of food in restaurants: for example, the cost of the space itself, both renting it and furnishing it, the cost of plates and glasses, the people preparing the food, the food cost itself, plus your dishes need to be cleared and washed by staff as well. Sadly, all these costs are increasing and as a result items on menus will inevitably do the same.
Overall, I think about the restaurant I am in and try my best to evaluate how much the owners care. That sounds odd, but what I mean by that is, do I get a sense of pride from the people working in the establishment and how the owners have chosen to present the “brand.” Details like, is the washroom clean? What kind of art pieces are on the walls? What kind of music is playing? Does everything look polished and professional? Do the employees look happy?
Lastly and most importantly for me, it comes down to the food. There are a few restaurants in town that I go to that are not very nice looking aesthetically and their service isn’t necessarily stellar either, but the food is phenomenal and I keep going back regardless. If I eat something and it’s so mind-numbingly delicious, I’ve already been sold and I’m coming back a second time. Execution and ultimately flavour will always win me over. If I’m so taken by a dish, I will automatically think it was worth whatever it cost.
So anyways, rant over. I’d love to hear any comments or stories about what you seek in restaurants, wherever you are from!
The Simmering Pot