What I look For in a Dining Experience

As many are aware, we here at TG Geeks have waded into the waters of Restaurant Reviews. These can be deep and treacherous waters fraught with disastrous repercussions for both restaurant and critic.

As a general rule, I do not tend to write a review of places that I do not like or have had a bad experience. Some have urged me to go ahead and write those reviews as a warning to other patrons. I would rather stay on the positive side in this little venture we have unless it is an absolute train-wreck of an experience.

Having been in the restaurant business in a previous life, in various capacities from dishwasher to manager, I can be rather forgiving of certain things in a dining experience. I usually speak to the manager if it is really bad and then probably never go back. Although, I have made several visits to places that I had written off and some survived while others were written off to “never again” status.

I also happen to love to cook and try new techniques and recipes. In the past I have watched cooking shows and been able to duplicate the recipe from memory, while other times I have used a recipe and watched it flop tremendously…. For instance, my first time making risotto (some twenty years ago) was an unmitigated disaster (after 45 minutes we still didn’t have risotto.). I have since learned the key(s) to making risotto. Keep your liquids warm, stir constantly, and time. The Hollandaise story is for another time. :-/

With all of the above in mind, I go into a restaurant with certain expectations:

Appearance and ambience is somewhat subjective. I am reminded of a Bar-B-Q (yes, that was the spelling on the sign) place in my hometown that was not much to look at, but they had what was dubbed by The New Yorker as “The Best Bar-B-Q in the World,” and the place was called Slick’s. The place is legendary in that part of the country. So, I am willing to forgive a place if it has been recommended no matter what it looks like.

Cleanliness is a must. I don’t mind going into a place and see dishes on tables if it appears they are recovering from a rush. But, I have a really hard time with dishes piled up and stay that way while folks are chatting with each other or just hanging out. When I see that happening I start to wonder, “What else gets shabby treatment?” When there are dirty tables it is incumbent on everyone; servers, bus staff, and managers to get the place cleaned up. When I see a manager hustling to clean tables, I usually go and thank them personally for being a good working manager. Don’t get me started on unsanitary conditions or pests. That gets a “never again”.

Timeliness is one of those “things” that can influence the entire experience, whether it is in being greeted or acknowledged at the door, by the wait staff after being seated, or even food delivery. I have walked out of places because I wasn’t even acknowledged while numerous staff walked by repeatedly (to quote Lo Pan, “this really pisses me off to no end!”). A simple “someone will be with you in a moment” is always appropriate. Needless to say, it can all go to hell after being seated if the wait staff is not prompt or the food takes forever especially if the staff doesn’t seem concerned with the situation. Speaking of food delivery, something that is more and more common is an appetizer/ salad delivered just before or at the same time as the meal. Really? And when did it become the norm to serve the salad with the meal (yes, it has happened and I have been told, “we always serve the salad with the meal”)? Which brings me to the friendliness of the staff. They don’t have to be your best friend or Flo from the diner type, but being attentive and personable certainly helps in the tip department and my mood if there are issues. There is one of “those” restaurants that I have visited on numerous occasions and while the food is incredible, my meal is always the last out of the kitchen, sometimes by ten minutes and the staff just doesn’t care. That place has earned the dreaded “never again” status. Although, I will say there are other factors that went in to that particular place getting on the banned list…

Menu’s, descriptions, and presentation are all lumped together because they all conjure up specific expectations in your mind. A menu is not just a menu, it is a map to understanding what the restaurant is all about. Some restaurants have overly busy menus and they try to be everything to everybody. Unless you have a kitchen and staff that can accommodate a plethora of different cuisines, I say, Stop It. Focus on your strengths and those items you can do well. If you want to try new things with the potential of adding them to the menu, run specials every week or day and move on from there. Also, take care in crafting the language on your menu. You are trying to entice a guest to order from your menu since that is what you are in business for. There is a restaurant in a theme park we frequent that we have never had dinner at because the numerous times we walked by and looked at the menu posted outside, it said boring. Instead of Salmon, baked potato, and vegetables you might want to say something like, Fresh Sockeye Salmon expertly grilled on Cedar planks, accompanied by a Washington Rose potato baked to perfection served with fresh whipped butter and sour cream, Grilled seasonal vegetables drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette topped with shaved parmesan. Or something similar; just don’t be boring, it is a turn off.

Presentation should be by itself because a well presented meal can help make a memorable dining experience. Why do you think they serve fajita’s at the table with all the sizzle and pomp? I have on several occasions ordered a menu item that I have seen being delivered or as a special (e.g. breakfast at Duza’s Kitchen as I have not ordered off the menus yet) because an item looked so good. Presentation is key to the taste (which is next). Why do you think the chef or expeditor is always cleaning the edges of plates and watching as the food goes out? It should be perfect and elicit a visceral reaction (mouthwatering for instance) from the diner.

Taste is king in all of this. All of the other pieces only set the stage for the flavor and taste of the food. What more can I say about taste except that if it doesn’t taste good then the rest has all been in vain. I am not referring to the fact that you may not like a certain food, but does the food you like taste good. We have visited a restaurant where the chef has said, “let me cook for you.” And then proceeds to asks if there is anything we can’t or won’t eat. We trust him and his selections because he has never let us down. We have eaten things that I don’t ever need to eat again, but they still tasted good and that is what counts. As a diner you need to be willing to stretch yourself, especially in a fine dining situation. You might just discover a new favorite food.

These are a few of my criteria for an optimal dining experience. Let me know in the comments below if there are other considerations for a good dining experience from your perspective.

See you at dinner. Or as Julia Child would say, Bon Apetite!

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