What Constitutes Your Ultimate Dining Experience?
- Bill Hunt Nov 9, 2007 05:26 PM
This might not be the correct board for my post, but I feel certain that the CH team will move it to the appropriate location. This was my first choice of locations, but maybe "Not About Food," would be more appropriate. My fate is now in the hands of the CH team.
Jason (Zin1953) got me thinking about “service,” in restaurants and how the lack, thereof, can mar an otherwise excellent meal. We were discussing a particular restaurant and a particular chef, but he spurred to go more general. The memories came flooding back: the good, the bad and, well, you know the rest.
I’ve had mediocre food, where the entire experience was “carried” by the servers and the front of the house. I’ve also had excellent meals, ruined by a breakdown in the service, or how other aspects of the event were handled.
For me, I’d rate the food at ~ 60%, with wine next at ~ 20% and service, ambiance and other aspects filling in the remainder. I have no idea how others feel about the overall experience and am curious. Can a poor server ruin an otherwise great meal? Can a faux-pas by the host/hostess bring the chef’s best to ashes? Can cheap wine glasses put you off so much that you’d grade a place down – way down – when the food was actually quite good?
The best fried shrimp that I have ever experienced was from a tiny dive, with a big hole in the roof. There was only counter service and I usually took the food out, as the place was just not where you’d want to spend an hour. It even had a Grade-D sanitation rating (I did not know there were ratings below A... ), but the shrimp were the best, by a long shot and now, when the moon is right, I can almost conjure up the taste. No Michelin-starred chef has ever created better, by my standards. Still, if I were looking for a total dining experience, this would be as far from the top of my list, as a restaurant can get. That said, these were the standout-best fried shrimp that I have ever experienced.
I’d dined at a particular great restaurant (usually top 10 in the US in most polls) in my wife’s home town, many times. We usually found ourselves back for her birthday, either on business, or on pleasure. Over the years, we’ve reserved one particular table, up in their turret – never a problem. We just reserved table #8, and that was that. One year, I made the reservations about 6 months out, requesting table #8. No problem. I dropped them a note, mentioning our reservations and the request for table #8. I called to confirm our reservations and re-stated the request – table #8. When we arrived, we were told that someone else had gotten table #8, so we were seated in the Garden Room. Service was good, wine was good, and the food was also good. However, the overall experience was tainted. We’ve not been back, except for one event, since that episode, even after about 20 years of faithful patronage.
We’ve done another restaurant, in another city, not even on the Mainland, and had experienced world-class food, wine service and overall great evenings. The stuff that dining dreams are made of. Last trip, for our anniversary, and with all the proper correspondence from notes to telephone calls, we were stiffed by the sommelier, who was too busy with a “VIP” to be bothered by our request to do a pairing with the chef’s tasting menu. Even though the VIP had brought their own wine, he was so deeply involved, that he could not be bothered with us. The wine service was a total abomination, though the food and other service aspects were great. I cannot get my wife to even give them another chance, though they had been flawless over the decades.
In that same city, I called the other night for a reservation at the Chef’s Counter for an evening next month. I gave my name to the person on the telephone and he checked the times and dates. His next question caught me off guard, “is Linda still your wife, and I have a note that she is allergic to bi-valves? Is this correct?” I had always made my reservations through one of the corporate VP’s, and she’s always handled all of the details. This was the first time that I’d actually called the restaurant for a reservation in many years, though we dine there about once per 18 months. What a wonderful feeling. That is about as good as the front-of-the-house can get, in my book! This particular chef has several restaurants in the US and in Japan. Two years ago, we received a rec. to try one of his newest restaurants. We did not even know that he’d purchased this particular site, but took the rec. to heart (from a server in another restaurant). I made reservations on very late notice, and the hostess said, “we heard that you might be joining us, and are looking forward to your visit.” Holy S—t, I felt like a food critic! Now, the server WAS the brother of the sous-chef, who was heading the kitchen while the exec.-chef was off, but no one at this location had ever heard of me, and I am NOT a food critic. When we arrived, we were seated in a prime location, and the server told us to just sit back and enjoy a “special” tasting menu that the chef had constructed, just for us. The wines had been paired and about nine courses, with wines, followed with so much flourish and fanfare, that I was embarrassed by the excess. Were I a visiting head-of-state, I would have expected less. Needless to say, thank you notes followed, along with some glowing CH reviews. The food was great and a visual delight, but the handling by the hostess and the servers would have made a chain hamburger on a paper plate seem great!
How do you feel about things beyond the actual food? Does the color of the carpet, the drapes, the tablecloth, etc., mean anything? Do you expect proper silverware, and wine glasses? Has a host/hostess with an attitude ever turned you off? What goes into YOUR ultimate dining experience?
>>>What goes into YOUR ultimate dining experience?<<<
Location, location, location. One memorable dinner was at the Maui Lani on the Big Island, sitting so close to the ocean we could feel the mist while dining on Alan Wong's delightful and inventive food. I couldn't possibly discuss the silver, but the plates were square. Now Alan is in Honolulu, I think, and square plates are common.
My husband, the wine collector, would have remembered that aspect of our dinner.
It varies. I thought ambience never ever played into my dining experience, but a new restaurant here in Westchester NY has floor to ceiling windows and amazing water views and I am impressed. The food is very good, so that helps.
I would have to say that MY number one deal breaker is service. I have had great food and very good food, but in both cases have had mediocre service and horrific service, respectively, and so have discarded both restaurants. What I find interesting is that restaurants 'think' they can treat patrons any way they choose and that the patrons will return, simply for the food.
So, to answer your question, I would have to say, in order of importance: service (yes, attitude, attention, friendliness); food; wine/drinks; price; and lastly the ambience.
My very favorite restaurant (which has since changed hands, declined, and I won't return) for the past 20 years would treat me and my party as 'special' even if I had only gone there once a year. The food was very good, not great, the price was good, and the drinks were fine. But the host, bless his heart, and the service were like nothing I have ever seen anywhere else and most likely will never again see.
Yes, I think you've got it. In the turret, on the second floor. It's the one table on a slightly raised bit of flooring and is surrounded by the turret windows. I know that it's popular with couples, but when one makes a reservation for it 6 mos. out, and then confirms twice, it seems impossible that it would be "given" to someone else. It probably seemed insignificant to the host/hostess, but we'd gotten that table maybe six times before.
As we hosted several very large parties at that restaurant and took many folk there, when we were in town, it made an impact on me. That restaurant now is way down my list for folk visiting that city, and there is a caveat besides my review of it.
I think service is very important and first impressions too. So often one is greeted by a young hostess who looks at the seating chart as if it were some abstract complicated undertaking and often too seems disinterested in your arrival. Bad start for me. Hopefully the service is more attentive and usually is. And I do take in the decor,place settings, stemware, tablecloths. It all is important for an overall pleasurable experience. But I would not go back to a place just because it was pretty if the food wasn't terrific too.
This is a very broad topic, and one that can go on about both the basic components and the minutia.
Your example of being allergic to shellfish reminds me not of a restaurant -- though great restaurants will also keep "files" on regular guests -- but rather of the International House hotel in New Orleans, which even through the horrors of Katrina, kept the files on their patrons' likes and dislikes, and welcomed us with open arms upon our return . . . knowing all our likes and dislikes, room preferences, etc., etc.
The post of mine that prompted all of this was about my experience dining at Restaurant August in New Orleans on 10/20/2007. For those who have not read it, you can look here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/457826 and then scroll down. The food was exquisite, but there was so much else WRONG with the evening, that my wife and I may never be back -- and that's a shame.
1st..how I am greeted when I walk in the door.
5th..how I am treated upon leaving
The Ultimate Dining Experience - what an interesting subject!
At my favorite local restaurant, we're greeted with smiles and everyone says hello, if Shawna is there, there is hugging. Our waiter, Brad, knows our favorite cocktails and Tom knows how to make them. Brad knows I am allergic to shellfish but still lets Mr CF know about the special (if there is one), which is important to me - just because I can't have it doesn't mean he can't. They give Mr CF time to look at the wine list and also let him know if there is something that isn't on the list yet but that he might like. The chef, Karl, comes out to talk to us after dinner and shares a glass of wine with us. I do feel like family there and if perhaps things slow down a bit during service, we never get upset or worried.
When we travel, I love it when our waiter is as happy as we are that we're there. Service is so important. I'll forgive so much if our waiter/waitress is trying.
A snotty host/hostess aggravates me but doesn't ruin the evening usually. In February we were in Scottsdale/Phoenix and had dinner at Vincent's - the hostess was a bit lacking but things went way uphill from there.
Wine glasses are important - I don't want a lovely wine served in the glass equivalent of a Dixie cup.
Location - well it is important. It doesn't have to be the prime spot but once in Naples FL restaurant, we were seated in a location that gave me motion sickness - there were people shooting by on both sides of the table, it was so distracting and irritating that we haven't been back and probably won't be.
But the most important thing is... Mr CF. If he's happy, then I'm happy. :-)
OK, here's hoping that Mr CF is happy!
I'm disappointed to hear about the hostess situation at Vincent's. It is one of our local favorites, and our service (after the first visit 10 years ago) has always been over the top. One reviewer on the SW Board expressed similar concerns, so you are not alone. Glad that the rest of the evening went well.
Vincent's was not one of the restaurants, that I cited (either the good, or the bad). We're planning a board dinner there, and I will mention these little problems, in a very constructive way, to the powers-that-be. It is too good a restaurant to even miss the tiny details.
[Edit] as for the "motion sickness," one of my worst, overall, experiences was at a top restaurant in the Deep South. Though it was my wife's b'day, and the reservations had been made 5 mos. out, with followups, we were seated at the silverware cupboard. Every time that a waiter went into it, they banged the back of my wife's chair and she had to move up against the table. There was an empty table at the window, overlooking the courtyard. I repeatedly asked about being moved to it, and was finally told that it did appear that the diners, who had reserved it would be no-shows and that I should return to my table to be re-seated. However, when I returned to the our table, I observed the couple from behind us being seated there. I was told that they had become angry and to quiet them down, they were given that table. So much for being a gentleman and speaking with the hostess in hushed tones. It appears that acting out is what it takes. Anyway, the GM comp'ed a full meal with wine, at a later date, but we've never taken him up on it. There are just too many good to great restaurants in that town, to chance another bad experience, even for free, at that one. I understand that they have now changed chefs (third time, since our experience) and the entire management staff. I wish them well.
Thanks for your comments,
re: Bill Hunt
We had a marvelous dinner Bill, please don't think otherwise. As an FYI, our waiter was Howie and he did a fabulous job.
It was just that when we came in the door, it was a bit like "Oh you're driving a Buick...", uh, yes, we are....
We were also in a bit of a dither because we had just had a phone call from home letting us know that Indy had just gotten 14 inches of snow and the temp was way below zero. Frozen pipes are nothing that anyone wants to hear when they're out of town!
So maybe we contributed to the issue. I'd certainly go back there and probably will, along with Lon's at the Hermosa.
Yes, Howie is good. He is also a sommelier there and I usually turn him loose in the cellar. He takes a load off my responsibilities, and doesn't try to break my bank. Between Howie and Matieu, I never have to even glance at the wine list.
Now, we usually drive there in my wife's car, but on a few occasions, I've taken my truck. Maybe the valet whisks it away, and no one notices! Still, a great restaurant needs to dot ALL the i's and cross each t. That was really the impetus for the thread.
Thanks for the comments,
re: Bill Hunt
I didn't see your edit till just now.
I would be most unhappy if my chair were repeatedly bumped into, and probably outraged by the obnoxious couple who got the table you repeatedly asked to be moved to. But like you - we would have been quiet about it.
We also asked to be moved when we discovered we were actually seated in what was evidently the 'highway' of the restaurant. We had other diners and all the waiters/waitresses whizzing by the table on both sides. When someone squeezed by and actually got their clothing in my bread plate, we decided that we were done and needed our check right now. We haven't returned.
Thanks for listening!
Absolutely - these non-food issues can mar otherwise positive dining experiences. Like other things in life, usually those situations for which we have higher expectations - whether due to high ratings by critics or due to the more than $150 per person price tag - higher-end restaurants are the places typically where I feel the non-food issues more likely affect the experience. At lower end places I'm more likely to excuse the many things that can go wrong in an evening.
Less so the decor type things you've described unless it's a high end restaurant. If it's dirty - for sure, that's a turn off. Attitude I would say is the number one turn-off. I've tried to avoid going to super-hyped and next big thing type restaurants due to this specifically. That feeling that some places give off that you're unimportant and lucky just to be able to walk in the glory of the dining room of restaurant X is enough to make me run out the front door.
More than once, and sadly usually at higher end restaurants due to way too much vino, my neighbors have ruined my night. The drunken and loud conversations have sometimes made it impossible to enjoy myself. Couples making out, couples breaking up - all these things have tarnished otherwise pleasant dining experiences.
So many variables sadly other than food to taint the ultimate dining experience...
I agree with phoodee. Expanding on the lower end. I know that a if a place is a dive, I'm not going to get fine china. I do expect that they don't slop the food on the plate. No drips/spills/food running together type of issues. I do expect the place to be clean and the bathrooms stocked. The food, which is usually comfort food, needs to be tasty and plentiful. I want to feel like I'm eating in my grandma's kitchen. At higher end restaurants, I would expect supurb tableside service, being catered to the extent that the server contemplates my next need, fabo presentations, along with tasty quality food. I'm not going to pay $150+ to eat something out of a can or something I can easily make at home. I need the exoticism factor. As for cleanliness, it shouldn't even be mentioned...often times, I find these places can be just as bad about stocking/cleaning bathrooms as the dives I have frequented. I have no time for pretentious people, and will not frequent an establishment-on either end of the spectrum- that condones this behavior.
Phoodee & Sausagefinger,
Some interesting insights - thank you.
I'm not usually first in line for the "happening" places. I like for the press and the "beautiful people" to move on, before I try these, unless I know the chef, or the owner. Gimmick decor, no matter how well done, and exciting, is no substitute for the rest of the dining experience.
We did a well publicized restaurant with a 5-story glass wine room. The "wine angels" did a "Mission Impossible" skit, as they retrieved the wine for the patrons, and the wine list was on a large PDA - neat. The tables were on top of one another, and the food was just OK. Won't be back. It might make a great spread for "Architectural Digest," but will not make it to my list of restaurants to dine at.
The "attitude" of the staff is another big issue. We dine a lot in London, and have sampled the fare at a number of restaurants owned, developed, or managed by a particular corporation. They now have, either owned, or loosely affiliated with them, about seven spots - one an old favorite, re-done. The attitude at all of these places (there is still one, that we have not tried, and probably will not) is in another league. Haughty is too kind a word to describe it. Not only is the food marginal, there is a 4£/person "cover charge." That's now ~ US$8/person, just to dine there. They also tuck in an automatic 22% gratuity. Now tipping in the UK is in its infancy. Some of the very high-end establishments do add ~12-16% for a gratuity. Most make this clear, though the afore mentioned spots appear to slip it in with little mention. Now, I'm not a big fan of cover charges. I do not frequent many venues with live music by headliners, and such, and resent a restaurant (no music, floorshows, etc.) nicking me for the privilege of just dining there, especially if the food and service are not up to par. In a city with so many great chefs and restaurants, why bother with the likes of these? Same could be said for many US cities, New Orleans, San Francisco, NYC, Las Vegas and most major cities in Europe. Pay extra to be abused? I doubt it.
And now for the "touched nerve." I hate to dine with loud, out of control patrons. If I want that much interaction with others, I'll do Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. When I dine, I do not do so at a street party, unless it's "The Taste of _____". I'm not sure how a restaurant should best handle diners, who are over the top. Had one experience at a very nice space in San Mateo, CA. It is an elegant little spot with great food and interesting wines. While dining there, one evening, an 8-top was obviously having a party. It quickly turned into a tailgating session for their favorite football team, or similar. The hostess asked them to settle down (in very friendly terms) twice. On her thrid trip to the table, she informed them that she had their bill, and that they were to accompany her to the front of the restaurant and pay it immediately. As the group paraded to the front of the restaurant, the other patrons politely clapped for the hostess. Quiet ensued. That worked very well and we all got back to enjoying our conversations and the wonderful food.
Good points all,
re: Bill Hunt
Kudos to the hostess and restaurant for not putting up with bad behavior. That's the best way to retain a faithful following .Hopefully those who were 86'ed told all their friends, and the bad seeds have settled into a Hooters somewhere.
I'm no fan of the automatic gratuity. Granted, I was a waitress back in the early 90's and chose another career...I can understand the need for wanting to be compensated for large parties etc, but I still feel uneasy dining at places where it is automatic. Not that I am a cheap tipper or don't think they deserve to be compensated, but it can open the doors to poor service as well. Waitstaff work very hard and deserve tips, but I would not want to tip someone 22% if they left my food in the back under a heatlamp for 45+ minutes or ridiculed my choice in food selections etc. I also understand that waitstaff can break their back for a party and could potentially not be tipped at all. I'm still hesitant about dining in places with the automatic inclusion.
re: Bill Hunt
>>> Had one experience at a very nice space in San Mateo, CA. It is an elegant little spot with great food and interesting wines. While dining there, one evening, an 8-top was obviously having a party. It quickly turned into a tailgating session for their favorite football team, or similar. The hostess asked them to settle down (in very friendly terms) twice. On her thrid trip to the table, she informed them that she had their bill, and that they were to accompany her to the front of the restaurant and pay it immediately. As the group paraded to the front of the restaurant, the other patrons politely clapped for the hostess. Quiet ensued. That worked very well and we all got back to enjoying our conversations and the wonderful food. <<<
BRAVO! and quite unlike -- sadly -- the experience I had in an otherwise highly regarded (and expensive) NOLA restaurant in a quiet section of town where the six-top had been joined by two others (one who had apparently brought his own six-pack and was drinking from the bottle), yacking away on their cell phones, and otherwise being loud and obnoxious in what was a quiet, intimate dining room. Despite speaking to the waitress and hostess each -- who did little more than roll their eyes and nod sympathetically -- the volume continued to increase until my wife and I both left -- skipping dessert and coffee, not because we didn't want any, but because we didn't want to stay there any longer. A letter written later to the owner was met with a "what's your problem?" attitude, and needless to say, we shan't go back.
* * * * *
>>> We did a well publicized restaurant with a 5-story glass wine room. The "wine angels" did a "Mission Impossible" skit, as they retrieved the wine for the patrons, and the wine list was on a large PDA - neat. The tables were on top of one another, and the food was just OK. Won't be back. It might make a great spread for "Architectural Digest," but will not make it to my list of restaurants to dine at. <<<
Gimmicks only go so far, and I've avoided that particular restaurant for precisely the very reasons you cite: cool gadgets, just average food and tables so close you could be eating in your neighbor's lap. It's a corollary to the "Inverse Peppermill Theory," which states that the quality of a restaurant is in direct-but-inverse proportion to the size of the peppermill used by the waitress to put fresh pepper on your salad.
It's like that nonsense when Cyrus first opened in Healdsburg -- they had an old "antique French" phone at the entrance to the dining room. As the hostess would lead you to your table, she would stop, pick up the phone, and say, "Chef? The Smith party is here," then hang up and seat you. (If you were anything like us, you'd spend the rest of the night seeing if the phone was actually connected to anything.)
P.S. You know the difference between Architectural Digest and Sunset? magazine? I always get the feeling that no one actually lives in those homes covered in Architectural Digest, but the homes featured in Sunset always look wonderful but "livable."
Bill and all, one of the things we're learning in this discussion is that we can all be different when it comes to dining out...ever recommend a restaurant you've enjoyed only to be rejected by the recommendee? Anyway, it's a great topic and ongoing. By the way, wouldn't it be boring if all restaurants and all palates were the same...
>>> By the way, wouldn't it be boring if all restaurants and all palates were the same... <<<
Absolutely! Beyond boring.
>>> ...ever recommend a restaurant you've enjoyed only to be rejected by the recommendee? <<<
And it's more than the simple, "Oh, I don't like ___________ cuisine." (Clearly not what you mean.) This is why -- when it comes to recommending ANYTHING on sites such as this -- I try to find out "more" from the individual seeking the recommendation. I try to illicit what kind of, say, Italian food they're looking for how "adventurous" are they; where have they eaten in the past that they liked; etc., etc., etc. The same applies to wine and spirits recommendations (something I do professionally), to movie recommendations (perhaps the most obvious example -- my teenage daughter and I will agree on very few films); etc., etc., etc. Thus -- hopefully -- my recommendations may be closer to the target than just "well, MY fave is _________!"
Oh yes. I feel a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach, wheneve I recommend a restaurant. Even some of my favorites, have had an off-night, while I was dining there, and I shudder, thinking that they might have one of these, when the folk, who got MY glowing recs., dine there. I, therefore, try to give my review of a restaurant, and let the recipient of that review choose.
I also agree with Jason (down the thread), about getting more info, before making any rec. The folk who ask, "we're going to Hawai`i, but don't know which island. We like to eat. What's good?" usually get silence from me. Same with wine recs., "we're having a meal and need wine. What do you suggest?" Huh, what is the meal, with prep, ingredients, sauces? Where do you live? What are YOUR tastes? Do you have a budget, or do I get too choose from all the wines in the world? Gotta' get the facts first, and THEN you have to worry about what you will recommed. Did the chef have a fight with the spouse, the sous-chef, the owner? Did the fresh seafood truck crash on the Interstate, and they have to hit the freezer? Scary, even if you've dined there 20 times, and had wonderful food on each visit - how will these diners fare? What will they think of MY tastes, if all is not great?
First of all, the relative level of the restaurant. Is it what looks like a gourmet five-star place, or is it a greasy spoon, or somewhere in between? This sets my expectations at a certain level for the food and service.
Food: cooked well, cooked with flavour, fresh ingredients. Even a greasy spoon has to meet these minimum requirements for me. More spoon and less grease to keep me really happy. As I move up the "quality" of dining, I expect things like wonderful flavour combinations, clever plating, but always a decent portion size. Not fond of places that put two scallops on a fennel frond, cover with a droplet of balsamic, and charge $25 for it, no matter how good it tastes.
Service: Even at the greasy spoon, I expect courtesy. The server will possibly joke around a bit more with me, and as long as the jokes aren't nasty or personal or offensive to anyone (race, gender, etc.) I don't mind. If I am at Casa Del Snooty, I expect more restraint from my server, especially if it is the first time I am dining there.
Ambiance: Not only the decor, but also the vibe that surrounds a space. I have been in places where everything else matched the mark, but something didn't quite sit right about the place. Maybe the "we're trendy, dummy" vibe, or something similar. When the motions are made in other areas, but you can sense that's what they are: just motions. No real interest or passion behind the behaviours displayed to you in service or in food preparation.
Sitting someplace where I was being bumped into constantly would definitely drop the ambience to zero! I would be leaving very quickly.
I guess for me its the combination of all these things. But let's face it, if I'm hungrier than usual, my tolerance in all areas drops by quite a few levels, so my mood and energy levels are always going to play a part in my dining experience. I think the best servers can sense your mood and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Which is maybe what ultimately separates the stellar restaurants from the good ones for me, so I guess I put service higher on my wish list than the other factors.
This is all very touchy-feely, but it is an interesting question to think about. Thanks for posting it.