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What Constitutes Your Ultimate Dining Experience?

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?

Hunt

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  1. >>>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.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Gail

      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.

    2. Funny had the same problem 2 year ago with table 8 its in the corner next to the windows right?

      dc

      1 Reply
      1. re: don515

        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.

        Hunt

      2. 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.

        1. Bill,

          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.

          1 Reply
          1. re: zin1953

            Your mention of the International House points up how an establishment (restaurant, hotel, other) can make a guest feel welcome and almost like family. Good will is hard earned, but so very easily lost.

            Thanks for sparking my thoughts on this (yes, it's very broad) topic.

            Hunt

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