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Nov 14, 2007 10:01 AM

What makes a restaurant great?

I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about the Cheesecake Factory. Personally, I think the place is overrated, although I don't totally abhor it. Anyway, she asked me why some restaurants are declared "great" while some are considered mediocre. I really had a hard time explaining, so I thought I'd ask foodies for help.

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  1. A great restaurant for me first have to have consistently good tasting food, doesn't matter if it's cheap grub or high-end eats. The second thing that inches them towards great is good service, and all the things good service entails. If it has good food and good service, to me it's great. If I really like the decor, that's even better, but not required to make it "great." If it is also affordable enough for me to eat there regularly, it's better than great, and I will be a frequent customer and also refer others to it frequently.

    17 Replies
    1. re: rockandroller1

      I agree with all of what you said, but want to add that it must not be too noisy, no loud background music, and it should be set up so that when you eat your elbows aren't banging into the table next to you. I do not like tightly packed places that when you get out of your chair you bump into the other diners! I also like a good variety of food to choose from, yet that isn't a deal breaker for me. Some restaurants I think are great don't have a tremendous amount of choices. Depends on the cuisine.

      1. re: danhole

        My issue with a place like Cheesecake Factory is that it tends to be overly crowded regardless of which one you patronize. In addition, they tend to think that quantity of food equals quality of food. That being said, is it possible for a chain restaurant to be considered truly great?

        1. re: James H. Robinson

          I would say no. Unless its a local chain, or a "chain" of 3-5 restaurants. Past that, it seems like they lose vision and have to start making very generalized dishes. My experience with chains is usually ok. You can guarantee they have a certain "level" of food, or else they would fail as a chain.

          For example, I bet that most people enjoy Olive Garden. Its pretty tasty, unless you've had truly superior Italian. Once, on the way home from Las Vegas, we stopped at an Olive Garden, and that was the only time I've been let down. We had a 35 dollar plate Italian meal in Vegas, and the contrast between that and Olive Garden, was too much to handle. But if you spread it out further, and don't eat Italian (and stop cooking Italian at home) for awhile... Olive Garden is just fine.

          Also, the level of service seems faster in chains. But again, you are being herded in and out. The servers, and service can really differ from each restaurant though, so its tough to generalize. Other than, chains have corporation-wide policies on service that other eateries lack.

          I think we all can appreciate a chain's signature dish too, usually those are good.

          As far as chains I like - I love California Pizza Kitchen, and usually Ruby Tuesday is pretty good too (I like their small fresh portions). The Melting Pot is a chain too, and I think we all love fondue, haha.

          Is it possible for a chain to be considered truly great? I would doubt it.

          1. re: in_wonderment

            I agree with most of the criteria set forth in this thread. Now, to the question, "can a chain restaurant be considered truly great?" Maybe in the beginning, when first starting out, though I kinda' doubt even then. The biggest problem, that I see, is the structure of the management of a chain. Once the layers of corporate structure are in place, everthing is done by consensus and focus groups. The goal is first to make money, and then to offend as few diners as is possible. This moves the target squarely into mediocre territory. "Great" is in the upper tier of restaurantdom, not in the middle. Once the decision has been made to shoot for that middle ground, everthing gets "optomized," to incur the lowest cost with the greatest return on investment (overhead/time/food, etc.). Corners are cut with ingredients, and time of prep. Service is by automitons, trained to make for an efficient dining experience, not a great one.

            I'd love to hear some exceptions to this, as I will likely not encounter them on my own. I am not a fan of chain restaurants from the low-end to the upper, i.e. Morton's, Ruth's, etc. and do not usually go, unless invited, with no way to decline.

            Good topic,

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              That's an excellent point! Big chain restaurants' aim for the middle does result in mediocrity. For the life of me, I can't tell the difference between Chilli's and Fridays, for example. But it seems that this is what America wants. I remember driving across America and basically seeing the same restaurants repeatedly. Is there room outside of certain cities for great restaurants?

              1. re: James H. Robinson

                Wonderful question James... I live in rural Virginia, and I will answer no. It's the same reason that only certain retailers sell in rural areas (Walmart cough cough). Or certain stores. You make less in rural areas, and people are less apt to spend their money.

                Also, "good" food would truly baffle people. Foreign names, don't always mean better for good ole Jack and Diane. Or paying 35 dollars a plate. Or finding things on the menu that aren't fried.

                Lets make a parallel to movies, and the box office. Some of the worst critically rated movies often finish in the top spot.

                The most popular is often not the best.

                It's tough to understand... and I too am often baffled.

                1. re: James H. Robinson

                  P.S. James, why all of these questions? I love them, but just curious - what has motivated you to look beyond the norm?

                  1. re: in_wonderment

                    I actually grew up in Chesapeake, VA back when it was still somewhat rural. I was raised on chain restaurants (buffets, actually). It wasn't until I went to UVA that I was introduced to non-chains. Since then, I have been spoiled by excellent restaurants, first in the DC Area and now the Bay Area. It just seems a shame that, if I hadn't gone to college where I did, I would have been "culturally deprived."

                    1. re: James H. Robinson

                      Not much compares to the cusine of Charlottesville. The number of restaurants per capita is truly amazing. Plus, like you mentioned, its mostly non-chain. I like that you can never get tired, because everything is so varied. Feel like Vietnamese? Or South African? How about Brazilian?

                      You really do get spoiled.

            2. re: James H. Robinson

              One of the restaurants I think is "great" is part of a chain, but it is a very small chain. I think they have 22 across the country. They are wonderful. I can ask for things that aren't offered on the menu, and they oblige, food is excellent, good ambience, etc. But I think that the larger the chain, as Hunt mentioned, the lower the quality. Yet, having said that, it really does depend on the management in the individual restaurant, and how strict the corporate rules are. I have never been to a Cheesecake Factory, but I have been to other large chains, and they vary from one location to another. All in all they do not fall into the great category!

              1. re: danhole


                Would you mind sharing the name of the small chain? I'm always ready to change my mind, when someone shows be the difference. I try not to hold the number of restaurants as a strict guide. If I find an exception to my experiences, I'll gladly support them.


                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  It's Texas Land & Cattle. Here is a link to my report after we ate there. There is another restaurant in that post, also, but it is not a chain, by any means.


                  I also want to add the disclaimer that we have only eaten at TLC a few times, so we did not get special treatment for being "regulars". That is what made is so very good!

                  1. re: danhole

                    Thanks for the name and the link. I've heard the name, but do not recall having even seen one. Next time I am near one, I'll be sure to check it out.


              2. re: James H. Robinson

                " it possible for a chain restaurant to be considered truly great?" I would say absolutely. Just not the Cheesecake Factory, agreeing with OP that it's overrated. I realize that there are those out there that would disagree with me but I happen to think that Macaroni Grill and Bucca Di Beppos are both great places to eat. We have two favorite locations, one of each of those restaurants, where we consistently have great food/drink and great service.

              3. re: danhole

                I hate it when restaurants pack people in. I've been to many where they have a large banquette that runs along their biggest wall, and put two-tops all along it only a foot or so apart. Makes it impossible to have a romantic dinner (notice I said two-tops).

                A great restaurant has good food, good service, a good wine & beer selection, and an atmosphere that makes me feel welcome and comfortable.

                1. re: mojoeater

                  Actually, a "Great Restaurant", has really great food, outstanding service, a great wine list,and wonderful ambience!!! Give me all that, and I will gladly return and recommend it to others. A good restaurant has good food, good service,pleasent surroundings, a decent wine list, and I will gladly return there too. Can't do great all the time, at least until I win the lottery!! I'm editing this to say, that a wonderful hamburger can be great too!!

                  1. re: Mother of four

                    Someone said the difference between a good and great restaurant is:
                    When you finish a meal and say: "that was good", it is a good restaurant.
                    When you finish a meal and say: "life is wonderful", that's a great restaurant.

                    I have had this experience at Primo Restaurant in Rockland, Maine. The food is creative, seasonal and excellent, always. The service is outstanding -- it's all about you! Discreet, professional. Don't like the wine, well we insist on giving you a different bottle.

            3. For me a great restaurant - first has to have wonderful food. Sometimes this has nothing to do with price. I've had truly awful food at expensive restaurants and truly wonderful food at cheap restaurants. Mostly, I want good food - regardless of price. I understand what an impact expensive ingredients can make, so if im paying a lot, it needs to taste very superior.

              The menu also needs to have something I would like to eat on it. This sounds silly, and the reason we look at the menu ahead of time...but if its a small selective menu, especially in a cusine im not fond of (like Greek)... then I probably wont enjoy the restaurant to its full potential.

              Next is good service, and ambience. Service I don't have to complain about. Happy servers who dont complain about their lives and also dont try to rush me in and out. Bringing the check before I ask, sometimes makes me want to leave way before im done. Ambience is important too. No harsh lighting, or loud music. Small inviting spaces and decor. I like warmth, so I prefer traditional looking places. Warm fabrics, and dark wood. This is a personal preference though. Always low lighting though, just not to the point I cant see my food.

              I dont drink wine, so I dont place much importance on the wine list. I think we can add this to personal preference and not so much what is considered a great restaurant to all. Although, I know it can elevate the meal quite a lot.

              To me, a great restaurant is above all good food, then exceptional service and warm inviting ambience.

              1 Reply
              1. re: in_wonderment

                I agree with everything you said, and since i enjoy wine, add that too! If you live anywhere that I do I would love to hear your choice of great restaurants!

              2. For me to be 'great' a restaurant has to have a touch or originality. If all they serve is the latest trendy dishes then they may be 'good', but not 'great'.
                To be 'great' I need to be surprised as well as impressed.

                1. Tasty, consistent, authentic food will always have me coming back, even if the service is not that good. However, awesome service is what will have me raving about a restaurant and suggesting it to friends. A restaurant that makes me feel special when I walk through the doors? That is what makes a "great" restaurant. Decor? Eh. It is icing on the cake, I suppose, but does not really make or break a restaurant for me.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: CulinaryCutie3

                    Good points! One of the best places I had ever eaten at was a mom & pop place with steam tables full of "slap your mama" good old food. You walked in and were greeted with Hey baby! Whatcha want today? Then you made your choices, and it was served in a stryofoam take home package (which was handy because the portions were so generous I could not begin to eat it all.) Plastic forks and knives, serve yourself sweet tea, card tables, and an odd assortment of folding chairs. Lunch cost $5 and that included your drink. Best good old home cooking I had eaten since my grandma cooked for me. I raved about this place to people, but they wouldn't even stop at it because it looked "dumpy." What fools. When they shut down I nearly cried! Decor does not make a place good to eat at! Vivia la Dump!

                    1. re: danhole

                      It turns off many. I am not big on stryofoam and plastic, it does turn me off. Maybe for a picnic. Too bad the good food couldn't have been served on regular dishes anf silver!!

                  2. My personal preference are no chains. A great chef/owner with personable staff maintaining longevity & a seasonal unsurpassed menu with an impressive wine list all bundled together makes for a catchy cafe, i.e.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: JayVaBeach

                      Well, to me, "great' is something that can only take place in a restaurant where the chefs, cooks and owner care about what they are preparing. They aren't doing food by the numbers, they're preparing according to the soul and the personality of the restaurant.

                      I've had found that everywhere from a diner on the Vermont/Quebec border to three-star restaurants in Europe. But in each instance, somebody cared a lot about what went into the food, how it was presented, and that I enjoyed it.

                      By that definition, chains just don't qualify, unless the concept is so bullet proof and quality control so high that it can be replicated to a high standard. Now there are certainly good chains, and I'd include everything from Eat n' Park to Capital Grill to Mitchell's Fish Market. But none of those are "great" restaurants.