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Which Types of Restaurants Fascinate You the Most?

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I'm not asking which kind of food you like to go out to eat. I'm asking which types of restaurants create a total dining experience (including cuisine) that makes them your favorite.

For me, it's steakhouses and Indian restaurants.

When I speak of steakhouses, I mean those dark, intimate, clubable, and vaguely Italian-American steakhouses where the Sinatra wafts through the air and the red wine list is long. I simply love those places. They feel more like 1962 than 2012. And they typically serve a very mean cut of beef.

I love Indian restaurants because I've found the hosts, waitstaff and chefs in these establishment to be almost unfailingly dignified and charming; the Indian music (sometimes pop, sometimes not) makes a beguiling backdrop; I love ferreting out new Indian preparations (every Indian restaurant has a few specialties rarely seen elsewhere), and Indian chefs are not afraid to ratchet up the heat when I request it.

Which types of restaurants deliver the whole package for you?

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  1. If we're considering "the whole package", I'd choose a rijsttafel in the Netherlands.... rijsttafel is about the overall feast and not any one individual dish. Not for every day, but I get over to the Netherlands only a couple of times a year, so it works for me!

    Edit: the thread title asks "Which Types of Restaurants Fascinate You the Most?" but the post asks "I'm asking which types of restaurants create a total dining experience... " -- I answered the latter rather than the former.

    1 Reply
    1. re: drongo

      Yes, I'm afraid I didn't make myself very clear. Answer either question or both. For me, the restaurants that "deliver the whole package" are also the most interesting because they are about far more than just the food. They are an experience.

    2. If I can find a really good hole-in-the-wall, then that is a sublime experience for me. Some place that is so humble yet puts out food that is second to none.

      I compare it to the experience I've had visiting a painted wooden church in Poland vs. a towering Gothic cathedral. The big cathedrals leave me cold, but the small wooden church with colored panels fills me with such awe and warmth.

      1. Man great topic. I'm with you on the old-school Italian restaurant. If you ever get to Chicago you have to have dinner at Sabatino's. It's exactly the kind of place you describe: dim lighting, Sinatra, strolling violin players, piano lounge and cocktail bar. Best and most professional service I've encountered anywhere, and I am not a guy who usually cares about that kind of thing. It's the kind of place that jumps into my head when I hear the word "restaurant".

        There are two other kinds of restaurants that fascinate me. The first kind is the classic Chicago-style fast food stand. They all have pretty much the same eclectic menu: hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, gyros, char burgers, polish sausages, tamales, etc. and sometimes a lot of the choices are kind of mediocre. But damn if I don't love eating at these neighborhood grease pits. Surprisingly, the fries at these places are often cut in house and double fried, and they beat most fries anywhere else.

        The second kind is the Chinese buffet. Walking into one, I feel like Ali Baba entering the Cave of Wonders. Piles of gleaming treasure everywhere... it's almost too much, like sensory overload. No doubt the fascination comes from my voracious teenage years when food quality took a backseat (or was thrown out of the car) to other considerations like cheapness, not having to tip anybody, and above all unlimited quantity. It was dinner and a show, seeing corpulent ladies and gentlemen swarm the line when a fresh pan of crab legs came out, like watching a whale migration. These days I can't stack the plates like I used to but the Chinese buffet still holds a place in my clogged heart.

        2 Replies
        1. re: RealMenJulienne

          I've never eaten at a Chicago-style food stand, but they sound like my kind of gig. Certain "institutions" like that just have a certain aura about them. They're the sorts of places you need to make it a point of patronizing at least once in your life. And if they're close to hand you will probably become a regular.

          1. re: RealMenJulienne

            a roving violin player would make me want to stab myself in the face.

          2. i love reading menus from french restaurants. i also like restaurants that offer prix-fixe menus or chef's dinner, since it's fun to see what the chef likes to pair together as a complete meal.

            1. pub-cum-restaurants in Germany in small medieval towns/villages. usually in a medieval half-timbered house/building, good simple food, good beer, good price and always a clean toilet.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Pata_Negra

                The importance of a spiffy crapper is nothing to sniff at!

              2. Regardless of the type of restaurant......any place that survives 30+ years and continues to operate afterwards is what fascinates me most......it shows its critics their opinions really do/does not matter.

                1. I'm actually most fascinated by mediocre restaurants that stay in business. The food isn't that great, but people keep on going there. Perhaps it's for the atmosphere, the amount of food, or the name. I don't really know. Many chain restaurants fall into this category. I've also been to a number of hole-in-the-wall places that have serve mediocre food for years. How they stay in business? I don't know.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: raytamsgv

                    I agree, raytamsgv. And it's not just hole-in-the-wall places. There's a large restaurant near my home where the food and service are just ghastly.... but they've been there forever and are busy (at least when I have been forced to go there... which is always some holiday or other event where others are making the choice).

                  2. To me, there's nothing like a New York-style Jewish deli, and they are so hard to find nowadays (unless you're in a metropolis like New York). A place that has pastrami, corned beef, tongue, chopped liver, kishka, stuffed cabbage, kosher salami, good rye bread and challah, the right kind of deli mustard, matzoh ball soup, sauerkraut and/or cole slaw, knishes, kasha and bowties, rugelach, black and white cookies... and it's even harder to find a deli that makes all that stuff from scratch, in-house. If they have free baskets of rolls and danishes on the table during breakfast hours and jars of pickles, kraut, and pickled tomatoes and peppers for lunch and dinner, all the better -- and I don't even like pickles (but I love all the other stuff).

                    Better still, if that deli is also an old-school appetizing place with fresh-baked bagels, cream cheese, and a wide selection of cured, smoked, and pickled fish -- not just generic "lox," but multiple kinds of smoked salmon, multiple kinds of herring (wine sauce, cream sauce, roll mops!), whitefish AND whitefish salad, sable, sturgeon.

                    I grew up in Miami in the '80s and '90s when there were still places like this, but now there are fewer than ever. Where I live in Orlando, we have one good local bagel shop (Bagel King) and one chain deli that is merely okay (Toojay's). I got to spend my honeymoon in New York two years ago, and my wife and I were charmed by the old-school wonders of Katz's Deli and Ess-A-Bagel, some of my fondest restaurant experiences of all time. But now these places are a rare, dying breed, and that makes me sad. Even though the food isn't terribly healthy or trendy or sexy, it is probably my favorite, so finding the rare deli that not only has this stuff but does it RIGHT is a major treat.

                    A true, authentic Italian deli and/or sandwich shop makes me ridiculously happy on the same level, when they have beautiful cured meats and cheeses hanging from the ceiling or in a deli case, along with fresh bread and wonderful marinated peppers and delicious house vinaigrette for dressing the perfect sub or hoagie or grinder. But if you don't live in a place like New York or Philadelphia, even this is hard to find. Most places just stock Boar's Head meats, and hardly anyone has a salumeria or charcuterie that does in-house curing. I had a perfectly decent Italian sub today from Jersey Mike's, a national sub chain. It's the best Italian sub I've found in Orlando, followed by Jimmy John's, another sub chain. That just doesn't seem right.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                      Do you remember Donato's in Orlando?

                      1. re: fourunder

                        I remember a pizzeria chain that might have been called Donato's that specialized in thin-crust pizza, but they all closed a few years ago. I've only been here since 2004, so anything else may have been before my time.

                        1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                          This was a family restaurant with a delicatessen off the left side as you entered. I seem to recall it was on Turkey Lake Road or around Bay Hill? It was fashioned as a New York restaurant /delicatessen. This was probably over 20 years ago in the late 80s or early 90s. I could remember saying it was the only Italian I enjoyed while visiting my brother who like nearby.

                      2. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                        I pine away for a deli that's even half as good as the ones you describe. I believe I shall pine in vain.

                        1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                          The kinds of places you've described are disappearing in NYC too. I can count on 1 hand the number of each that are worth going to. But reason I think they've struggled is due to the change in dining habits that you've identified. Its tasty stuff, but if you eat it regularly, you will be hearing from your doctor.

                          What I really miss want is something like the old Honmura An that was in Soho. Had a breif respite when Matsugen opened in Tribeca but its gone now too. A beautiful serene space with great soba, wonderful service with a Zen vibe.

                        2. For a whole experience, I love a good Japanese ryokan meal. You head down to the dining room in your formal bathrobe, with a quilted jacket overtop in winter. You take off your slippers to get onto the tatami, and sit cross legged by the table. It's a tiny place, so there's you, and maybe another couple or two.

                          The table is set with a dizzying array of little dishes, each with a few bites of food - a few pieces of sushi, some pickles, a tofu salad, stewed greens with miso, a bite of meltingly tender stewed pork belly. As you eat, more food is produced, some freshly cooked at the table. Maybe a whole fresh fish, grilled at a personal table grill, or an individual soy milk hot pot with seasonal ingredients, the fuel carefully timed to expire as soon as the food is ready. Local delicacies are featured - maybe it's really good shitake, or fresh tofu skins. Everything is delicious, the tastes and textures are balanced, and there's a wide variety to sample.

                          After a long and leisurely meal, you wander back to your room, stuffed, to relax with a cup of freshly made green tea and contemplate taking a nice hot soak in the traditional bathing room after digesting for a bit.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                            This sounds absolutely wonderful, and the epitome of what PK was looking for (in my mind). Have you experienced this outside of Japan?

                            1. re: kubasd

                              I can certainly appreciate the ceremony and the ritual.

                          2. Being a true CH, this a tough one, but I will give it a try. I truly cannot say there is one particular style or atmosphere that I always look for. It is more of my mood, that day. I run the gamut from the funky deli to the high end seven course tasting menu. In a mood, give me a Schwartz's medium fat with all the attitude, or Katz's deli with the same. These places have the reputation for rude service, in a way it's funny because you expect it and if you don't get dissed, you feel like you've been dissed.....huh? Or in a different mood, maybe a file gumbo from the Bennigans in NO. (or maybe some boudin from the back country, maybe a gas station) Then, if the wallet allows, maybe a vist to one of Mr. Keller's fine haunts, west or eats coast. A stop to Spain to savor one of Andre Ferria's places. And I can't forget the best seafood on earth, in Cape Cod, Mac's and the Impudent Oyster. You see, it isn't as though you can nail down one particular style, food and service. It is what you are open to experiencing and willing to risk. Yes there will be some letdowns, but you'll never know till you try. For me, the whole package is continuing the tradition of chowhounding.

                            1. For me, any restaurant which has withstood the test of time, seen through 2 World Wars, The Great Depression. Would be an added plus if it's still owned by the same family or folks related to the original founders in some way.

                              Examples include the Tadich Grill in SF, Rules and Simpsons-on-the Strand in London, Can Culleretes in Barcelona or El Sobrino de Botin in Madrid (NY's Delmonico's isn't really the original, though)

                              Closer to home - Sek Yuen in KL; Luk Yu, Jimmy's Kitchen & Landau's in HK, and Spring Court in Singapore.

                              1. Though I like many different types of food and atmosphere, what lights my gastronomic and aesthetic fire is...well....fire. Feeling cozy. A warm cottage or lodge. A blazing fire, comfortable chairs, dark wood and dining on a perfectly medium rare steak, some scalloped potatoes, and a nice pinot noir. And if I'm there with family and it's raining outside, I'll stay for dessert. I'm talking about you...Molly's in Killarney. Great thread, by the way.

                                1. I'm always on the lookout for cozy places where a dedicated chef-owner is able to express themselves through their food. In Japan, there are many small places, set up much like sushi bars, where the chef creates a meal right in front of you, allowing you to interact with the person(s) creating your meal. Sometimes it can be exquisite, other times simple and rustic, but mostly a treat when there's a good level of friendliness and input from the source of your meal. When restaurants can provide that kind of camaraderie, I'm always thrilled. Places like Kabab Cafe in Astoria, NY; sitting at the kitchen counter (aka "the pass") at Hearth in NYC, tapas or other small plate places in Spain, like Pinocho or Kiosko Universal in the Boqueria Market in Barcelona, or many of the joints in San Sebastian's Parte Viejo; the Thursday Kitchen Counter at Beacon in NYC (though that's more a pre-determined tasting menu) and maybe I'll throw in a place like La Cagouille in Paris, and Red Medicine in LA. In the latter instances, it matters to have knowledgeable staff who are able to provide valuable friendly guidance. I've had that kind of experiences at at places like Tangra Masala (the Indian-Chinese place in Elmhurst Queens) or Golden City in LA's Chinatown, or some po jang ma cha style Korean pubs in Flushing, LA and Seoul as well, and countless places in Japan. While I do enjoy kaiseki meals at ryokans or ryoteis, for me, I find I have a better time when we get lucky with the staff at the ryokans who can convey the soul of the dishes they present, like I had in a modest ryokan in Kyoto with the Rosanjin dinner course at Nissho Besso (served in the room... much better than a dining room). I guess I don't care to be fawned over while I'm dining, nor do I care much for decor. I'd much rather experience a level of equality (or mutual respect?) with the person(s) creating my meal.