Industry insiders dish: what makes a good restaurant great
Robert Belcham will never forget his experience dining at the Fat Duck in Berkshire, England. When the Vancouver chef visited in 2006, Heston Blumenthal’s establishment was widely considered one of the best restaurants in the world; it still boasts three Michelin stars and a list of prestigious global awards. The meal for Belcham and his wife cost more than $500—before wine.
“It was the most disappointing restaurant experience I think I’ve ever had,” Belcham tells the Georgia Straight. “My expectations were absolutely massive. I don’t think the food could ever be as good as what my expectations assumed it would be.”
Belcham, who now co-owns Campagnolo and Campagnolo Roma, tells this story not to pan the Fat Duck but to illustrate how personal the dining experience can be.
“There’s a lot of things that can affect the final outcome of your meal. It’s the smallest little things, too,” he says. “Like the fake accent of the gentleman in the dining room who seated us. I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Why does he have a fake French accent? We’re in the middle of the English countryside.’ It made no sense to me.” Belcham also puzzled over why the restaurant would use farmed Scottish salmon, which he felt was bland and watery compared to wild B.C. salmon, rather than a better product.
For a variety of reasons, the Fat Duck just didn’t do it for him. “I’ve had some of the best meals of my life at three-Michelin-star restaurants,” he says. “I’ve had some of the best meals of my life on the side of the road eating from a hawker stand. It’s all about time and place and the people you’re with, the mood that you’re in. There’s a billion variables that determine whether or not you’re going to have a great meal.…and a big part of your experience is going to be determined by you.”
Food. Atmosphere. Service. Expectations. When the Straight called dozens of local chefs and restaurateurs and asked them what separates a good restaurant from a great restaurant, they emphasized these elements. They revealed the details they feel elevate the dining experience, from perfectly chilled beer glasses to precisely placed tables. Then there are the intangibles, like individual expectations and the energy of the room… Here’s what they had to say.
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It’s pretty much a given that a good restaurant serves good food. But for many of those interviewed, a great restaurant needs to do more than that. “What really separates a great restaurant from a good restaurant…is how consistent they are and how much attention they put into details,” says Angus An, owner of Maenam.
Shira Blustein, co-owner of the Acorn, points out that tiny details add up to an exceptional experience. “There is attention to every little thing, right down to the napkins, the cutlery, the barware, the glassware, the plates, the food…the lights dimmed to the right level,” she says. “When you go into a restaurant that just has all of that, you can feel it, that richness.”
When restaurateurs go out to eat, they see things other diners might not. “I look for cleanliness and tidiness,” says Andrew Wong, who owns Wild Rice. “I think those are good indicators of how closely the individuals of that space are watching things. So if there’s no dust in the corners, their kitchen’s probably very clean as well.”
Robert Wilson-Smith, head chef at Heirloom, admits that when he dines out, he always peeks into the kitchen en route to the loo. He looks to see if the kitchen is tidy, “if it looks like it’s just ticking along and well organized, or if it looks like a bunch of overworked, shell-shocked people”.
Others say they notice the look and feel of the menus, whether there are crumbs lodged in the banquette seating, if a light fixture desperately needs maintenance, or whether the parsley garnish looks like it’s been washed. “We can’t go out and just simply enjoy it. It just comes up as an instinct, the stuff that we notice,” explains David Gunawan, former executive chef of Wildebeest whose next project is a restaurant called Farmer’s Apprentice.
Tannis Ling, owner of Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, says that she pays close attention when dining out because she’s always trying to improve her own place. “We look at the garnish, how the plates come out, how they’re plated,” she says, noting that she was adamant about Bao Bei having chilled beer glasses after experiencing that small pleasure elsewhere. “We notice how many people there are [working] on the floor. We notice how the sections are split up…and that [one] server is taking way too many tables or one server is taking way too little.…It’s a tricky part of the business, so when we go out, we really notice how other people do it.”
So what impresses those in the industry? For Frank Pabst, executive chef at Blue Water Cafe, it’s a mastery of the basics. “When you order a hot meal, it’s hot. If you order something medium- rare, it’s cooked medium-rare. I expect something to be seasoned well, so I don’t need to add salt to the dish myself,” he says. In terms of service, Pabst prefers it to be unobtrusive. “I’m always impressed if there’s always water in the glass, always wine there, out of nowhere, basically.”
According to those interviewed, it’s not enough that a diner has a fabulous experience on his or her first visit. The mark of a great restaurant is that it delivers every single time. “You are only as good as your last performance,” declares Pino Posteraro, chef and owner of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca. “You have to go every day with the same drive and focus, keeping attention to the details.”
“Consistency is something we all try to work for,” Maenam’s An emphasizes. “Not everyone works every single day, so we try to make sure that when Person A and Person B make the same dish, it’s always the same.…If people are coming back, they’re coming back for a reason.”
Cioppino’s Posteraro notes that having a low staff turnover matters. “If you don’t have a big turnover of staff, it makes a great difference because your product is constantly the same,” he says. “Can you imagine if you have to train somebody every week in the kitchen?”
“It’s about being organized and being able to do 150 people and everybody is treated exactly the same,” says David Hawksworth, executive chef at Hawksworth Restaurant. “That is the real tricky part, because everybody is coming in with such high expectations…you just have to be on top of your game to make sure you nail it for everybody.”
According to Hawksworth and other chefs, passion breeds consistency. As Lee Cooper, executive chef at L’Abattoir, puts it: “Generally, if you really care, you’ve been committed to what you do for quite a while, so chances are you probably are quite skilled. People don’t get good without genuinely giving a shit about what they do. You have to care about it, so everything kind of falls into place after that.”