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.
Restaurateurs see all
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.”
Along with passion, good teamwork is an important element that great restaurants have in common.
Chris Whittaker, executive chef at Forage, says the best restaurants have kitchens that run like a machine. “It’s having that core group that knows where they’re needed and when to pick up slack,” he explains. “It’s that team mentality. It’s not, ‘Well, it’s his station; it’s his problem.’ ”
At Fable, executive chef Trevor Bird emphasizes the importance of having a motivated team made up of people who live and breathe cooking, even if they don’t have formal cooking-school training. “Motivation and willingness to learn is most important,” he says. “I hire based on that.”
Chef Gunawan emphasizes how a restaurant’s core philosophy is one of the key things that help set it apart. “It depends on the chef, really,” he says, “what inspires them in the morning and how they come about composing the dishes, whether it’s technique-driven or ingredient-driven, or is it a cultural influence? It’s something that they believe in.”
At Forage, it’s important to chef Whittaker that all staff members believe in his restaurant’s philosophy of local, sustainable, seasonal eating. He asks prospective hires to name their favourite ingredient. If they can’t, “it weeds people out pretty quickly.”
Krissy Seymour, chef and co-owner of the Pig on the Street food truck, asserts that regardless of whether or not a restaurant has great food, diners can sense if its staff don’t believe in the product they’re selling. “It’s kind of like being in a yoga class where people aren’t really into it,” she explains. “It definitely puts the energy down.” Conversely, a restaurant with a passionate staff gives off a spark that customers feel the moment they walk in.
Jason Leizert, chef at the Parker, says it’s imperative that the front- and back-of-the-house staff have an appreciation for each other’s jobs. “If you have a really well-oiled front team and then they work really well with their back-of-the-house team, that sets any restaurant apart,” he says. “In every restaurant, servers think they work harder than the kitchen, who think they work harder than the servers.…The hardest-working person in a restaurant is the dishwasher, and everybody should realize that.”
Wild Rice’s Wong also emphasizes the importance of good communication between the front and the back of the house. That includes educating the servers on what goes into every dish so that when a diner with an allergy asks a question about a menu item, the server can answer immediately.
L’Abattoir’s Cooper can speak to the importance of having a knowledgeable staff, not just from an industry perspective but from a personal one. “I’m always happy when I go to a restaurant and when I tell them that I’m allergic to nuts, they make you feel at ease,” he says. “You know that everybody in the kitchen and the service staff understand it’s a serious thing. Anywhere that can make you feel comfortable when you could die—I always enjoy that.”
Staff cohesion affects diners in less life-threatening ways as well. “We in the kitchen, we definitely have an impact on the energy the front-of-house is putting out there because there’s huge interaction between the servers and the cooks,” explains Heirloom’s Wilson-Smith. “If we’re giving them positive support, I think that will, in turn, come back to the people walking through the door.”
Bao Bei’s Ling believes that if the staff are laughing and joking with one another, that vibe carries over to the customer. “Even if the customer doesn’t necessarily see that or hear the jokes, they can still feel that in the room, this kind of happy, cheerful energy,” she says. “Nobody’s walking around just having been yelled at by the kitchen and having to go to a table and pretend that everything’s okay.”
Great product, great dish
Many of those interviewed emphasized how sourcing top-quality, in-season ingredients contributes to making a great restaurant. As Erik Heck, chef and co-owner of the Flying Pig, puts it: “You can’t make something that’s bad quality be good. It’s impossible.”
Pig on the Street’s Seymour notes that it’s challenging to find reliable suppliers who provide consistently good products. “Once you find them, you notice it in [other] people’s produce,” she says. “You can tell when you go to a restaurant where they get their produce from.” Seymour nurtures her supplier relationships; for example, when her flour peddler makes his delivery each month, she meets with him for a chat and a beer.
When Campagnolo’s Belcham dines out, he likes to see names of local suppliers listed on the menu so he knows where his food is coming from. Other chefs interviewed echoed this sentiment; however, some feel there’s a commonsense limit. “Our obsession with defining all of our supply sources becomes a little bit silly,” says Andreas Seppelt, who co-owns Les Faux Bourgeois and Go Fish. “I read on one menu that the limes were from California. I mean, c’mon.”
Many chefs agree that a well- thought-out menu is one element of a great restaurant. But more choices isn’t necessarily better. “What makes a really great menu is not overdoing it,” says the Acorn’s Blustein. “Less is more.”
“You don’t want to make a menu too large. But you also don’t want to make it too small,” says Rob Feenie, executive chef at Cactus Club Cafe. “You want to make sure from a consistency standpoint that you’re not doing too much more than you need to be doing…then your consistency goes off the charts.”
Wayne Harris, executive chef at MARKET by Jean-Georges, thinks a great menu is one that offers good value and leaves him torn between dishes he really wants to eat. “That’s going to bring me back to try a different dish next time,” he explains.
Chef Andrea Carlson, who owns Harvest Community Foods, prefers menus that have an element of surprise to them, whether that involves a dish with an unfamiliar ingredient or one cooked in a creative way. When she goes to her favourite Vietnamese restaurant, she appreciates that the owner recommends dishes she might not think to order. “Those can become some of your new favourite items,” she says. “For me, that’s a great attraction. That’s what keeps people coming back.”
The food may keep people coming back, but Carlson also knows that décor that’s consistent with a restaurant’s concept matters too. She’s about to open a new casual Main Street eatery called Burdock & Co. with her partner, architect Kevin Bismanis. “We’ve put a ton of energy into trying to discern what makes a place read as ‘comfortable’,” she reveals, “everything from height of chairs to tables to lighting choices.”
Chris Picek, who was until recently the chef at Nicli Antica Pizzeria, believes that great restaurants set themselves apart by incorporating a sense of personality into the food, the décor, and the service. “It should be a reflection of the personality and mindset and approach of the chef-owner,” he explains.
The Flying Pig’s Heck is preparing to open a second location in Gastown in April. He recalls that before he opened his Yaletown restaurant, he sat down in each chair at every table to see if a guest would have a bad view or be jostled in a high-traffic area. “Nobody wants to have the seat that’s not the nice seat,” he points out. So he asked himself “Would I really want to sit there?” and revised the floor plan accordingly.
Comfort is an important factor in what makes a great restaurant, according to Cactus Club Cafe’s Feenie. Restaurateurs must pay attention to details that set the mood, like adjusting the blinds over the course of the day so the sun doesn’t shine in anybody’s eyes. “It’s the things that you don’t think about that are important,” he says.
Noise level is another often-overlooked detail. “Finding a way to control the volume in a restaurant is a tricky thing,” says Tacofino co-owner Ryan Spong. “When it’s done right, it’s great. You feel like you’re at a hot spot—there’s a din of conversation, combined with the music, but you can have a conversation. It doesn’t feel like it’s quiet, but it also doesn’t feel like you have to scream at your date.” Likewise, a comfortable temperature is important, and good interior design ensures that nobody shivers every time the door opens.
The chefs and restaurateurs interviewed noted that the human factor, as much as the food, is crucial for a restaurant. “What makes a great restaurant experience is the contact you have with everyone working there,” says Harvest Community Foods’ Carlson. If a diner’s relationship with the server isn’t solid, she says, “that’s going to taint the experience” even if the food is perfect.
Excellent service depends not only on the individual servers but on excellent staff management. “A good restaurant has a handle on staffing,” says Tacofino’s Spong. “One thing that drives everybody crazy is when there’s no one around and it takes a long time to get your food.…Conversely, when the place has been overstaffed, there’s something almost offensive about having three hostesses all greet you simultaneously.”
Neil Taylor, chef and co-owner of España, feels that overattentive service can be annoying. “When you go out, you want to spend time with your partner or your friend, not with people asking you questions here, there, and everywhere,” he says. Servers should be discreet but attentive, which is “a fine line to achieve”.
“The best servers, to me, are the ones you barely notice,” asserts Scott Jaeger, who co-owns the Pear Tree Restaurant. For example, they can reset the cutlery at a table of four without bringing the conversation to a halt.
Francis Regio, who owns Cork & Fin and Merchant’s Oyster Bar, describes this as “phantom service”, which can be exactly what one wants on an intimate date. However, he notes, “I wouldn’t want the same type of service everywhere I went.” On a recent boys’ night out, for example, the group’s banter with the bartender really made the evening.
The Flying Pig’s Heck points out that different people want different degrees of interaction with their servers. “It’s really important for a server to be able to read the table and know exactly who it is that they’re dealing with,” he says.
Nicli Antica’s former chef Picek feels that many servers in Vancouver are too casual in their speech and mannerisms, including those who kneel tableside to talk to guests. “A lot of people speak to the guest like they were speaking to their friends,” he says. “It’s not necessarily rude, by any means, but it’s too casual.”
For many, attitude counts for a lot. “What turns me off is when you go to a place and they’re not friendly and welcoming,” says Nico Schuermans, who co-owns Chambar and Medina Cafe. Even if the restaurant is very popular and constantly busy, he says, the staff must make the customers feel welcome, not taken for granted.
The right fit
Schuermans and others stress that a great restaurant is not necessarily a high-end restaurant. According to Adam Pegg, co-owner of La Quercia and La Pentola Della Quercia, part of what makes a restaurant great is that it fills a specific need very well. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a high-end restaurant or a low-end restaurant, it depends on what you’re going for,” he says. “I don’t really expect everything from every restaurant.”
For example, he says an inexpensive Chinese noodle place that quickly delivers tasty, hot soup can be a great restaurant. The important thing is that the restaurant’s food, décor, and service all align with its concept.
Vikram Vij, co-owner of Vij’s Restaurant and Rangoli, compares great restaurants to great music: you can’t pick any one “best”. “How can you tell me what is the best music in the world? You cannot,” he says. “There’s so many different tunes, moods you’re in…”
Personal priorities also determine what an individual considers a great restaurant. “Maybe I’m biased as a chef, but my main reason for going out to eat is to eat,” says España’s Taylor. He says he’ll go back to a place that has great food and terrible service. But the opposite—great service and terrible food—is a deal breaker for him.
Gunawan, whose background is Chinese, also says that he puts more value on the food than the service when he dines out. “Service is kind of irrelevant to my culture,” he explains. “I personally just shrug it off if I’ve been neglected in a Chinese restaurant.” He notes, however, that local Chinese restaurants are increasingly “adapting to the western style of service” as diners are putting more value on service.
Campagnolo’s Belcham contrasts what he thinks makes a great restaurant with what his father thinks makes a great restaurant. Although Belcham appreciates local, sustainable ingredients, “my dad could care less where the pork comes from. He just doesn’t want it to be loud in the restaurant. He wants the food to come out quickly and be hot and tasty. If the waiter is an asshole, it doesn’t really bother him. For me, it’s different.”
Belcham also says that the dining experience is a “symbiotic relationship” between the restaurant and the diner. Guests must take partial responsibility for their own happiness by communicating their needs, likes, and dislikes to the staff. They can also control their expectations, as his Fat Duck evening taught him.
Vij also notes that having outsized expectations can set you up for disappointment. “People should go in with the expectation that, yeah, they’ve heard good things about this place, but then leave their expectations at the door,” he says. He adds that the dining experience is very personal, like reading a best-selling book that a friend recommends. “If you don’t like it, 80 percent of people did like it, so maybe something in the book triggered you as an individual,” he says. “That doesn’t mean the book is bad.”
Fable’s chef Bird has also learned the perils of crazy-high expectations. He now goes out with “zero expectations” so as not to impair his judgment. “I am so goddamn easily pleased, it’s not even funny,” he states. “I’m not going to walk into a place and start picking it apart.…As long as someone’s cooking for me, I’m super stoked.”
That feel-good factor
Chambar’s Schuermans feels that diners put too much emphasis on evaluating their restaurant experience rather than enjoying it. “People have a critic’s eye on everything, and they forget the idea of going out,” he says. “The idea of going out is to leave your issues at the door.…People need to take it more as entertainment and not so much an experience to form an opinion on.”
The Pear Tree’s Jaeger also wishes that diners would allow themselves to relax more. He knows that fine dining, especially, can be intimidating. He recalls his first fancy meal, at the age of 18, when everything that could go wrong did. After he left, the sommelier chased him down the street; Jaeger’s first thought was, “Oh, my God, I didn’t tip enough.” But, in fact, the sommelier just wanted to offer a heartfelt apology for the staff’s very off night. That taught him the value of making a guest feel appreciated and at ease and that the restaurant experience is “really about the appreciation and the enjoyment”.
Emad Yacoub, who owns the Glowbal chain of restaurants, also cites making a diner feel appreciated as a key factor in what makes a great restaurant. He pins it down to a happy feeling that guests have when they leave. “A good restaurant gives good service and good food, but people don’t come back,” he says. In contrast, a great restaurant looks after myriad tiny details that the customer may not notice but that add up to the goal that “by the time the customer leaves, he will feel great about himself.” That, he says, is what brings people back.
In the end, it may be something undefinable that separates a good restaurant from a great one. As MARKET by Jean-Georges’s Harris puts it, “I can tell you numerous places that I’ve eaten; I can’t remember every dish, but I definitely remember the experience.” For him, it all boils down to “the overall experience that the guests leave with”.
Whether that experience brings you back to a special restaurant every birthday or to a fantastic burger joint every Thursday, one thing’s for sure: Vancouver has a wealth of great restaurants from which to choose.
> With files from Michelle da Silva