I am currently working on the Top 100 Restaurants issue for Northside San Francisco, and as a result, I've started to ponder the question: what makes a restaurant great? It's a question that came up when the food team was brainstorming the best new restaurants for the 2nd annual Best of Northside Food issue. It also came up when I spoke to David Kinch, chef/owner of Manresa, during our interview for SF Chefs Magazine. Here's what he had to say on the subject:
"There are many, many great restaurants worldwide. One of the things that ties them together is that sense of place. You can't pick up a great restaurant and put it anywhere else. It's the union of the chef and the style they represent."
-- David Kinch, SF Chefs Magazine 2006
So there is one answer -- a sense of place, in time and in space, that is neither fleeting nor replicable. Another answer, one that is both more and less complex, is that a great restaurant makes great food. But what is great food? In almost every case, it is subjective. Put two people in a dining room -- one that has Michelin stars falling out of its ass, no less -- and even with the same dishes in front of them, you are still likely to get very different reactions. It happens all the time among my circle of friends; one of us loves restaurant X, the other one wrinkles her nose every time it is mentioned.
But even with great food, or even just really good food, is the food enough? Not in most cases. Studies show that people will forgive bad food before they'll forgive bad service, and they'll sooner go back somewhere for the service than for the food. Again, what people want here is different. Some want a waiter whom they barely notice as he or she puts down plates and refills water glasses. Others want to engage and be engaged, to ask about the food, to learn about the ingredients, to develop a bond with their server.
The usual review touches on three topics: food, service, ambiance. But, like umami -- the "secret" fifth taste (after sweet, salty, bitter and sour) that is usually described as "savory" -- there is another sense that I think is always considered, though rarely stated, and that is the feeling you get from a restaurant. That feeling is not just the sum of the food, service and ambiance; it is its own score. It is also, in my opinion, the most important yardstick by which a restaurant is judged.
I recently ate at Maverick for the first (and then a second) time. When I immediately proclaimed it one of my favorite restaurants in the City, a small discussion ensued with my editor over why; she had gone and found the food decent, but not noteworthy. (Since Maverick isn't in the Northside, this was a matter of personal, not professional, debate.) As we exchanged ideas about what we liked and didn't, and why, I realized that what I had really liked most wasn't the food or the wine, it was the feeling I got from being there. Its coziness and warmth on a cold winter night. Its sensible American menu, full of dishes I grew up liking and now revere: fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, crab cakes. Its lack of pretention, its mix of diners, its nearly unadorned interior. Some of the food was great (pork ribs) and some of it was good (fried chicken), but there were also dishes that were so-so at best (mashed potatoes, the vegetarian dish). Still, it's one of my favorite spots. I simply like being there.
Another of my favorite places is Bar Crudo. The service has always been slow, but I don't mind because I adore being there. I like the people who work there, I like the casual vibe. I like the way the small upstairs mezzanine makes me feel all tucked away in someone's attic for dinner, and I love the meticulously prepared food, the uber-fresh lobster flown in daily from Maine. Even though one of the restaurant's core attributes doesn't get as high marks as it could, I barely think about it because I just like being there.
A friend of mine was recently telling me about one of the places she eats most often. She's admitted that the food is mediocre, but she still goes every single week. It's tradition. They know all the staff, they like the ambiance, it reminds her boyfriend of home.
I'm interested to hear what you think makes a restaurant great. How would you decide what makes your Top 100 list?