When it comes to restaurants, I love trying new places. There is something transcendent in tasting that perfectly prepared bite of food from the latest “it” chef. In reality though, for my family, most Friday nights and Saturday mornings are spent at one of the same two places.
Friday nights my daughter, wife and I line up with many of the other local families at our neighborhood taco place, Taqueria Del Sol. The parking lot turns into a playground, and all the regulars know the unwritten rules of line etiquette. We sometimes give newbies dirty looks if they don’t somehow magically intuit these unwritten rules, but it's mostly a big party. The more the merrier. Is the food groundbreaking in its originality or so authentic that you’re transported to Oaxaca? No, but it's tasty, it's consistent and the staff treat you really well.
On Saturday mornings, you’ll find us at a little local diner called Rise-n-Dine, along with an eclectic mix of customers ranging from students to families to empty-nesters. Again, the food isn’t groundbreaking, but it tastes good, is reasonably priced and is reliable. We don’t go there every Saturday looking for the best breakfast we’ve ever had. We go because the owner, Ms. Stephanie, as my daughter calls her, greets us at the host stand and knows our drink order. We go because the servers ask us how our week was and always treat Winnie like an actual person, and not an annoyance. In short, we go for the hospitality.
When we were starting Southern Kitchen, we made a conscious decision not to do restaurant reviews. There are enough people doing a really good job of that, ranging from bloggers to local newspaper critics to nationally acclaimed taste-makers. If you are curious about a restaurant, you don’t have to look far to find a review.
One of the places many people turn to these days is Yelp, which, for better or worse, has become a sort of sherpa for many people’s restaurant journeys. If you were to peruse the Yelp reviews of either of those fine establishments, or any of the thousands of similar small, mom-and-pop type restaurants across the country, you might pick up an interesting phenomena. Lots of five-star reviews mixed in with a decent number of three-star reviews that all read something like, “I just don’t get it. The food was fine, but what’s the big deal?” I feel bad for these people. They are so focused on the food, they miss the rest of the experience. They’ve reduced restaurant dining down to an act of consumption, when it should be so much more than that, especially when you are at one of the outer edges of the spectrum.
If you are at one of the ubiquitous versions of TGIChilBee’s that plague our nation, I get that your goal is to eat and get home as fast as possible. You simply want the best Southwest fajita pita your $11 can buy. But no one goes to a fine dining establishment and ignores the service factor. Why would you go to a local joint where the people cooking your food or filling your drink are more than likely the people paying the rent and not give them the same consideration?
The great restaurateur Danny Meyer refers to the way the experience can elevate your meal as the “hospitality quotient.” It's a belief that service is about more than the technical delivery of a product, but also about delivering it in a way that makes you feel as though you matter and that the server cares about how you feel.
The next time you are thinking about where to get some eggs or grab a bite and a beer after work, think about how you’ll feel while you're at your chosen location. You might just find that hole-in-the-wall you’ve never considered is just the place you’ve been looking for. As the song goes, “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.” Go introduce yourself.