Editor’s Note – From time to time, we get contributions of articles or unusual restaurants to feature in Love2Dine Out. This blog is a well written piece from a colleague of mine who co-produced a Quarterly journal titled Workforce from 1990 to 1994. Michael is now an owner of MKS Communications in Frankfort, KY.
Seeking a Dining Experience
by Michael R. Stone
I am going out to eat. I want more than food well prepared and pleasant to my taste. I want an experience — a positive experience, of course. I have suffered through some dreadful dining, caused as much by poor attention to service details as poorly prepared and served food.
When I eat for nutrition or gluttony, to me nothing beats the home. Picking fresh vegetables from the garden for a gazpacho satisfies the former. A multi-meat, spiced loaf indirectly grilled on a Weber kettle served with garlic mashed potatoes and buttered lima beans takes care of the latter. Neither is pretentious, and the surroundings are comfortable. I could eat sitting naked on my back deck if I wanted.
I’m confident, given time, my spouse and I can prepare a luxurious, even pretentious, meal at our home. We had the kitchen built to do just that, but we managed well when all we had was a hot plate, a coffee maker, a popcorn popper and a toaster oven. There never is a question about freshness of the ingredients or cleanliness of the space.
Going out requires more. My spouse and I recently have been dining out more often in the company of her brother, who owned and operated a deli restaurant for a time. We are developing core elements by which we judge our experience. In a somewhat logical order, I’ll explain.
There is adventure, and possibly romance, in finding the out-of-the way dining experience. Alʼs near the riverfront in a St. Louis warehouse area stands out in my mind, or a steakhouse in a stockyards, but I don’t want to hire a guide to find it, pay an exorbitant valet fee, or hike a half mile after parking or getting off the streetcar. I want everyone to feel safe. Nervous anxiety has a diminishing effect on appetite and enjoyment. So, is it easy to get to the restaurant?
And please, don’t confuse me where to enter. I don’t care about the artistic statement. I am not going to an art gallery or museum. I am going to eat. I do not want to play hide and seek. There’s an otherwise decent place in Frankfort, Ky., Bourbon on Main. In front of what appears to be the main entrance to the building (a large door) is a park bench blocking entry. A small, innocuous door to the side is the entrance.
PLEASANT, PROMPT GREETING
As we walk in, someone should welcome us. Who, doesn’t matter: greeter, bartender, waiter.
It signals the house knows we are here. If there will be a wait, I want an honest assessment of how long, and be offered the option of waiting at the bar, a lounge, or a comfortable seating area.
I do not need a massive collection of available beer, wine or liquor. I do think there ought to be a reasonable variety from which to choose. I am amazed at the dexterity, speed, and memory of a professional bartender. Knowledge of the spirits on hand is a pleasing touch. Congenial conversation is welcome. I am not offended by the ever-present television, but I am not there to watch the ballgame, unless it is a sports bar.
I do not want to drop bread crumbs to find my way out of the place or to return from the restroom. (My comments on entry door confusion applies to restrooms, too. I may be in a rush to use the facilities. A simple “men” and “women” on the door is sufficient. I can deal with a large “M” or “W.” I am old-fashioned and will use the male restroom, but it doesn’t bother me whether another gender is in the room. I know many ladies, including my spouse, who have used male restrooms when the wait and availability of the ladyʼs room is threatening an accident.)
I ask to be guided to the table, and I appreciate being advised where the restrooms and possible amenities are located. I want the menu presented along with any drink lists. I find it efficient for the staff person seating me to ask if we have an immediate drink order, which can be given to the wait person or bartender.
To me, this includes pleasant surroundings and cleanliness. I do not want to feel like Iʼm in a cave or a barn. I need sufficient light, but I am not interested in sitting in a spotlight. I do not wear a minerʼs helmet or carry a flashlight. I do not want to feel like I need a shower after leaving the place or be fearful of crusted bits on plates and utensils. We like to be able to talk during dinner; some intimacy is nice.
COMPETENT, TIMELY SERVICE
This is critical. The very good wait staff is attentive but not overbearing. It does not hover, but does not abandon us, either. Knowledge of the fare is essential. Explanation of specials is necessary. Let me know the prices, too. I am put off by wait staff that appears annoyed if I donʼt want an appetizer or alcohol. I get it that pay depends on tips, and I will reward competent service; but I appreciate a positive, cheerful demeanor. Everyone (including patrons) should read the small card distributed at Hymanʼs in Charleston, S.C. about “attitude.” Weʼd all be better people if we could live to that challenge. As noted, I do not want to be abandoned, but if requested, being left alone to savor the evening and continue the conversation is valued. If there are delays or lengthy preparation times, let me know. I am tolerant when advised of the status at whatever stage of the evening.
And by all means, do not make a decision for me. I enjoyed the fare and presentation, drinks and surroundings at Harvest in Louisville, Ky., but the evening was spoiled by the wait person. I was in town for business, but had a free evening before the next challenging day. I ordered fried chicken, and was prepared for the wait. Rather than spirits, I ordered a sweeter white wine as an aperitif to relax without becoming numb. The wine served had a hint of oak and no trace of sweetness. For dinner, I ordered a more full-bodied white, and the wait person said that was what I was drinking. I replied that Iʼd asked for something else initially, and was told the wait person did not think I would like that wine and brought me the other (and more expensive) selection she felt I would like better. I was dumbfounded. I could have handled being advised at the initial order of the wineʼs character so I could pick something else if I chose, but I was unbelieving (except it really happened) that a decision was made unilaterally. That experience put a pall on the evening, and perhaps unfairly, I have not returned, even for the exquisite fried chicken and locally sourced sides.
It is too bad that every wait person cannot spend an evening watching the wait staff at
Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. I do not remember the fare from that evening, although I remember being pleased. I do remember ordering an after-dinner drink not only to prolong a romantic evening with my spouse but also to observe the wait staff. How the food preparation was coordinated and then presented by a marshaled staff to serve a table of eight at the same precise moment was amazing. It was choreography worthy of Broadway.
I appreciate the bill being brought on request and managed with dispatch. I am offended when wait staff begs for tips with the “Do you want change?” question when I’m paying with cash. If my spouse is paying with her credit card, do not bring the paperwork back to me. The name is printed on the card. It’s a lady’s name. An attentive wait person will recognize that. In our case, it will cause a tip reduction if I am asked to sign her check because my spouse feels disrespected and demeaned. It is here card, not mine. It’s really not a small matter.
I do not need music, and I cannot abide music so loud conversation is trying. I find wandering musicians intrusive. If I want music, I will go to a concert or a jazz club. I do enjoy seeing appropriately dressed staff and diners. It adds to the comfort level. If I want to see skin, I guess I could visit a strip club, or a Hooters. I want my companion to be comfortable, too, and not distracted by an attention-seeking parade.
Perhaps I am priggish. My point is dining out can be costly. To fully enjoy the experience takes time. These are my standards, and they add to my enjoyment of the dining experience. Meet them and I will be back.