What Makes a Great Restaurant

In mid-April, I was out at the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when I engaged in a debate on what is the best place to eat in my home town of Charleston, SC. I quickly realized this was a no win conversation and it dawned on me that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder!” [Well. I wondered who made that quote and found two schools of thought – 1) Plato, that long ago Greek philosopher; or 2) Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, an Irish romantic novelist in the late 1800’s?] Who knows who is right (both with the quote and the best place to eat!)?

There are many ways we try to rank and rate restaurants – food quality (temperature, presentation, ingredients, creativeness, etc.); service (food delivery of all courses, attentiveness to food/beverage needs, special occasions, etc.); ambiance (environment inside/outside of the establishment, lighting, music, etc.); cuisine (region of food origin, flavor, culture, etc.); and other factors (noise level, city or country surroundings, water front, mountain view, etc.).

You and I each see these items through different lenses and therefore that is why I liked Husk and my friend who had recently moved to Charleston after retiring from the World Bank in DC (his favorite was McCrady’s). By the way, he chose Charleston over Wilmington, Savannah, and Hilton Head because of the food, culture, and walkability.

When my Sacramento friend came to Charleston for his first visit about a year ago he chose a unique way to come up with his “must visit” eating places. Of course, like me by trade he had a statistical and economist background rooted in labor market information. He developed a ranking system by first finding the top ten restaurants in Charleston by 8 different rankings (Southern Living, Fodor’s, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.) – he then assigned 10 points for #1, 9 for #2, etc. He tallied the #’s and divided by 10 to get an aggregate tally. His system produced FIG as #1 and Husk as #2 – he thoroughly enjoyed each meal!

The bottom line or best dish so to say is a function of your individual experiences in a dining place. It is what you discover and enjoy (or in worst case scenarios despise) and looking at it from a statistical point of view it has a variance over time. You could have a miserable experience the first time, decide reluctantly to go back and have a nice return visit. And as we all know the food, service, ambiance, and other factors change over time.
As I write this I’m reminded of the Jim Collins book Good to Great where he looked at companies over a period of time and tried to distinguish how a firm improves from good to great.

Restaurants are not immune and one factor which perhaps should be on the rating/ranking list if length of business – if a place stays around for over 25 years these days, it must be doing something right to survive.

Here’s hoping you find pleasant dining experiences, all the best,

~Gary

PS By the way my favorite was Husk!

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