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What’s Your Favorite Restaurant?

What’s Your Favorite Restaurant?

I get asked that a lot.  So does every food writer, everyone who works for a publisher like the Restaurant Guide, every chef.  It’s a great dinner topic for a lagging conversation (even if everyone isn’t “into” food).  But let me say up front, “I hate this question!”

Since you asked, let me tell you why.  Too many variables.  Best special occasion place?  Are you talking best burger ever?  Fall back place cuz it’s always consistent?  Cheap but good?  Best ever in your entire life?   So many choices, so many criteria.  Maybe it’s just the last place I remember where I had a really good time.
McCormick and Schmick’s chocolate bag

But if I do answer and the next question is, “What’d ya have?” then I REALLY hate this question.  Three days after one sublime experience and one good and one not-so-great, it’s hard to remember specifics.  Maybe it’s a great treatment of something I especially like.  Maybe the drinks and the service were so good that a special glow shone upon the food, too.  Maybe I was with a special friend and the world seemed right.

The question is really about preference.  And since I write about food, I should have standards and principles I adhere to on a consistent basis.  That’s sorta why I’m not too fond of Yelp and other critical formats out there – one, do people even know what they’re talking about? Two, are they out for revenge?  Or trying to get something free?  Just wanting to be heard?  One and only time there and they choose to go during Restaurant Week or Valentine’s Day?  And by the way, why do we take strangers’ words as gospel?

Ok, done with rant.

Rating the Favorite

The Association of Food Journalists offers guidelines for (truly professional, I guess) restaurant critics and/or reviewers which I think serve as a starting point for answering the best-ever, best-moderately-priced,  best-hamburger-in-town, best-elegant-experience, best-last-time-I-went qualifications which are all wrapped inside the favorite question. They begin with some theoretically easy concepts, saying the goals of a critic should be to be fair, to be honest, to understand and illuminate the cuisine about which he or she is writing, and to look beyond specific dishes and experiences to capture the whole of a restaurant and its intentions.

There’s much more to this article, but when they talk about a rating system, they’re really talking about a way to answer, What’s Your Favorite Restaurant?  Here are their definitions: 

 FOUR STARS
 (Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-  a-kind experience that sets the local   standard.
 THREE STARS
 (Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-  quality food; exciting environs; savvy   service; smart concept.
 TWO STARS
 (Good) Solid example of restaurant type.
 ONE STAR:
 (Fair) Just OK. A place not worth rushing  back to. But, it might have something   worth recommending: A view, a single   dish, friendly service, lively scene.
 NO STAR:
 (Poor) Below-average restaurants.

To me, this should mean that very, very few restaurants would ever receive four stars.  And it doesn’t exactly provide a criterion.  One thing that professional reviewers have going for them is a consistency in valuation.  It’s like a movie critic you trust, probably because you often have the same opinions as s/he does – you get to know what they see and how they value it.  That’s one reason why random opinions aren’t necessarily that valuable – unless, I suppose, you have a huge majority all saying the same thing.  That can also be called “piling on.”

While I knew that Zagat had changed their rating system a couple years ago, I had forgotten they became a Google company and missed the news that they now are owned by The Infatuation, a restaurant discovery platform. They rely on people answering questions on food, décor and service, and moved from a 30 point rating system to one to five, five being the most favorable.  It’s very similar to the Association of Food Journalists but with five rather than four stars (or points).  Personally I like the five pointer – maybe because it translates so well to grades, A down to F.  I don’t know which came first but their definitions are: 

 4.6 - 5.0  Extraordinary to perfection
 4.1 - 4.5  Very good to excellent
 3.1 - 4.0  Good to very good
 2.1 - 3.0  Fair to good
 1.0 - 2.0  Poor to fair
Em Chamas

Zagat rates price as well from 1 to  4 dollar signs with one $ (inexpensive) to $$$$ (very expensive).  Of course, what may seem very expensive to me may be only moderately expensive to you since these, like all ratings, remain subjective, too.

Online, they run articles like “Kansas City’s Best Restaurants” (which includes places like Webster House, Room 39, and Pierpont’s . . . but also includes The American, now special events only). But Zagat ratings, like Yelp, are based on ordinary people responding once.  And we know that people often respond more when something negative happens rather than when they’re pleased.  It’s the criticism vs. compliment syndrome.  

Not Professional Foodies

So I asked a couple of unbiased millennial friends of mine, Brooks Kimmis, a new resident physician in K.C. and Braden Katz, tech entrepreneur and funder of Brandit, what they thought about Yelp.  Neither had ever submitted comments to the service and Brooks said, “I’m fairly hesitant to use Yelp prior to going to try a new place.  If I want to try it, a Yelp review isn’t going to change my mind. It does help me with pricing and when I want ideas of what to eat.”  Braden agreed and he uses it when “traveling and trying to find a place near our hotel.”

While there are certainly other ratings pages beyond Zagat and Yelp (Zomato [it was Urbanspoon], OpenTable,  Dine.com,  MenuPages, Google, The Infatuation, TripAdvisor, Gayot, Eat24, Restaurantica, for instance), both men felt customer comments are, or should be, helpful to restaurant owners. Braden comments that “...reviews are generally a good thing for improving the overall customer experience in  any industry.  Reviews force service providers to place much more value on each customer's experience as a bad experience obviously may turn away new customers and a good experience may bring in new ones.”

Brooks pointed to another aspect of the reviews that his friends enjoy: “It's a fun way to feel engaged and connected, and in some cases to receive some nice perks. One of my friends always gets a kick out of it when a restaurant owner responds to her review or comments. But even for less avid users like me, it provides a quick way to view a menu or pricing, but also helps in the decision-making process of where to go for those particularly indecisive moments.”

Research bears them out that reviews can not only be useful and entertaining but they are important statistically to the restaurants. The Digital Restaurant points out the following on their website:
• Harvard Business School found that a one-star increase in a Yelp rating can lead to a nine percent increase in revenue.

• A report in the Economic Journal found that an increase of half a star on Yelp meant a restaurant was much more likely to be full at peak times.
• In a BrightLocal survey, 60% reported reading a review for a restaurant before they went.

K.C. Experts 

Restaurant owners are aware of the importance of being the “favorite” and how social media can affect that.  I asked four different owners or managers what they believe are the most (and least) important factors in making their restaurant a favorite.  They are Sam Silvio of Em Chamas Brazilian Grill north of the river, Kris Brentano of Ricco’s Italian Bistro in Overland Park, Brandon Strick of The Westside Local and Nicole Alena of McCormick and Schmick’s. Owner Sam Silvio said you must provide, “A unique dining experience. It entertains as well as satisfies.  This means great food, great variety, great service.”  Part of what makes that experience, according to Kris Brentano, besides the great food is the “neighborhood feel and coziness of our restaurant.” General Manager Nicole Alena says that McCormick’s regulars pretty much remark on the chocolate bag, the view of the Plaza, and the service as to why this beautiful place is their favorite. Owner Brandon Strick says when people tell him Westside is their favorite, “They always mention the quality and freshness of the ingredients – they’re at fine dining level but in a casual and approachable setting – it’s comfy.”
Food, of course, is key.  Kris Brentano says that, “I always think that the food brings people in and the service or lack of cleanliness can drive them away.”  Brandon Strick is also talking about food but in a slightly different way.  He states that, “With all aspects of the question being important, one rises to the top.  If you can find consistency, chances of becoming a favorite restaurant grow exponentially.  Nobody wants to take a gamble on inconsistency.  Will it be good ‘this time’ will quickly become ‘not that place any more.’” 

Alena adds, “I believe that it takes all of the qualities that you mentioned (food, service, décor, cleanliness, atmosphere, management, cost, consistency, quality for the money, etc.) to ‘make a good restaurant.' The variable is that not all people are concerned about the same things. It's the guest perspective that makes a difference and no two guests are ever alike. If you were to ask ten other people, you would probably hear ten different combinations of those that you listed.”
Silvio pointed out, “You can have the best food in the world, but if service is bad, it can ruin the guest’s entire experience.  They may give you another chance, but they won’t come back a third time.  People come to a restaurant to relax and to not be stressed: they have enough tension all day long without spending money just to get stressed and upset because of poor service - even if it's only one time."
Ricco's Italian

Strick echoed this idea but added another variable. “Food and quality service must be present first; if it isn't good or consistent, people will not return.  But before anything else is even considered, location matters.  Nothing can overcome a cursed location.  Everyone knows one of those spots where nothing can stay open for long.  And the reverse is just as true.  A great location can overcome many other shortcomings.”  But of all the elements to create a favorite restaurant, design or décor and location ranked below the other qualities for the four other experts.

Next time you get asked the fated favoritism question, by all means think about your own standards and what you’re basing your decision on.   Think about why you’re being asked the question.  Think about your personal star rating system.  Then also think about the fact that everyone has different tastes.  Your “not hot enough” may be someone else’s “blistery burning.”  Or your “happening atmosphere” is another’s “too loud to hear myself, much less to talk.”  (Don’t you love that the word hear has the word ear in it?) Or that the server who always greets you with a happy smile was having a really bad day when your friend went.

One recent night my four friends and I were happily ensconced in the window table at a favorite haunt.  I asked them the question of course.  One said, “Well, my favorite near us is Red Snapper.”   But I reminded her I didn’t use location as a limiter, just favorite.  She couldn’t answer.  Neither could anybody else but one said, “I like McCormick’s for the oysters.”  Another said, “No, Story for their fish.”  “Best chicken livers ever – Rye.” Then the conversation further degenerated into a dish-naming bonanza as my question disappeared.

It probably disappeared because answering, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” is more complex than one might think. It evokes time, taste, companions, mood of the “critic” and the quality, creativity, preparation, and consistency and execution of the food and drink. To that, add service, ambiance, location, décor, parking, cleanliness, noise level, and a million tiny details that go to create the one, singular or not, experience.

So, tell me what IS your favorite restaurant? 
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

MY favorite restaurant in KC…..Bluestem wins hands down, but I can’t afford it, so have been fewer than ½ dozen times, usually as someone’s guest. (and no, Rye is/are FAR down on the list).
But my go-to restaurant is surely Pierpont’s. Service is impeccable, and it’s incredible how they manage to serve perfect green beans time after time after time. I get there about 3 times a year….not cheap, but not “quite” in the pricyness of Bluestem.
PS…..I’ll be at Pierpont’s Sunday, about 5:30p
PPS Let’s hear it for Pierpont’s manager, too!
Robert Frost

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