Dining in the Future

stlbites frontpageThere is a fantastic article in this month’s Sauce Magazine about a Chef’s Round table discussion with Catherine Neville and five prominent restaurateurs in various stages of their St. Louis careers–two old-timers (Bill Cardwell, Zoë Robinson), one mid-timer (Jim Fiala), and two relative new comers (Larry Forgione, Gerard Craft).

Everyone should definitely read it. It’s very interesting and many of the topics discussed could warrant entire round table discussions of their own. I for one wish I could personally speak to Larry Forgione as his opinions were very close to my own although he certainly arrived at his with considerably more blood, sweat, and tears than I ever did.

One thing specifically is that Forgione told a story about someone once telling him that people in St. Louis have a rotation of five or six places they always go. When a new place opens they’ll go and try it, but unless they “provide for them something that one of the other five or six restaurants in the loop doesn’t provide…” you’re not going back.

If they do provide something new “then one of those restaurants will be dismissed from the loop and you’ll join the loop.”

I agree with this completely, and I do it myself, but I think the reason is more complex than the printed discussion let on.

Many of the most knowledgeable diners in St. Louis that consistently frequent a limited number of restaurants are doing so because of the small subset of establishments they can go and receive the kind of food they’re wanting to eat–food that in some way touches them and challenges their palate rather than just being the same old good-but-ho-hum fare many restaurants serve.

As a result, they do frequent the same places, and in so doing these places begin to recognize them and treat them as part of some sort of extended family. That only furthers to enhance a restaurants membership in their circle because they become not just the people cooking and serving their food, but also, while perhaps not friends outright, people they care about on some level.

In my own experience I know when the chefs of the restaurants we frequent are having children, or their spouses are sick, or they’re going out of town on vacation. I know this because I’ve struck up friendships with them as they made it a point to recognize my wife and me as frequent diners and to thank us for it.

It’s sort of a Cheers mentality when you think about it because people like to go places where everyone knows their name. It was not something we personally sought out, it was just something that seemed to happen as an extension of their quality of service, but it made these restaurants more than just a place for us to eat, and as a result a place we wanted to spend our money to show our support.

All five chefs on the round table have this in their restaurants to a degree and it was enlightening to hear what they had to say on a number of subjects. Surprisingly, even on some of St. Louis diner’s nastiest opinions, they for the most part actually agree with us–except of course for that blogging thing.

People always say they want to know what went wrong right then and there so they can fix it, and while I think that’s a nice thing to say, I don’t think it’s true. Bill Cardwell (whom I admire greatly and frequent his restaurant for lunch because of its longstanding consistency) believes you “don’t have a way to respond to it” when someone online writes something bad about you. But is that really any different than a printed publication?

A restaurant should be treating everyone that dines there as a restaurant critic. One out of almost 3 million people shouldn’t be receiving some sort of preferential treatment if someone finds out who they are. If a mistake happens, nobody should be trying to slip one in on the one-time-diner, they should recognize the mistake and correct it promptly themselves rather than crossing their fingers that someone won’t go out and say something negative.

Everyone makes mistakes that’s true, and it’s the restaurants with true class that recognize many themselves and promptly rectify them without assistance from the diner.

The restaurant industry is like a competition with the diner being the judge. If you’re doing your big swan dive in the Olympics and you belly flop, there’s no do-over, that’s it, you’ve lost.

Even when a restaurant makes a mistake that goes unnoticed, and a diner points it out to allow them to rectify it, the do-over is never as good as a first attempt gone right.

When you’re dining with five other people and your food comes out overcooked and you send it back, now you’re left sitting their watching five other people eat their food while you sit with nothing. Then, when your food re-arrives, at some point your companions are awarded their own turn in watching you eat your food with nothing to do. That’s a terrible situation for everyone involved, and that’s why many people just eat what was delivered to them without complaint.

Danny Meyer once said something to the effect that asking “is everything okay?” is a loaded question for a server to ask. The inference is that it’s not okay and the server is bracing themselves for the response. Few diners are going to respond to that with anything but “yes” to avoid the conflict that question entails, and he proposed that the more appropriate question would be “is there anything else I can get for you?”

I’ve always liked that point, as it gives a patron an easier open with which to address an issue. Danny Meyer understands this, and that’s why he wrote the book on service. His restaurants are the high-point in hospitality because he understands that the majority of people within his restaurant’s walls on a given weekend are not frequent diners but one-shots with which you only get one chance.

So to those in the industry that do not care for what the internet has brought to the dining landscape understand this: the internet is the wave of the future, and the number of bloggers and forum posters is only going to increase exponentially in the coming years.

Certainly many of them do it anonymously and to be vindictive, and to that I have nothing kind to say. I agree completely that this is unfair and wrong, and that’s why restaurateurs hate bloggers and online forums. It’s become increasingly easier for people to spread bad stories. What used to be phone calls and meetings has now become the click of a single button, and with that click thousands of people can be notified of a bad experience instantly.

However, many of these posts are made from the core of the dining public-the people with the potential to put the most money into a restaurant’s pockets. Restaurateurs can choose to consistently complain about the people who do so, or they can choose to embrace it and become a part of it. It is two-way street and I am surprised more restaurants don’t take full advantage of the exposure the internet can offer them.

It was my forum that was mentioned in the article and I know that everyone is thrilled when the chef-members post as they always have a deeper insight into certain things that might be discussed. Furthermore, it serves to put a more personal face on a restaurant, and in the information age we now find ourselves in, people want to know as much about everything as possible.

That’s why these online negative reviews can be so detrimental. When someone is going out for that one special night they can now get online and find a wealth of information to assist in narrowing down their search for the perfect place-the one where everything will go wonderfully and they will enjoy a superb meal.

The days of taking a chance are behind us, and restaurants can either choose to take these reviews as constructive criticism and learn from them, or if they believe it to be unjust, there is a way to respond and we call it email–or in the case of forums joining and posting a well-constructed response.

And remember if you don’t agree with anything I’ve said here, I have had my name on this website since day one because I owe it to anyone I might say something about–good or bad–a means with which to respond to me. I respect that fact and I hope when Gerard Craft was speaking of good and bad bloggers I was one that he would put soundly into the good pool.

I believe I am.

5 Responses to “Dining in the Future”

  1. Dining in the Future | Online Reviews Says:

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  2. Jimmy Z Says:

    I basically agree, but for much less esoteric reasons. We go to the same places because, they’re good, predictable, usually close by and “hit the spot” at the moment. And yes, we do try new places, and unless they truly shine, many times we won’t go back, even though we have good intentions of doing so. I also agree that online reviews can be notoriously “off-point” and should be taken with a huge grain of salt, until proven otherwise.

    The reality is that the restaurant business here, as it is everywhere else, is very much a cut-throat, Darwinian business. And like they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. The real problem here (and everywhere else) is succeeding, and hopefully even thriving, once you’re no longer “the new kid on the block”. In my world, those survivors focus on food first, service a close second, price/value third and atmosphere a distant fourth . . .

  3. Dan D. Says:

    Excellent post, Bill. That was the best thing I’ve ever read in Sauce Magazine (no offense intended).

    Too, the recipe for Harvest’s bread pudding is in the back. Score!

  4. Michael Says:

    For me the most poignant aspect of the story was how candid Larry Forgione was, and by contrast, how little Zoe Robinson had to contribute. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that being a part of st. louis’ old culinary guard, as well as someone whose st. louis roots and connections run deep, she decided to dare not say anything that may offend the natives. I hope she takes more risks in the food she serves.

    As a matter of fact, why was she even chosen to sit in on this particular round table? She always struck me as more of an impresario than a chef.

  5. Bill Burge Says:

    Robinson was one of the first in St. Louis to open a modern upscale restaurant, and she and Cardwell have been plugging away for over two decades.

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