The Making of a Restaurant

Sunday, December 29, 2002

We're staying in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from Seventh Avenue, the main drag around here. Friday night I was strolling down Seventh, looking for take-out options. It turned out to be an incredibly simple task, since almost every restaurant I passed had a box of take-out menus taped to the window or stapled to the front door. I guess I've seen this done before, but never with the prevalence that exists here in Brooklyn. Is take-out just much more popular here than it is in Chicago? Or is it just another shining example of New York efficiency? In any case, I think we should adopt the idea -- unless there's a city ordinance prohibiting it. I wouldn't be surprised.
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Saturday, December 28, 2002

Sarah and I have been eating our way through New York for the past couple of days, and it's an exercise we plan to continue through our week-long stay here. So far, we've hit the following places: Lombardi's, a midtown hot dog vendor, Russ & Daughters, Nectar Coffee Shop, Thai Cuisine, Grey Dog Cafe, Krispy Kreme, The Antique Cafe, and Coco Roco*. Sarah's been sweet enough to follow me along in my compulsive quest to taste the widest variety of what New York has to offer, though I'm sure she'd be just as content eating whatever popped into her vision the moment hunger called. Our selections are are inspired by word-of-mouth, handed-down guidebooks, Calvin Trillin essays, online recommendations, and the occassional impulsive hey-that-look's-neat-let's-try-it urge.

The best of those mentioned, hands down, is Lombardi's, makers of the tastiest coal oven pizza I've ever had. It's also the only place on the list (besides K.K.) that I'd been to before; that I'd willingly revisit a restaurant in a city of about 17,000 is a testament to its greatness.

The most inspiring, as far as this blog is concered, is probably Grey Dog, a cafe in the West Village. It's got that kind of vibe that I seek for our place, much in the same vein as Smoke Daddy or Q, but it also does something clever to expedite the whole seating and ordering processes. Upon walking in, a waitress will ask for the number in your party, telling you either "I'll get you a seat, no problem," or "It'll be a while, but hang tight." From there you get in a line that extends to the counter. When you reach the register, you place your order, give your name, and pay. By this point, your table is typically a minute or two from being clear. When it is, you sit down, and simply wait for your name to be called and your food to be delivered. It's a process I also saw exploited brilliantly at Mama's in San Francisco, another restaurant whose brunch crowd generously outweighed its capacity. Obviously, it'll take great populatiry for us to really take adavantage of system like this, but if we ever get to that level, it'll be a process worth remembering.

(*coming soon: Katz's Delicatessen, Shopsin's, Serendipity, Chinatown...)
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Sunday, December 22, 2002

This contest at Shopsin's is exactly the sort of stunt I envision us having. Here's one of my favorites:

I went when I lived near the city.
The news of its move is no pity.
   Whether two blocks or three
   won't matter to me.
Now I live in Mass., and it's shitty.

Shopsin's has some excellent rules, too.

  1. Everyone's got to eat.
  2. Please don't take photos.
  3. No parties larger than four.
  4. No cell phone talking inside.
  5. No smoking.

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Thursday, December 19, 2002

We must take great care in selection our name. Defective Yeti has an amusing post about a poorly named place: "One of my favorite lunchtime eateries is a nearby deli called Honeyhole Sandwiches. They have great food, but I think we'll all agree that 'Honeyhole' is the dirtiest sounding name of all time. I'm even embarrassed to tell my coworkers I'm going there. 'Hey boss, I'll be in the Honeyhole for an hour ...'"
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Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Two great restaurant links on Boing Boing today:

The Los Angeles Public Library has a fantastic collection of restaurant menus, going back 100 years and more. Here's one for the Clipper Restaurant, circa 1871-1884. Pig's feet in batter, 20 cents! Here's another from 1899 for the St. Helena Sanitarium. "Articles prepared to order" include gluten wafers, kumyss and oatmeal gruel. And check out the fresh salads a Chicagoan could find at a Walgreens in 1950. And, oh, to have been around for Colosimo's in 1927: A full Italian dinner for $1.50, plus, at midnight, eight beautiful dancing girls (dances arranged by Lester Montgomery).

Also, more tips on tips, complete with a hot computer-generated waitress, though this is probably using the same study we blogged earlier. In short: Waiters who don't squat get squat.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Here's a story about a New York restaurant that grows its own herbs, a practice we've mused about once or twice before. "At its peak, the garden includes a number of basils, like Thai, licorice and lemon; several kinds of thyme, including variegated, lemon, English and creeping; summer and winter savory; and bronze fennel, oregano, sorrel, coriander, chamomile, verbena, shiso, lavender, rosemary and sage."

I'll be moving to a new place in January, one with more light and outdoor space than my current home. One thing I look forward to is growing my own herbs. I'll probably begin with basil and grow from there. Any advice from urban gardeners?

Thursday, December 05, 2002

A new Chicago media concern includes in its dining section brief, reader-submitted restaurant reviews, organized by specialty. What's maddening is that with each section it asks an important, probing question -- today's was "Who's got the best burger?" -- and then makes absolutely no effort to answer it.

Today's section had capsules on 11 restaurants, from Mother Hubbard's to Moody's (RedEye doesn't venture south of Madison Avenue much), and had exactly 11 breathless raves. Five readers claimed to have eaten the "best burger in town." Normally it takes a water main to break for Chicago to see this much gushing.

Except as a condensed restaurant directory, the section is completely useless for the diner who wants to know who in fact has the best burger in town. (The Billy Goat, no kiddin'!)

Like Metromix, the Reader also depends on reader input for its restaurant ratings. The Reader succeeds, however, in editing ratings into useful capsules. For instance, here is the capsule review of Pete Miller's Steakhouse that was printed in today's RedEye/Metromix:

Great food. Even the bread that comes with your meal is amazing! The steaks and hamburgers are very good, and the seafood is fantastic. Definitely worth a few repeat visits.

Useless, primarilly because it read the same as the ten other capsules.

Here, on the other hand, is the capsule that would appear in the Reader:

This Evanston restaurant, part of the Clean Plate Club empire (Davis Street Fish Market, Merle's Smokehouse), combines a jazz club with a classic steak house. Locals come for the food and live music, then stay for a game of pool in the spacious bar area. Meat selections are succulent and generous, but the fish also holds its own. Some Raters find the menu in the main dining room shockingly overpriced, but the smaller bar menu is much more reasonable. Be wary of sitting in the band area if you plan to converse with your companions.

What a difference a little bit of thought and editing can make, and no exclamation marks!

But the Reader still comes up short because it cannot account for the raters' expertise or experience. The idiot who eats only one burger a year is of course going to say the Billy Goat is superb. Someone who doesn't eat a lot of thai, for another example, is liable to rave about Americanized offerings like Hi Ricky and be turned off by tastier, more authentic places like Siam Noodle or Thai Aree, thus skewing the ratings.

A more-perfect ratings system would do two things:

1. It would employ the Epinions ratings engine, in which raters are themselves rated and have their reviews weighted accordingly, based on how much "trust" they have earned. A person who samples 150 restaurants a year and has done her share of chowhounding should be trusted more than someone who eats out less than once a month.

(In fact, Epinions has a restaurant section. The problem with Epinions is that it hasn't reached critical mass. Skimming the Chicago restaurants, I see that few have more than one review, and the ones with more -- Harry Caray's, Ruth's Chris -- are places that cater to suburban tourists, a demographic not known for its sophisticated palate. The Reader has decided that a restaurant must have five reviews for its ratings to count, and I would say even that is a little low.)

2. Ratings would be further weighted based on the searcher's parameters. If I'm looking for a cheap Mexican place, I'm going to want the opinion of someone who has tried every one of the city's hundreds of taquerias. I don't care about the reviewer whose exposure to Mexican food is through high-end nuevo places like Topolobampo. I would also want to know what other places are favored by a La Cumbamba enthusiast.

What else would make for a perfect restaurant ratings formula?

Monday, December 02, 2002

I was in charge of the turkey this year. This is a big deal. But I claimed to know the secret to success, handed down to me from the cooking geniuses on my new favorite TV program, America's Test Kitchen. I had used their techniques once before, after seeing their show on spaghetti and meatballs. The outcome was so incredibly fantastic that I immediately set my TiVo to record every show. So, having seen their technique for the perfect roast turkey on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I knew I had to try it out.

It was a rousing success, what with the brining and the stuffing and basting and the turning and all that. I can't wait to try out the next episode's tricks. And it occurs to me that it'd be wise of us to stay tuned to the show while developing our menu. More than just a cooking show, they explain why certain techniques work and others don't. It's like going to cooking school for free from your living room. (Or your kitchen, if you're smart enough to set up your TV there.)




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