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When ‘The Best’ Restaurant Isn’t (or Service Matters) [or Give Credit to the Professionals, Please]

September 1, 2016 | Frank Bonanno

In the picture above I’m with my sons at one of our for real favorite eating spots. I dug the photo up to go with this post, but you have to imagine us at another summer favorite,  Red’s Lobster Pot.

Here we are at Red’s on a 90 degree day, and from all appearances, we’re pulling into what looks to be a small house–a shack, even–but the deck yawns out along the ocean. I’m here today with my sons, and we had to wrangle a parking spot a block away, illegal at that, and Luca and I are on line now, sunburnt and starving in the heat and noise of Red’s. Marco, my other son, is saving a table for us outside. Jacqueline wipes it clean of butter and stickiness with a towel she borrowed from a server.

That’s a lie. She didn’t borrow a towel from a server because there aren’t really servers at Reds. They have something more like a herd of tanned teenagers, cousins and children of the owners, some crazily busy, calling out orders and ringing in tickets, others aimlessly looking out to sea. Jacqueline grabbed a wet rag from a broken table that doubles as a bus station.

Luca is holding my hand and we are fanning ourselves with paper menus while we examine the board. It’s a formality, this perusing of the menu board, really we’re just too hot to engage in conversation and besides, we already know what we’re going to have–knew it on the car ride over the bridge and into Point Pleasant, knew it on the plane ride to New Jersey and knew it way back in the cold of Denver in December. We come to Red’s for steamed lobster and corn on the cob. Sometimes we dabble in fried clams or crab legs, but really, we’re here to escape from the sun with lobster killed only moments ago and corn that was picked this morning and white wine so cold it crystalizes at the neck and drips down the shoulder. We come to watch the boats dock and listen to the waves slap along their sides. We come for tales about parties and fishing and how much hotter this summer is compared to all the other summers. We come to be part of a busy place in the height of its season, to dig in to lobster so fresh and flavorful that who cares about a slick buttery chin clinging to an errant piece of corn because. It’s delicious. It’s summer. And here we are, on a crowded dock, wearing practically nothing and laughing and digging in.

It’s one of the best restaurants on earth. It really is one of The Best. But listen. . .

That’s another lie right there.

Red’s is great. It speaks of family and flavor and summer and every other wonderful thing to me, but it isn’t one of the best restaurants on earth, or even in Point Pleasant. If I saw Red’s listed in a Best of New Jersey, or Top of the Shore, or rated in the newspaper with four or three or two stars, I’d be sad.

And that’s my third lie because I wouldn’t be sad. I’d be angry is what I’d be, and part of my chef’s heart might just crisp up and burn, because much as I love that place and the happiness I find there, it’s not The Best, with a capital B.

Great restaurants are one thing; a Best Restaurant is another entirely.  I have it framed in my mind, a Best restaurant, and there is always a place for it.

There is a place for a restaurant that has a smoothly paved parking lot, and maybe even a valet, so guests can arrive in whatever cars, wearing whatever shoes, without risking an ankle or a divet or a ticket.

There is a place for reservations, and for someone who, perhaps, opens the door with a warm greeting, takes or offers a wrap, and brings you to a table where you don’t brush along a stranger’s shoulder as you strive to sit.

There is a place for table cloths, because cloth softens the sound of plates and voices and because cloth absorbs splatters so your sleeves and neighbors don’t have to.

There is a place for service–I said it out loud there, just as I typed it. Service. May I get you another? Is the lobster to your liking? Here’s a napkin to replace the one you dropped, and the napkin is fabric, and it will absorb the crumbs and drips of your happiness here tonight and protect your clothing because you look really good. You got a little spiffy to come here, didn’t you? Maybe you didn’t, maybe it’s the lighting, and why don’t I walk you to the restroom, it’s just on my way and so nice to bring you rather than point around when you ask.

There are places, Best Places, where items are not announced tableside by prominent protein, but set gently before you– and in those Best Places, you can anticipate which direction those plates will approach you, and the rims will be shiny and clean and reflective and the food therin will be beautiful and fragrant and delicious. You devour that food with your eyes first as you pick up the clean fork to your left and the polished knife to your right because

There is such a place. There are many such places.

There are places where chefs don’t open cans.

There are places where wine professionals guide you through valleys and regions and colors and bring you to a perfect price point, a perfect temperature, a perfect complement to the other flavors before you.

There are places where bartenders know what rye is and when to recommend Amaro, and they muddle and squeeze and measure ingredients, damn it, measure them. Measure ingredients. So that drinks aren’t hapahazard but thoughtful, flavorful, and consistent.  These drinks are offered in vessels designed to showcase flavor and subtlety and they are here because of informed service professionals, wine professionals, spirit professionals . . . cooking professionals.

There are places where people take notes about your preferences so that when you return, if your name happens to be John Mariani and you need to have a daiquiri a certain way, you don’t need to present a  recipe on a card because we know. We wrote it down. It will be waiting for you, just that way. Just so.

There are places where chefs work fifteen hour days and will only, perhaps, shell fava beans or peel potatoes in the entirety of those fifteen hours. Heaps and heaps of fava beans or potatoes. And they’re happy to do it. Because you–reader, guest–you love fava beans and potatoes and one day, they’ll be sautéing or pureeing or whatever the hell you want because they love to cook with real food in lots of different ways and make people real happy.

Red’s is not one of those places. There is a time and a place for the likes of Red’s, and I can tell you that for me it’s New Jersey, sun and sons. This past winter, I went to New York with my chefs to see what other restaurants who strive to be The Best are doing, and so we went to La Bernardin and Danielle, Collichio & Sons and Jean George–restaurants where your neighbors are so perfectly lighted and the music so balanced everything looks and sounds fabulous, until the food and drinks arrive—and then all of that just melts away because this service, this food, this experience is what it means to be among The Best Restaurants.

Awhile back, Pete Wells started a thing. Wells starts lots of things, but this one was a real pisser. He reviewed Superiority Burgers as a two star restaurant. It was great for a vegetarian burger place run by a musician to get stars in the New York Times, a great knock to all the pretentious restaurants out there. Wasn’t it? I’m sure Superiority is every bit as good as Alain Ducasse’s Benoit or Thomas Keller’s Per Se, both of which earned the same two stars.

And there’s the fourth lie in this piece, because I’m not sure of that at all, in fact I’m sure of the opposite. There is a way to give recognition to a fantastic, seatless little place. There is a way to recognize happy and humming and a menu that doesn’t quite sync with what’s cooking. There is credit to be given a bright counter team that’s serving a six—six—item vegetarian menu that changes whimsically and is just so cool, like really, insanely cool, but man

That recognition shouldn’t be in the form of two stars in the New York Times. Those stars contextually liken Brooks Headly to Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller. Granted, Keller and Ducasse are no musicians. Not literally, anyway. But here’s what happened when Wells equates Benoit and Per Se to Superiority Burger.

Food writers in other markets picked their own little places with a great vibe (but no chairs) to list among The Best.  “Is fine dining dead?” they asked. That’s the real pity, because there is always a place for professionalism, and this happens to be my profession. One day you will want to indulge in restaurant professionalism at its peak, to match flavor profiles as the scene around you simply dissolves into the enjoyment of friends and quiet conversation and this feast before you. Perhaps when this day comes, you will be in a new town, surrounded by subway tiles, perched on a wine crate and reaching for a box of napkins as you unwrap something juicy, directed here because it was supposed to be The Best.

The bartender at Le Bernardin was so well-versed on the dinner menu as be able to hold an informed ingredient discussion. The waiter at Danielle took my coat—and returned it to the back of my chair when he brought the check for me to sign.

Heck, I own a couple of restaurants that aim for happy satisfaction rather than perfection. Even though those spots aren’t quite what I envision when I want to hit up one of the best restaurants in town, I would love nothing more than for those venues to appear on every Best of Denver list in print.

That’s my fifth and final lie. Because while I’m proud of Lou’s, say, and Vesper Lounge, I know that even at the very apex of their ability, hitting every flavor and service note and then some, if they were marked as a draw—one of The Best—for someone visiting Denver (and these are venues with servers, mind you, and spirit professionals), how lousy would that be for Mizuna and Luca and for Izakaya Den and Sarto’s and Lena and any other fine, nuanced restaurant in town?

Anyone who would claim that Good Vibe/Good Food equates with The Best has, perhaps, lost some of his power of observation, or worse, has sacrificed their own professionalism in order to get clicks, to be read, to stay relevant, to be cool.

And I wish, typing this, that I were cool now—literally, not figuratively, because the former is important and the latter is fleeting at best. Imagine me, in the heat of summer and in the wending line at Red’s holding my son’s sweaty hand, working myself into a bigger, hotter heat over such things as being The Best. Ridiculous obsession, because, look, that lobster will be ordered here shortly, and Jacqueline just pulled the wine out of her purse for the waiter to open. Look, she’s even showing him how to work a proper wine key. That kid is sixteen if he’s a day.

This place is the best.