Friday, October 8, 2010

What I like in a restaurant

We walk in, sit at the bar. The bartender asks you want you want to drink and where you are from. He pours Danielle a glass of wine, and me a pastis with a side of water. It's a french bistro so I feel the need to drink pastis. I point to the two most expensive on the list and ask him which one is best. He recommends the cheapest one and says it is his favourite. We scooch over a spot to let two more join us in this busy, yet cosy spot. The bartender cracks a few jokes. When he discovers we own a french bistro in Canada, he starts speaking in French to us. He knows about three words, but is feeling pretty proud of them. We order an app, puy lentils and pork belly with duck confit. We contemplate a second app, but he warns us that it is a rich dish and maybe we should just start there. We are there because we have a 9:30 reso down the street and it is only 8:30. By the time it is time to leave, we contemplating cancelling our reso and staying at Bistro Jeanty. No, we need to go to Bouchon.
The next night, we walk into Morimoto. The Iron Chef has a new spot in Napa. The woman at the door greets us with a warm smile and seats us at the bar in a very impressive, large room. Lights clearly designed just for this space, over sized yellow wing backs, grey and steel, a gleaming stainless kitchen. So we sit at the bar, and wait. The bartender is busy talking to a couple that were clearly hipper than we were. When asked, he gave us a drink menu. He makes the wrong drink for me, then replaces it. Danielle orders a gimlet, which tastes nasty and chemically. We apologetically send it back, the bartender was trying to "kick it up" by using Hanger One Kaffir Lime. Sorry if it was too intense for us. He takes the drink away but doesn't offer to remake it, neither does he offer an alternative. The menu is overwhelming, crazy stuff we have never seen before. We order some (well-made) sushi as we contemplate what else to order. The bartender doesn't go out of his way to talk with us, he doesn't ask if we have any questions about the food, he doesn't suggest his favourites. We get no love from him. I am sure the food there was fabulous, but we don't stick around long enough to find out. We paid for our one drink and our fish and walked down the street...

Our favourite restaurants in Napa and San Francisco, were not the fanciest. They were not the ones run by celebrity chefs. They were not the ones we had read about in food magazines or on Urban Spoon. Our favourite restaurants were the ones which had warm and welcoming staff. Our favourite restaurants were loud and busy. Our favourite resaturants were the ones where the staff seemed to care about their place. Our favourite restaurants were the ones where the staff seemed to care about us.

Our Favourite restaurant in Napa was the Rutherford Grill, in the Town of Rutherford. We sat at the bar, the bartender let me sample the local draft beers before ordering. He suggested a white from "down the road" for Danielle. On our first visit Danielle ordered the vegetable plate which featured local produce at its best. I had a wood roasted chicken salad. Our second visit Danielle had the veg plate again and I had a really great French dip sandwich. We were told by several people that they do the best cheeseburger in California. We hung out at the bar with a local winemaker who was clearly a regular. He said that he was part of two teams of regulars who regularly occupy this bar. He claimed his team was the A team, although the two gentlemen sitting on the other side of us, members of the other team, would argue that point. This was the kind of place that after our first visit we were recommending it to other travellers we met at wine tastings.
Our favourite restaurant in San Francisco was Nopa. This place was a moderately sized restaurant, but when we arrived at 9:30 on Wednesday night, it was packed. We were told that we would have a 45 minute wait. We went over to the narrow bar area for a drink while we waited, and
muscled in to the first on seats at the long bar top. The head bar tender was intense. His eyes were constantly scanning the bar for things that needed doing and customers that needed help. I asked him, as he was stirring drinks, "do you taste every drink you make?" He replied with "do you taste your food?" But in the midst of all that intensity he cracked jokes, engaged in political debate, asked us about our restaurant and generally helped us have a good time. It didn't hurt that the food was fantastic as well. Simple yet interesting, flavourful and oh so comforting. We had cubes of polenta with creamed corn, ridiculously tasty cherry tomatoes and melted cheese. We had wood grilled broccoli with buttered bread crumbs and anchovies. We had a chicken noodle soup that would make your grandma weep.

We left California filled with ideas about food, about wines, about drinks, about better ways to run a restaurant. It was supposed to be a holiday, but we spent the whole time thinking and planning. It was great to be inspired, but it was also nice to see that we were doing some things right. I was quite excited that my duck confit was better than Thomas Keller's duck confit at Bouchon, but more importantly, it was nice to be reminded that the type of restaurant we like to eat at, is the type of restaurant we own. Our place is busy and loud, the food is comfortable and tasty and we are warm and welcoming. Bistro 7 1/4 is the type of restaurant I would seek out if I was visiting from out of town.

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