When I was contemplating starting a blog, I always envisioned restaurants reviews here. I love cooking, I love eating, and I love entertaining - all givens for someone with a food blog. It's no surprise that dining out is something I truly enjoy and is my preferred form of entertainment. My style of cooking and entertaining is hugely influenced by memorable restaurants - from simple to grand, at home and while traveling. These dining experiences shape the kind of host I am and the type of cook I am, influence how I see food, and also how I want to share it. You will frequently find me peaking at restaurant reviews, making a dream list of destination restaurants, and constantly hunting for new eating spots. When friends need the perfect restaurant for an Anniversary dinner, or just a cheap stop off before a movie, I'm always up to the challenge for the perfect recommendation, and when those same friends hear of or find somewhere particularly great, they are equally excited to share the experience with me. Given this love of dining out it would make sense that there be some sort of restaurant content here.
When Lemon Tart came into being it developed its own voice. Yes, my voice, but somehow it told me the kind of space it was to be fairly early on, and I decided this wasn't going to be that sort of blog. While I do believe I could do it, I'll leave the reviews to the professionals. You see, I prefer not to draw attention to myself when dining out. Memorable meals tend to have the magic quickly taken out of them when I pull out a camera and the flow of the experience is halted. I want to be truly in the moment, focusing on the food, the people, and the atmosphere. DG's obvious abhorrence and annoyance by my shots of a meal don't help my confidence in this area either, so I've stopped it altogether, preferring a discrete little notepad to jot down notable details I don't want to forget. But while I can't pull the food photography off without feeling like a total loser, I admire those who do and do it well and I'll eat those well written, well shot blog posts with a sauce spoon.
As someone who does cook and likes to cook, I can easily and economically put a high quality meal on the table pretty quickly. We eat in more often than out, so when we do eat out its considered entertainment worthy - a treat. Living in a city like Vancouver, overflowing with great food experiences, means never being able to catch up with the number of new restaurants. As a food lover I realize I am fortunate to have this problem. But if your quest is to try all the hot, new spots in town you miss out on one very valuable restaurant experience- being a regular customer.
Some people might think that the success of a restaurant experience lies completely in the hands of the restaurant itself. While this is largely true, there are many things we can do as customers that can increase the chances of us having an exceptional experience. Which brings us to my first tip for getting more out of your restaurants experiences.
Become a Regular
When we dine with people, one of the magical parts of this experience is our connections to each other. Whether our time together is just for a meal, or a lifetime, these connections make us more emotionally involved in the food we are eating as guests and in the food we prepare when we are the host, hopefully creating more fulfilling dining experiences for both parties. When we feel less of a stranger, the experience of eating together is infinitely more fulfilling. This concept applies to restaurants too.
It was DG's birthday recently and his choice for dinner was a good one. We'd dined there before and had personal communication with our server prior to our visits. This previous experience meant that when we walked in we had already formed a relationship with the person responsible for our experience that night. Seeing a familiar face equally as happy to see us as we were him and each of us comfortably addressing other by name was a great start to the evening. And our experience was certainly one of the most enjoyable and perfectly crafted meals we'd had anywhere. Our semi- regular status not only included the perk of a complementary course and drink, definitely a reason to "become a regular", but we also benefited from amazing wine suggestions and even wines not normally offered by the glass. The icing on the cake was a bottle of wine from our servers own reserve from a favourite winery near his hometown, not on the menu, put aside especially for us. The bittersweet part of that was the wine was faulted (corked) but he had remembered I was taking a wine tasting class and brought it to the table anyways and offered for us to taste as a sort of wine education segment. This went above and beyond even "regular" status. The rest of the evening I was reminded of an unusual sense of comfort and trust I was feeling. We felt taken care of and more at home than usual and that comes only with a familiarity between people and place. I felt free to chat with our server about the wine, the food, how he was and even when I landed on my ass on my way to the bathroom, felt somehow less mortified and comfortable to laugh aloud at myself.
Being a regular means people knowing your face, a feeling comparable to buying my tomatoes from the same smiling Colombian at my farmers market for over 10 years. This is something I value. Having any sort of relationship with the people we buy products or services from instantly makes us feel visible. In restaurants it can mean special advice on food and you are unlikely to get sold the thing being pushed on the menu for reasons unknown to us and can even mean easier possibility of substitutions if desired. If your host is particularly knowledgeable about his/her wine selection you might get a tip on a great valued wine on the list. Being a regular means you probably know the menu well, knowing the strengths of the chef, and the dishes that set it apart from others, adding to the experience of and avoiding the risk of ordering the wrong thing. There is something to be said for comfort and for knowing what you are going to get. The added perk of a free drink only adds to the experience, and of course shouldn't be expected, but is still kinda nice. It also means a more meaningful social experience with the person serving your food, a chance to get to know that person serving you dinner. And the truth is, restaurants are not highly profitable businesses, so why not patronize those that you've had a great experience in and that are doing what they do well. New restaurants come and go and most of them are gone in a few years, usually for good reason, so while its always fun to seek out something new, don't underestimate the value of repeat experiences. Each visit will be enriched.