Long before there were shows like “Restaurant Impossible,” it’s been a joke in my family that I have a critical eye for what needs to be improved in restaurants. I’m not talking food here — I rarely enjoy dining experiences solely because of the food. I’m a sucker for good ambiance, great service and thoughtful details.
I grew up eating out and as an adult continue to eat out for most of my meals*. I try to avoid unhealthy fast food and nationwide chains when possible, unless on a road trip when we prioritize driving comfort over adventurous dining. (Nothing worse than being stuck in a car with food that didn’t agree with you!)
I’m lucky to live in an area that values local establishments in a historic downtown setting, so it’s been fairly easy to cull my favorites and we dine regularly at restaurants where the servers have come to know us; who value supporting local growers and products; and who continually improve their offerings and environment.
A few tips for critical consumption:
Food: Does the restaurant only buy bulk foods from big trucks or are they using local growers and dairies? Our favorite restaurant for breakfast uses a local dairy and eggs from free-range chickens. For celebratory meals, we favor a farm-to-table restaurant housed in a restored antebellum mansion … talk about feeling special!
Ambiance: Does the ambiance add to the experience or detract from it? We stopped dining at a place that otherwise had good food offerings and service because the restaurant was designed as one large open space from kitchen to front door. This resulted in meals that felt so loud (add that to their orange walls!) and you could ALWAYS smell when they burned toast. A place with string lights and low music will have me coming back if the food is decent.
Thoughtful details: Is there something delightful to add to the experience? Our newest favorite puts together some amazing combinations using their homemade jellies and sauces and they bring each diner a hot biscuit while you’re waiting for your meal. I love that they use environmentally friendly to-go boxes and that their happy hour includes creative house specialties.
How about you? How often do you eat out and have you developed some requirements for the establishments who win your business?
*Experts recommend eating together at home four to five nights a week to improve your kids’ chances of future success in life. When our girls were young, we made menus and ate at home and that provided a foundation for the family dining rules (no phones or texting) we still follow. Although this wasn’t available when our girls were young, The Family Dinner Project provides a great resource for young families to establish that foundation.