Quick ways to judge a restaurant or cafe
Posted by shannonclark on March 29, 2008
I take food seriously. Professionally I organize large group dinners after conferences and other events on a regular basis, my friends and family often ask for my recommendations for places to eat for a range of occasions. Though in my family I’m the amateur, my sister’s boyfriend of many years is a professional food critic for the New York Times and multiple book author, just sold a major cookbook with one of the hottest chefs in NYC (and thus one of the hotter chefs in the world), that book deal being for enough that he doesn’t have to do much beyond writing that book for many years.
But even in that company, I would like to think I hold my own when it comes to finding and discovering restaurants both where I live and as I travel. In Chicago I was a very active participant on the old Chowhound (before CNET purchased the site) and then later on a site and discussion board my friends set up after being fed up with the slow software of chowhound – lthforum. In San Francisco I have occasionally contributed reviews to Yelp and the occasional post back on lthforum or on my blog, but mostly I haven’t been writing about dining out as often I used to do.
Here, however, are a few of my personal rules of thumb, offered to help you (and to help anyone running a restaurant or cafe) as you choose your next place for a meal or a coffee. These are not all firm or universally true, but most of the time they offer a very useful filter. For the sake of many restaurants I sometimes wish I didn’t always notice these small details – but many times over the past year my instincts have been proven right more often than not – restaurants I walked past and my instincts said “will be closed soon” are now closed and for sale, restaurants I entered with a group (their choice, I tried to convince them otherwise) were indeed horrible meals as I predicted.
Breakfast or Brunch
- Coffee from a can or vacuum pack bad, from a local specialty roaster good. Breakfast places start with the coffee, if they take that seriously enough to buy it from a local roaster (and incresingly most states and cities have at least one) that holds promise for the rest of the menu
- Real maple syrup. The best breakfast and brunch spots just offer real maple syrup and don’t offer any alternatives. Some okay to good spots offer real maple syrup as an option. With very very few exceptions spots that don’t offer real maple syrup at all aren’t particularly good (at least don’t take their food very seriously)
- Fresh squeezed juices in season. Fresh squeezes seasonal juices squeezed on the premises are another sign of a restaurant that takes what they serve seriously and are rarely found at a bad place.
Note that I didn’t focus on the exact dishes of a breakfast or brunch spot, though I do also tend to find that restaurants with smaller, more focused menus generally speaking have better food that restaurants with pages upon pages of breakfast or brunch options. But these simple elements – coffee, maple syrup, fresh juices are all signs of places that are almost certainly worth trying. Oh and any breakfast spot that names itself after breads (Toast to take one commonly used example) better bake those breads on the premises if they truly want to be worthy of the name.
There are many approaches to lunch. When making suggestions for places I differentiate between places for working, professional lunch meetings and places for dining alone or with friends and colleagues. For the former, price is not an issue but speed, quality, quiet and privacy can be key factors. For the later, price is often a factor, quality, suitability for a range of diets, and speed.
In San Francisco there is quite a range of lunch spots. Here are a few that I can recommend highly.
- Medicine Eatstation – located in the heart of the Financial District of San Francisco in the Crocker Galleria this is one of my favorite places to get lunch in San Francisco. They are known for their vegan and vegetarian cuisine, Japanese Zen temple foods, but they have a range of fantastic fish dishes as well. Lunch will typically run you about $15-20 a person here, so this isn’t a budget place but neither is it overly expensive and the quality of food is amazing. The service is order at a counter and then find a spot at many large communal tables, so this is great when dining alone, or fantastic for informal meals with a group, though not ideal for a private meeting or discussion. However for the quality of food and the ability to provide an amazing meal for vegan or vegetarian friends this is well worth dining at (and more times than not I eat vegan when dining here though I’m a confirmed omnivore)
- E & O Trading – I generally do not suggest chains, but I make an exception for E&O Trading. Their location in San Francisco which is just off of Union Square makes for an ideal location for a business lunch. The food is quite good, but what makes E&O Trading ideal for business lunches is that the design of their booths is ideal for private business conversations with 2 to 4 people, and they do have larger tables (though generally a bit less private depending on the table location) for larger discussions. Well worth knowing about when meeting with clients in town for a conference and staying near Union Sq.
- Canton Seafood and Dim Sum – One of my favorite restaurants in all of San Francisco, a restaurant I frequently use for large group dinners, greatly enjoy going to for lunch when near Moscone Center, and which I have also always enjoyed their dim sum weekend brunches. What makes Canton a great restaurant to know about is that they offer very high quality Chinese cuisine, at amazingly reasonable prices, and are very willing to accommodate large groups with a fixed price menu. (Feel free to mention my name if you book for a large group, the managers all know me as I have group meals there on a regular basis). For lunches they have even been known to open up their upstairs banquet hall for large groups.
- Spork – located at Valencia and Hill in the Mission District of San Francisco Spork has, I think, the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten. Not best in San Francisco or best in a long while, but best burger I’ve eaten in my lifetime. Every ingredient works perfectly, the price is right ($8 for a single, $10 for a double) and the toppings, bun, and sauces as well as the quality of the cooking just combine to make for an amazing meal. They also serve a great dinner but for lunch they are now my go to place when dining in the Mission. They offer a small, very focused menu at lunch highlighted by the burgers which are amazing. A place that takes the food they serve seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously – the result is one of my favorite discoveries of 2008.
And those are just a few of my favorites. There are many, many other great options scattered throughout San Francisco and for that matter most cities.
A few things to look for for a business lunch location:
- Style of tables and booths – for a private, business lunch an open layout with tables crowded near each other is not good. For serious discussions high booths or private rooms offer the best venues
- Fixed price menu option – if you are organizing a business lunch or dinner for a large group arranging for a fixed price menu or taking advantage of a regularly offered fixed menu greatly facilitates either splitting the bill, or streamlining the ordering process allowing for more time for business discussions and less distractions around the ordering process. Any good restaurant catering to a professional business crowd will include a range of foods on such a menu, with good options for vegetarians and lighter dining options. Further the foods should be “clean” to eat – i.e. not messy, not finger foods generally speaking.
- A seasonal menu and specials that actually change from day to day – these are related elements. A very good sign for nearly any meal is a restaurant that prints up new menus each day (implying they take their food and sourcing of that food fairly seriously though you do have to watch out for places that are trying to hard and can’t deliver). Baring a menu that changes frequently at a minimum great places have true daily specials that are, in fact, special to that day and season. If the “daily specials” board or menu in the window look worn and faded that’s probably, generally speaking, a bad sign.
- A short, focused menu – whether for lunch or dinner my broad, general rule of thumb is that a short, focused menu is a sign of a restaurant that takes the food seriously. Nothing on that menu should be bad or below their standards. In contrast all too many restaurants have pages upon pages of menu both for lunch and dinner and as a result while they have an occasional dish they do exceptionally well, they almost certainly have many other dishes that are rarely ordered, use poor quality (often frozen) ingredients and are often quite disappointing. This rule of thumb holds exceptionally true for lunch.
- Large tables – one of my very simple tests of a cafe is the style of tables they use. Small, tiny tables (“French bistro” tables while looking pretty imply a place that does not have people sitting down, sharing tables and working together. My strong bias is for cafes that are laid out for people to be social and to work, with room at the tables to have a couple of laptops out plus beverages.
- Coffee source – frequently truly great cafes, if they have the space or the facilities nearby, roast their own beans. I take coffee seriously and in San Francisco we’re blessed with many cafes of different styles who likewise take the coffee they serve quite seriously as well.
- Small drinks menu – this is a personal preference. As a rule of thumb, though not universally true, I find that cafes that have a very focused drinks menu (often forgoing syrups, frozen drinks and the like) are places that take the coffee they serve very seriously indeed. But this is not always the case, there are exceptions, mostly when I’m selecting a cafe (for the coffee) I look for signs that they take what they make seriously. “Latte art” is almost always a sign that they have highly skilled baristas.
- Looseleaf teas – not every cafe serves great tea and great coffee, but as a general rule of thumb cafes which have looseleaf teas which they then use to make either pots or individual cups of tea are typically places that are owned by owners who care about the quality of what they are serving. There are many sources for teas today, so I am relatively agnostic about the vendor of the teas a cafe serves, but almost always places that take tea seriously enough to have looseleaf tea take everything else pretty seriously as well (there are, in fact, many cafes where they don’t do a good job on the coffee, but do serve looseleaf teas and otherwise have great spaces so I just order tea there and enjoy them that way)
But a cafe is a highly and deeply personal thing. For me I like places that have wifi, a busy but not overly loud atmosphere, power outlets (though I can forgive a lack of one if the cafe has other redeeming features – Ritual Roasters in SF comes to mind) and which show signs of design and thought having been given to them to make the cafe a place that appeals to adults. A growing trend which I celebrate is cafes which also serve wine and beer, not so much that I partake, but that they tend to serve a more adult clientèle and almost always also have tasty food options to go with the drinks.
My personal preference is also for cafes which stay open late into the evening, but a great cafe that is only open during the day also has its place.
- Focused menu and theme – fusion can work, but almost never does a restaurant that tries to combine many cuisines into one, often overly long, menu do justice to any of the dishes. In contrast most restaurants with a tightly focused, often seasonally influenced menu at least start from a place where it is likely they can prepare good, tasty foods. The cooks and ingredients still need to be of high quality however.
- Busy when restaurants should be busy – not every great restaurant will always be busy, some haven’t yet been “discovered” but, for example, a restaurant which is quiet at 7pm on Valentines Day (one of the busiest dining out nights of the year) is almost certainly a restaurant which is not going to be open much longer and should be kept away from. Now, a busy restaurant is, however, often not a sign of a good one, but an empty restaurant when most places would be busy is typically a major warning sign.
- Ethnic restaurants with mostly non-ethnic tourists is a very bad sign – sure the restaurant may have been written up by national press and be in all the guide books, but if the restaurant, particularly if in a particular ethnic neighborhood does not also cater to the locals you are almost guaranteed a disappointing meal in my experience. Whether in Little Italy or Chinatown this is not always a completely accurate guide, but more times than not it helps you avoid the truly bad places for places that have a better than average chance of serving great tasting food (though you still have to figure out what to order if you don’t read the menu/speak the language)
- Attention to the details – this can be hard to judge from outside of restaurant, but look at the tables and the menus in the window or step inside and ask for a menu. Generally speaking restaurants that have paid attention to the details at each table, that haven’t used the cheap, standard issue items from mass restaurant supply stores (cheap napkins, salt & pepper shakers etc) likely are paying attention to the food and the rest of the elements of the restaurant. In looking over a menu, without being pretentious does the writing of the menu communicate care about the foods being served? Does it show a point of view? Does it make sense as an overall menu?
- Pricing that is fair but not too cheap – this is a personal preference, but though my pocketbook might at times appreciate cheapness, my stomach almost never does especially if I take it to an extreme. Cheap restaurants or for that matter any place that feels it has to compete almost solely on price is generally speaking a sign of a restaurant that is either owned by someone who doesn’t know the business well or someone who is getting desperate. This is a rule that especially also holds true for cafes and lunch spots, generally speaking great restaurants charge a fair but not cheap price for what they serve counting on the quality of what they serve and the overall experience to bring people back again and again. This is not, however, to suggest that restaurants which appear to be expensive will also be good, generally speaking they are not, these are often restaurants which are catering to people on an expense account or people who do not eat out frequently – so quite often overcharge for foods (and especially for wines) without making up for it by serving great food and wine.
There are many other factors I look for when I look over a menu and decide about a restaurant. A few smaller tips, generally speaking menus where every dish has lots of ingredients and sauces are rarely good. This is bit of a personal preference, but I find that such dishes usually suffer from elements not being of the same quality and of being drowned in the respective sauces. My preference whatever the cuisine is for chefs who start with extremely high quality ingredients and prepare them with extreme skill and restraint, not overwhelming the dish with too many flavors or too much of any one sauce.
If you are looking at dishes of other people who are eating a few other simple signs which can be warning signs of a potentially bad restaurant.
- Lots of leftovers – if everyone leaving the restaurant has doggie bags or if most tables have lots of dishes that seem to have been uneaten (especially true of family style restaurants) this is a sign of a restaurant which is likely both serving too large portions and likely a kitchen which is highly uneven. Both tend to be signs of a meal that will almost certainly be a disappointment.
- Garnishes – plates with lots of parsley or other garnishes tend to be a sign of a restaurant which is also trying too hard.
- People waiting to place orders or pay bills – both are signs of either waitstaff that don’t care or are overworked, and both in turn are signs of a restaurant that is not being managed well (and that usually is reflected in the food as well as the service). A related issue is if people seem to have empty water glasses, or if messy tables are left messy for long periods of time
- Messy plates – there are many types of food and dining, not every restaurant is going to serve food that is photographic ready, but if the food is leaving the kitchen sloppy, it is almost always a sign of a kitchen that is lax, that is taking shortcuts.
I hope these tips help please leave comments with your own additional rules of thumbs, suggestions and tips & tricks to selecting a great place to dine – whether by yourself or with a large group.