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How I judge restaurants


January 20, 2020

I recently wrote my list of my top 25 restaurants in Vancouver. And in doing so, I was reminded that I have been accused of being too harsh when I judge restaurants. Some have said I’m not forgiving enough and others have just labelled me as a “food snob”. Obviously I disagree.

I have come up with my own system which I use universally and seems to be a good bar against which to assess any restaurant. It works from the casual diner right up to the high-end restaurant. And the premise is this… my expectations are set by the price-point of the establishment I’m dining at.

If my total bill comes to $20, I am simply going to ask myself if I felt the food was worth 20 bucks. However if I come to the end of an evening and am presented with a bill for $120, then my assessment is going to be much more complex. How was the atmosphere? Was I comfortable? What about the service? How creative was the menu? Did I love the food? Was I left wanting for anything?

To me it all comes down to value, which can be evaluated at any price. And I think this is fair because restaurants are price sensitive and usually there is a correlation between their price range and the level of experience they are offering.

There are a few areas where many restaurants fall down, and I am particularly sensitive to these once my bill starts heading north of $60.

The right type of service

There are so many different types of service. The style of the restaurant will dictate this to a certain degree, but the rest is left to the personality of the server. And this can make or break the experience.

A good server will be adept at reading people. One of the best experiences of this was at Kissa Tanto, a restaurant I wouldn’t return to. I felt it was way too expensive for the muddiness of the flavours and ill-conceived fusion concept. But a year and a half later I still remember the server! I was at a table of outgoing people, we were laughing and having fun. The server mirrored this when he dealt with us, being a bit cheeky and playful, yet still professional and on his game. The next table over were three ladies, dressed up and more reserved. His demeanor with them was charming and subdued. There was also a table with a couple, clearly on a date and he was almost silent in his interactions, being attentive yet unobtrusive. He was a chameleon.

Another example is Juliana, one of the co-owners of Absinthe Bistro. She is so warm and inviting, offering a personal level of service that makes you feel genuinely cared for. There’s an authenticity in her warmth that makes you feel valued. She remembers people and months later will reference your last visit, recalling things you ordered or spoke to her about. She is a natural host and that’s something that can’t be trained or taught. It’s what makes an experience memorable.

On the flip side, I recall a dinner at the now-defunct Coquille. The server was a young good-looking guy who interjecting into our stories each time he was at the table. This was jarring and broke the continuity of our conversation. He took the approach of acting as if he was an old friend. But he missed all the queues that should have made him realize this was not the right approach for our table.

Middle aged comfort

So many restaurants place form over function in their interior design. They build beautiful spaces that have not considered sound dynamics whatsoever, creating unnecessarily loud environments.

It seems the font size on menus is decreasing and I know I am starting to sound like an old man. But even with my reading glasses I struggle at times to read the descriptions which appear to be in font size 2. And when this is combined with low lighting levels, it sends a very clear message to the over 40 crowd; you are not who we are catering to.

I get that some neighbourhoods have a younger demographic (Yaletown springs to mind), but are restaurants missing a trick here? They are catering to the 20-30 something demographic. But according to the 2016 census, only 28% of people living in the lower mainland are between 20-39 years of age. In contrast, 51% are 40+ and they are the ones with the majority of the money.

It’s ironic that restaurants are catering to Millennials while the industry is currently undergoing a major labour shortage partly due to Millennials not wanting to work in the service industry.

Nailing consistency

This one is tough, especially with the aforementioned labour shortage. It means restaurants are holding onto staff who might be subpar simply because they can’t find anyone else and someone is better than no one. This creates the opportunity for inconsistencies in the experience and the food.

A great example of a restauarant that understands this is The Mackenzie Room. Chef Reeve takes Saturday nights off. What chef takes off the busiest night of the week? Simple; a chef who fully trusts his team and has nailed consistency. The food is the same regardless if the chef is there or not.

A number of restaurants have found a way to create consistency. For many it’s elusive. But all the places I mentioned in my recent article My Top Restaurants have managed this feat. It requires dedication and attention to detail, care and passion. It’s one of the truest ways to know how much a restaurant cares about what they are doing.

So in conclusion…

This article might not have changed your mind at all. Maybe now, more than before, you think I’m too harsh, too critical or too snobby. But as someone who ate 350 restaurant meals in 2018 (brunches, lunches & dinners) and 300 in 2019, this system has served me well. And above all, I believe it’s fair. But hey, I’m just one guy with an unhealthy love of food. This isn’t the only system, but it’s mine.

Alistair Henry

Written by:

Alistair is a real lover of food having visited 300 restaurants around Vancouver over the last 3 years. Passionate about sharing food while connecting with people, he is the founder and the host of the Dinner Devils.  Having spent 10 years living in Europe, he is bringing some of that food culture back home with the creation of this group.