A good restaurant gets all the details right

Several years ago, I was chatting with a young (well, young to me) man in the food business, and I've never forgotten that conversation.

He is a co-owner of a unique, upscale dining place in Pasco County and had driven many miles south to check out a new competitor.

He was back home and in a good mood.

"Not gonna make it," he said of the competitor.

How could he possibly know? The place had been open only a few weeks.

Turns out he had taken a tour of the building.

"There was a water stain on the ceiling," he said. "And the carpet near the restroom door was frayed."

Uh-huh. That's it?

That's all it took.

"Attention to detail," he explained. Patrons might think that if there's a water spot on the ceiling, that could mean a water leak in the kitchen (and, subsequently, into the food). He went on with a list of "importants": no little ring of goop around the water faucets and no broken seats or empty paper towel holders in the restrooms. No stains on the floor. No sticky stuff on the tables. No burned-out lightbulbs. No ripped seat cushions.

When people go out to dinner, fancy or not, they want everything to be just right — attentive waiters, sparkling glassware, clean tines on the forks. Fall down on any one of those, and you might as well feed them canned beanie weenies on paper plates.

Of course, no establishment in the world can be perfect all of the time, but the batting average has to be close to a thousand, or — as my friend said — it's not gonna make it.

I think about this as I drive around Pasco and Hernando counties and see so many promising eating establishments with shuttered doors.

I think about it again when I return to a favorite place that's buzzing with activity.

What makes one place thrive while another founders?

It goes without saying that first and foremost in importance is consistently good food, with "consistently" the key word. Nothing is worse that praising a place to the heavens, only to go back with friends and get a lousy meal. As a sometimes restaurant critic, I've had this happen to me time and again, especially since I often highlight a locally owned place offering something out of the ordinary.

I recently cleaned out a drawer full of menus from places that have come and gone, and, as I think back, I should have seen it coming for each one.

Two glaring examples are places that promised ethnic food — one Cajun, the other Irish — then didn't deliver on that promise. The owners understood the basic "fill a need that isn't being met," but they didn't fill that need. Warning signals at the Cajun place came when the cafe au lait was served lukewarm and already mixed from a regular diner coffee pot, and the red beans and rice were so undercooked they were actually crunchy.

At the Irish place, the shepherd's pie tasted like Dinty Moore with packaged potatoes on top.

Even so, both places had enough going for them that they deserved a chance to make it — good shrimp bisque at the Cajun place and a variety of good beers at the Irish, among other things.

However, just as with tenors who can hit high C and nothing else, one good menu item does not a restaurant make, so both went down within months.

More heartbreaking is a good restaurant gone bad.

Take, for example, the Armadillo Cafe in Spring Hill and Cafe Grand in New Port Richey. Both places were established by people who devoted their lives to providing a good dining experience.

The funky little Armadillo was attached to a service station/convenience store on Mariner Boulevard, but owner/chef Mark Peloquin decorated it nicely and made each dinner there something special.

Joe Catania's Cafe Grand was simply lovely, situated in the heart of the city's art deco district and decorated with style and class. The food and the service were always exquisite, with longtime servers knowing the regulars by name.

So what happened?

After years of devotion, both owners sold to people who were either less skilled and/or less caring, and both places went down the drain.

I have my fingers crossed that the same won't happen to one of my favorite places, the County Line Cafe and Grill, which changed owners last month. We'll wait and see.

After all, there isn't a rule that says passing a good dining spot to new hands has to be a disaster. A good example is Mykonos II in Brooksville.

When former owner Ramon Gutierrez sold his place (then called Ramon's) back in 1991, many of us were ready to don sackcloth and ashes. We loved Ramon's marvelous Cuban food, and we couldn't imagine what the new owner, Dimitrios Fillapakos, who is obviously Greek, would do with it.

Well, Dimitrios only made it about a thousand times better, adding his own Italian and Greek dishes and keeping Ramon's wonderful Cuban plates. It's been so successful that Dimitrios has doubled its size — and has kept the tables relatively full, recession or no recession.

Another happy home-owned succession is my Pasco favorite, Thai Bistro on Main Street in New Port Richey, which is doing all the right things to stay prosperous.

First of all, the owners are paying meticulous attention to detail, making sure that the quiet ambience remains, every inch is clean and attractive, and the service is quick and courteous.

Just as important, it's keeping food quality at the same high level while lowering prices, depending on the economies of scale to make it work and believing that keeping customers coming during this recession will help make sure they find their way back when the economy gets better.

Sure enough, the place has been full every time I've been there in the past few months (which is as often as I possibly can), even the adjacent room added in more robust economic times.

Incidentally, remember the place my friend visited all those many years ago that I mentioned at the beginning of this story?

He was right. It lasted less than a year.

A good restaurant gets all the details right 05/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 11:47pm]

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