Food counts the most in my book. I like to see the chefs and cooks noted on the menu, but we all know when a strong hand seeks out quality ingredients and invents or finds recipes of imagination or authenticity.
Good service is more common and better trained than it used to be, better behaved than many customers. Restaurant decor, theme and ambience we have in spades. Food as smart as decor is harder to find.
I look for quality not just in the entrees, but also in side dishes. They needn't be baby beets, purple potatoes and microgreens. A smart cook on any budget can use ripe tomatoes, Zellwood corn and lentils, find fennel and rapini at the supermarket and shop local Asian and Italian groceries for bok choy, long beans and favas.
Good bread is key. Crusty peasant bread and crisp lavash are my favorites, but at least biscuits, corn bread, or a loaf of Cuban bread is mandatory.
Of course, the center of the plate gets special care. I look for fish beyond grouper, salmon and mahi mahi; please give me wahoo, cobia or sand perch. I don't demand wild game and boutique ranch labels on meat or poultry, but good chefs know how to work with a half chicken, beef shank, pork shoulder or hanger steak.
A dish should look good, but I want the smell to grab me and the flavors to expand deep into the second bite. I hate overcooked fish and undercooked meats and sauces. Food that's grilled, seared or fried should have char, crisp edge and attitude.
My dream restaurant will have a wide selection of wines under $30 a bottle and at $5 or less a glass.
In a perfect world, this food would always come with smart service, a friendly and stylish setting, and a vibrant crowd, whatever the price.
_ CHRIS SHERMAN