After a lifetime in the restaurant business, I’m now more of an observer than an active participant. Writing about restaurants including food, drinks, ingredient sources, and the culture of the food biz has given me an opportunity to dig deeper into the local restaurant scene and the people behind it.
But eating out a lot has its downside.
When people know what I do, I usually get asked The Big Question: “What’s your favorite restaurant?” They flag me down in the grocery store or around town to ask, “Can you recommend a good restaurant?” or “Where do you like to eat?” People lean in, hoping that I have some special insider knowledge or new discovery – some secret sauce that will lead them to the perfect restaurant experience.
Before I go on, let me ask you to think about the restaurants you like: a favorite pizza restaurant; a regular pub; a place you go for the view or the setting; a special occasion place for birthdays, anniversaries, or graduations.
Are they all the same place?
My basic qualification to answer this often asked question is that I eat at least three times a day – just like you. But my entire working life was spent in the restaurant business, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about restaurants and what makes them tick.
It’s a difficult business that takes a lot of hard work for success. When it’s going well, it’s the result of serious effort, good organization, and a clear vision. Some good luck helps too.
When it’s not going well, it may be due to a poor concept, lack of experience, an unsuitable location, or just bad luck.
You can’t judge a restaurant by just one visit. Even the best restaurants have bad nights. When there’s a long delay between the appetizer and main course, as happened to us recently, consider possible circumstances that may be
beyond anyone’s control. Mabe they lost the order, dropped an entree, or the cook burned himself. Or maybe it was our fault for being late for our reservation. We didn’t care because we were having a good time. You have to be relaxed about these things.
My answer to The Big Question is, “There is a restaurant for every occasion, and an occasion for every restaurant.” Although it may seem like a cop out, it’s true. There is no one perfect restaurant.
Restaurant experiences are affected by many factors. Are you celebrating, or just hungry? Is it time for a new experience or a visit to an old favorite? Do you want to eat anonymously or in a place to be seen – the kind of place where heads swivel every time the door opens?
Do you want a quiet dinner for two or a social evening with friends? Is it large, family style portions or innovative cooking that will do the trick? Are you relaxed or stressed?
What’s most important factor for you: food, atmosphere, service, location, setting, or any other intangible part of eating out? Choosing a restaurant is, after all, a pretty subjective decision.
A few of the restaurants we keep returning to are:
- SoNo Seaport for dinner on the dock or Overton’s for some fried clams to show out of
town visitors the every-day spirit of New England.
- Oak and Almond or Match for cuisine flavored with wood-fired ovens.
- The Dry Dock or Donovan’s for burgers and salads.
- Harbor Lights for seafood and a stunning view of Norwalk harbor.
- Washington Prime has a well-prepared wide-ranging menu with a dose of hustle and bustle if you want high energy.
- The Roger Sherman in New Canaan, on the other hand, has quiet timeless elegance.
- Los Poblanos, Fiesta Limeña, Saffron, and Little Tokyo to name a few of the dozens of ethnic restaurants here in Norwalk for authentic, moderately priced food from around the world.
- And Pizza is a world unto itself. It seems like there’s a pizzeria on every corner.
No matter the restaurant, when you look beyond the food there are always interesting people behind the scenes: entrepreneurs following their dreams; restaurant lifers or career changers; experienced professionals; and first time workers. They all have interesting stories. Restaurants offer opportunity to all.
The failure rate for new ventures is high, but for those who hit it right, a successful restaurant is a wonderful thing. I’m delighted to be involved as an observer, and always looking for that just right restaurant. I’ll let you know if I find it.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.