Regardless of genre; fine dining, casual, quick service, bars, pubs, hotels or hot dog stands, a place where we EXPECT great food, preferably with a smile.
A ridiculous question? Perhaps. After all, everyone knows what a restaurant is…right? First of all, the reason why this very simple question is even being asked is because in this forum we will dissect EVERYTHING. Science taught us that in order to REALLY understand something, it should first be broken down to its simplest components. It’s when we analyze those components that we are able to TRULY understand the “finished product”.
This is actually more an “eating review” column than a restaurant review section in that not all of the places we eat at can be classically defined as a restaurant. But, in order to conform a bit, we will refer to most of these establishments as restaurants. In any case, rather than just reviewing a restaurant’s food, service, decor, etc., we will also examine WHY a restaurant is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This will help us to be more savvy consumers in the future, pick better restaurants, learn how to select the best items available on menus and, if need be, defend our integrity when our restaurant ‘experience’ is less than what we expect.
The Guinness Book of World Records lists the world’s oldest continuously operating restaurant as Sobrino de Botin in Madrid, Spain, established in 1725. Inns or, as the Austrians called them, “rests for travelers”, furnished prepared foods they served to guests in what were B&Bs dating back to the 10th century. They offered meals in addition to rooms to distinguish themselves from the competition.
Paris and much of Europe have a rich history of restaurants dating back to the Renaissance era and some before that. China, the Middle East and North Africa have archives from hundreds of years prior. A millennium ago, Chinese tea houses were already serving food to clients to “heighten the pleasure of their stay”. The oldest restaurant in North America that is still in existence is claimed to be the Union Oyster House, opened in 1826. Over a century ere Taverns in New England served food to drinking customers to “keep the flow steady…”
Today, for better or worse, restaurants have “evolved”. Positively, the sorriest sanitary conditions today are better than the best that existed just one hundred years ago. Roofs, heat and air-conditioning are easy to take for granted unless you were seated far from the fireplace in 19th century Austria in the winter!
Unfortunately however, not all evolution has been positive. In many cases, the spirit of competitiveness has been replaced with complacency, and pride with presumption. New restaurateurs often forget that while their establishment has only a 50% chance of surviving a year, their clientele have usually been restaurant patrons for MANY years. Acknowledgment of this fact is often what makes or breaks a restaurant.
It’s not all bleak thank goodness! Many ‘landmark’ restaurants continue to thrive offering vast clienteles quality for decades. Chef owned eateries have always abounded throughout Europe and with the advent of celebrity chefs are starting up in North America too. Even as they aren’t always a guarantee of quality, these are the places where we find pride and, at the very least, ensure on-the-premises responsibility. Finally, there are the masters, the quintessential restaurateurs whose teams have the two most important qualities for consistently serving great meals: passion about food and the expertise needed to cook it…
-Guinness World Records, (2009) Guinness book of World Records, Scholastic
-Spang, Rebecca L. (2000), The Invention of the Restaurant, Harvard University Press
-Whitaker, Jan (2002), Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, St. Martin’s Press.