I just came back from a one week vacation. Chicago was first on the list, followed Portland, OR. I’m from New York City where I just ended a nearly two year stint cooking at Jean-Georges’ ABC Kitchen, one of the best restaurants in the city, known for its amazing food and fine service and hospitality. However, hospitality is a concept that can often get lost in the shuffle working in the kitchen. The dining room is often not visible from inside the kitchen and that creates a disconnect, in the mind of a cook, between the food he/she is cooking and the diner who is going to eat it. While it can be argue that hospitality is the concern of the front-of-house staff (the kitchen need only worry about the food), I argue it is vital to keep the customer experience first and that the food is merely a part of that experience. I left because I was getting burnt out; ABC is one of the busier restaurants in the city. When I hear 50 menus rustling in the dining room
Being away from the kitchen and eating out at new places away from home have really reinvigorated my sense of purpose as a professional cook. Being on the receiving end of the dining experience has reminded me that there is ALWAYS someone on the other side of the pass for whom I am cooking for, and it is the restaurant’s job to make sure the guests are not just being fed well but also being treated well. As I dined, I observed what makes a great restaurant great. I jotted down ideas that can be applied to future endeavors. Surprising few points were actually about food.
What it is – Founded in the south side of Chicago in 1950, the restaurant has several locations throughout the Second City and has a huge and loyal following.
What I Learned – Good food is worth the wait. And people WILL wait as long as expectations are managed and results are consistent. Compensate with quality that cannot be achieved if done faster.
Long before Shake Shack had New Yorkers forming up like marching ants across Madison Square Park, Harold’s was drawing Chicagoans to its shack where its chicken are deep-fried to order in a mix of oil and tallow (beef fat). That means you’re wait almost 10 minute for the chicken to cook from the time of order even if you’re the only one in the restaurant. But loyal Harold’s fans know that the chicken is always fresh and always hot.and is worth the wait.
What it is – Opened in 2013, Trenchermen serves up creative Contemporary American fare that is some of the best in Chicago. They strike a nice balance between comfort and sophistication
What I Learned – Make the space part of the experience. The devil is in the details.
Upon entering Trenchermen, I was transported back to the a strange version of the 1920s. Its a bit Art Deco and a bit science fiction steampunk. Natural woods of the bar meet up with the cold brass of its impressive hanging circular beer tap which seems to magically dispense beer from the cabinet above. Two grand chandeliers in the dining room, made of what seems to be wrought iron and stained glass, are accompanied by accent lights hanging off of ropes and out of ventilation pipes. Look closer and there are details meant to be experienced and not necessarily noticed. Stand in the street in front of the entrance. Look up and you’ll notice the name of the restaurant made of concrete that blends seamlessly into the building. At a quick glance you would think it was on the building originally. Look down and you’ll see the Trenchermen logo embossed in gold in front of the door, again like its been there for the past 90 years. It is hard to quantify but great restaurant design and decor makes the dining experience better.
What it is – Lula Cafe is a bit off the beaten path in Logan Square, Chicago. The chef works with local farms and purveyors to bring Chicagoans the best farm-to-table cuisine. Olympic Provisions is the first USDA-approved curing facility in Oregon. Their restaurant serves some of the best charcuterie in Portland and delivers around the world.
What I Learned – If you’re going to do it do it well. On Mondays, Lula Cafe hosts a $38 prix fixe farm dinner. Their website claims the dinner has never once been the same. If you make it to Olympic Provisions, try their Finocchiona.
What it is – Buoy Beer is the new brewery on the block. Their brew pub is set up in an old cannery along the Columbia River in Astoria, OR.
What I Learned – LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Fishing boats and container vessels float along the Columbia River as I enjoy my lunch. Washington State provides a serene backdrop as seals call from the nearby dock. As a bonus, a sea lion has made a home under the brewery and Buoy has a window on the floor for guest to say hi.
What it is – Two food trucks sit just around the corner from each other in the downtown Portland food truck pod at SW 9th and Alder. Strowed between them are several South Asian food trucks, a taco truck, and a Mediterranean food truck. The Grilled Cheese Grill has a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches on their menu but they are infamous for The Cheezus, a 1/3 lb burger sandwiched between two grilled cheese sandwiches. The Whole Bowl serves up a healthy bowl of brown rice with beans, cheese and vegetables, with their secret lemon garlic sauce.
What I learned – Be unique. Go big, go healthy, or go home!
I sat around eating my Cheezus sandwich with my wife next to me eating her Whole Bowl. I watched the lines form for about 30 minutes and it was clear that the food trucks we chose were also very popular among other eaters, while the other lines were vacant.
This street corner epitomises the big food trends in the United States today. The most successful food businesses have either been decadent or healthy. Think Cronuts and Shake Shack on one side, and Juice Generation and gluten-free everything on the other.