A good restaurant is like a good theater: One leaves in a good frame of mind, with a feeling that the time and the money have been well spent.
What is the first thing you notice when you go to a restaurant? First, the quality of the cooking: the freshness of the products, the integrity of the dish, its presentation, its temperature. We also pay close attention to the wine list, as well as the coffee and the bread. And of course, the atmosphere and service. Our golden rule is to never go to a restaurant on its opening day. You have to give a chef time to settle in and get his or her bearings.
I rate bistros on four categories with a 1-10 scale. Ten means sublime and best of class. Five means average. One means the third circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno.
In ancient Greek, the word “archetype” came from the root word “archetupon” which means “first molded.” It also suggests an original pattern, model or type from which copies are made. Plato viewed the archetype as a pure form which embodies the fundamental characteristics of a thing.
The best book that defines the bistro archetype is “French Bistro” by Bertrand Auboyneau and Francois Simon. French Bistro celebrates Bistro Paul Bert in Paris and uses it as a lens to examine the soul of the authentic bistro. The authors evaluate an authentic bistro based upon the following elements: owner, chef, bar, wine, servers, table, decor, cuisine, ambience, coffee and desert.
By using the archetype as a baseline, I compare the bistros to the archetype. This makes my evaluation of the bistros more objective.
Some bistros have evolved from the archetype to “neo-bistros.” I reviewing neo-bistros, I will consider how they depart from the archetype and whether the departure is successful.
What is the quality of the food? Is the food creative (within the boundaries of the bistro tradition)? Are the elements of the dish fresh? Is the food served at the proper temperature? Does the food sing? Are the flavors and textures clear and distinct and do they unite into an integrated composition?
Is the food true to the bistro tradition or does it vary it in a valid way?
What about aesthetics? Is the food attractive and does it look good on the plate? Has the food been plated with artistic intention?
Does the menu make sense or is it confusing and irritating?
In today’s food culture the source of food is important. This helps us evaluate authenticity, sustainability and environmental impact. Where does a bistro source its food? Do the owners care about these issues? I consider the businesses that supply food to the bistros such as bakeries, ice cream shops, coffee roasters and other sources.
Bread holds an important place in French culture and good bread is essential to the authentic bistro experience. What is the quality of the bread? Was it baked in-house or was it sourced from a bakery? If so, which one?
The host sets the tone for the evening. Is the greeting prompt and authentic? Is the host glad to see me or is my presence an inconvenience for the host and the restaurant? Is the host irritable, snobby or rude? Where are we seated?
I want the staff to care about me or at least pretend to care about me. A good restaurant is selling a theatrical and personal experience, and I want the staff to care. Otherwise, they might as well be selling chairs.
Are the staff professional or amateurs? Are they authentic or are they robotic? Does the staff have integrity about the menu or are they trying to extract money by up-selling appetizers, over-priced bottled water, salads, and more expensive options?
Do the servers know the menu, do they know something about food generally, and are they helpful in answering questions? Do they know when to come and when to leave? What is the pacing of the meal? Do they have that sixth sense that all good waiters have?
And finally, were there any the little touches? Does the chef visit the table? Does the staff spend extra time educating us on the wine and bring us a taste? Does the staff do anything at all that makes us feel special and creates a personal connection during the evening?
If something goes wrong, what is the staff’s response? We do not expect perfection; there will be problems. The key is how the problem is handled. Does the staff manage to turn lemons into lemonade?
Last, I want the staff to be polite. For example, it is my custom to thank the busboy or server for topping off my water or serving me a dish. I am recognizing that they are people and I want them to know that I appreciate what they do. However, I want a recognition of my politeness. Even a smile or tip of the chin will do. I do not want to be ignored.
This is my overall reaction to my experience at the restaurant. It is subjective, biased, reactive, intuitive, intangible and possibly unfair. It is emotional. Energy is measured by the heart and not by the mind. If cooking is an art and eating is appreciating an art, then heart-feeling should be a part of the inquiry?
My reaction may be triggered by any impressions or experiences that occur during my time at the restaurant. It may come from the appearance of the bistro from the street, the neighborhood, the vibrations of the restaurant, the staff, the customers, the scene, the lighting, the design, the atmosphere, the music, or the noise level.
Does the restaurant feel professional, competent and in control of the evening or does it feel chaotic, frantic, and thrown together? Is it clear what the owners are trying to achieve with the restaurant? Does the food, the decor, the staff and the branding support a coherent vision or is it random and confused?
Do I feel “gezelligheid” during my experience at the restaurant? This is a Dutch word that suggests belonging, time spent with loved ones, seeing a close friend after a long absence, or a general sense of warm togetherness. It is the warm and comfortable feeling you get in your own living room with your best friends. This feeling is the soul of the bistro.