As Lick the Plate recently entered our fourth market with the radio show, my exposure to the culinary world and its trends has made me more observant and critical than ever. It’s a good thing this column and the show are more about telling stories in a feature format than being an actual critic with a rating system.
I don’t know that I could live with myself being brutally honest and the potential fallout a hardworking restaurateur would face after getting raked through the coals. I can count on one hand the number of newspapers whose restaurant critics are still real critics. I’ve always thought that if I did have a starred rating system or similar, I would counter my criticisms with suggested fixes and give them another chance. But honestly, bad or even mediocre restaurants are not going to last long, especially with every diner going all “Anton Ego” on Yelp. For those of you unfamiliar, Anton Ego was the restaurant critic in “Ratatouille,” one of my top five culinary movies ever.
OK, back to my point. Doing what I do, I’m probably more sensitive than most so keep that in mind as I take you through this culinary ramble.
My first topic is the use of generic LED neon “open” signs that every other restaurant has in their window. Hey listen, I get it that restaurants are a low margin business and costs must be kept in check, but if you put any effort into the design and feel of your place to make it your own, can’t you extend that creativity to your open sign? I’ve counted six restaurants within several blocks of each other in my neighborhood that have the exact same sign that looks like it was purchased at Smart & Final for $20. And this is at the coast in nonchain restaurants that one would think would have more of an awareness of this. It’s just one of those minor things that can make a big difference.
I get a lot of press releases directed my way with requests to cover a “hot new restaurant” and also to cover existing ones that could benefit from a shot of publicity. They usually tout the many attributes of the chef, cuisine and the space itself. One of those interior features that still pop up on a regular basis is the use of “reclaimed wood” in the dining room or bar area. I hate to sound like a trendy snob here but really, that is so five years ago. I jest, but really folks? It’s not a newsworthy feature anymore and if it heads up your list of features before you even mention the food, there may be bigger issues at hand that old wood will probably not solve.
I could write the exact same paragraph when it comes to touting crafty beer/cocktails and locally sourced ingredients. There was a time when having crafty beer on tap was something to brag about but these days it’s a given. Crafty cocktails maybe not so much, but it’s still not a differentiator. Cocktails made with Kombucha? I’m all ears especially if it’s made by San Diego-based Bambucha Kombucha whose fabulous (and good for you) flavors make for amazing cocktail mixers. Good for you in a Bloody Mary kind of way of course. That one was for you Michael.
This next topic has been covered in local and national media but I feel like it still needs some attention. Sourcing local ingredients whenever possible or “farm to table” has been going on forever and has never needed that phrase attached to it, people just knew who was doing it. The European chefs I’ve interviewed laugh at its use in culinary marketing, as it’s just so inbred into their way of sourcing ingredients. Their mantra has always been, if you can source it locally and it meets the standards of the kitchen then by all means utilize it. If not, you utilize the technology and transportation of the modern world and bring it in from the best purveyors. In addition, just because chefs source locally does not necessarily mean those ingredients are utilized in a way that makes for good eating. Get my point? That said, as a marketer and supporter of local farms, I am all good with listing local suppliers, as long as you do them proud.
I’ve not run into this that often, but when it happened it totally killed what otherwise would have been an overall pleasurable dining experience. Most restaurants have some kind of digital music service that they utilize for their soundtrack. That soundtrack should provide a vibe without being overpowering. A recent experience had a Pandora playlist on but they did not pay to override the ads. Besides coming across as cheap, the ads we heard were a bit awkward in a somewhat upscale dining environment.
With that, these relatively minor Lick the Plate freak-outs are really not that bad given all the positive trends happening in the culinary world. If they bothered me that much I would not continue do this.
Lick the Plate has interviewed over 700 chefs, restaurateurs, growers, brewers and culinary personalities over the past 10 years as a column in The Coast News and in Edible San Diego. He can be heard on KSON, FM94/9 and Sunny98.1. More at www.lick-the-plate.com