I’m a shitty restaurant critic. It’s true. And the reason is for it is very simple. I just like food too damn much. Period. So how does my love of food translate into being a terrible critic of restaurants? That’s a good question and again, it’s simpler than you might imagine.
You see, when I go out to eat, I’m not expecting a lot. Of course I want the place to be clean. Like everyone else, I hope the service is good, I hope there’s an interesting list of options on the menu, and I hope that once I place my order I get something that I can, quite literally, write about. Whether the food is good or not, I write about it either way, but I do take some precautions to make sure that I’m getting tasty, fresh, appetizing food before I ever walk in the door. I really don’t hate my taste buds or stomach enough to go somewhere I think will serve me a rancid turkey burger.
Usually, I go to restaurants that I think I’ll like. Sometimes they’re ones I’ve gotten recommendations for or ones I have been to before. Occasionally, I’ve just driven by a place that looks interesting enough to check out. Other times, it has been a combination of factors that got me there. I’m not just picking places to eat by rolling dice. I’m always reading reviews and talking to people to get their thoughts if they’ve been someplace in which I’m interested. Once in a while, I’ll just go to a random place that I’m completely uncertain about, but that doesn’t happen very much.
My love of food being what it is, once I get to the restaurant, they’ve got it pretty easy with me. If they don’t do something completely idiotic and serve me a decent meal, I’ll not only speak highly of them, but I’ll probably go back. I don’t even really care about the price if the food is very good. Plus, if they’re an independently-owned and local restaurant, I’ll tell others about them in my blog. That’s all it really takes – nothing stupid and good food. Even that comes with a caveat – nothing TOO stupid and good food regardless of how it compares to other restaurants in the area. So if your service is so-so and your $5 nacho is good even though there are half a dozen restaurants whose nachos are better, you still get a “thumbs up”. I’ll probably mention the mediocre service in my blog, but it will be in passing and I won’t make it the focus. The wait-person will probably still get a pretty good tip too. Maybe I’m a sucker, but that’s the way I operate.
If I have such a high tolerance to nonsense, how can I possibly be a good restaurant critic? This is a good question and one which I have been asking myself since I started this blog. The answer lies in the truth. I have mentioned some flaws at local restaurants, but on the whole, I’ve had outstanding food, so I rarely criticize it except maybe to say that one aspect of it wasn’t quite right. A restaurant with bad food in this area is unlikely to last anywhere close to a year. There’s just too much competition.
In my past blog entries, I haven’t left out any details about food and I haven’t ignored any other issues either. I promise to continue doing this. I also promise to be even truthier, making sure I hit on more aspects of the food, service, and intangibles at the places I visit. I promise to keep coming up with new ideas and produce exciting content including more pictures, videos, and other new concepts which I devise. I pledge to visit more restaurants, drink more beverages, and eat more food. And I swear that I will do my best to bring you the hard-hitting facts about the local Portland restaurant scene. And this, my friends, brings me to this past weekend.
Saturday night was a night almost like any other. We typically go out for dinner early because Maine/Portland closes early. Most restaurants close around 10pm even on the weekends and bars legally close by 1am. We scheduled a reservation at Back Bay Grill for restaurant week but it was a little later than our typical dinner time. The reservation was for 8:15, but that just meant we would have time for a beverage before dinner. Because there isn’t much else around the restaurant, we figured we could have a drink right there while we waited for a table. I was excited to visit as I’d never been there before. I wasn’t driving, but we had loose plans for later in the night, so I wasn’t looking to overdo the drinking. I figured I’d lightly front-load (drink early and sober up on the back end), have a nice meal, and retain my faculties so I could still function after dinner.
Back Bay Grill is an extremely popular, high-end restaurant. Their food is expensive, but there’s a reason for it. They’ve won lots of awards, been featured repeatedly in magazines and newspapers, and have even been dubbed “the best restaurant in the state”. In a state with amazing culinary culture, that is major statement. They also have their fair share of local celebrities who dine there. These factors combined with restaurant week made me think it would be a very busy night. I was right.
We arrived at 7:15 ready to quench our thirst. I immediately noticed the small open kitchen and the staff working hard. Light music played in the background. The gentleman running the front of the house greeted us and offered to take our coats but we decline and decided to keep them with us. We announced our intentions to have a drink before our table was ready and were informed that even though there were two seats available at the bar, those seats were reserved for 7:45. That was no problem we told them and offered to give up the seats as soon as the party with the reservations arrived.
When we sat down, the bartender, who had also helped figure out the bar seating situation set up places for us including using a napkin as a tablecloth which is kind of a nice touch. She poured us glasses of water and offered us drink menus and white truffle popcorn. We happily accepted both and began to look at the menu. That’s when things started to get interesting. For the next what felt like forever but was probably at least ten minutes, we were completely ignored. We weren’t given the popcorn, we weren’t asked what drinks we wanted, and we weren’t even looked at. I wish I could say the last part of that was a joke or exaggeration, but I’m dead serious. Parties on both sides of us were being served, so it took some effort to not glance in our general direction.
After the ten or so minutes had passed, we received out popcorn which was quite delicious. The front of the house manager showed up a few minutes later and offered us beverages. I decided on a Manhattan with Maker’s Mark and my wife ordered her usual chardonnay. As I was being handed my drink, I was told by the manager that he forgot to put vermouth in it. He quickly corrected the situation and let me know that if it needed more to just flag him down. The drink was perfect, but he came back in a couple minutes to verify that it was okay. It was extremely strong – something I didn’t have a problem with – but figured because of that it would probably be my only drink of the night. I guessed the cost was about $12 but the happiness it brought me was worth at least that.
For the better part of the next 45 minutes, we were ignored, save for taking away our empty basket of popcorn. This wasn’t all bad as we really didn’t need anything, but we did find it interesting that no one ever came to kick us out of our bar spot as we were told would happen. Around 8:15, we started to wonder what was going on, but we were told that our table would be ready shortly. We were also asked if we had kids or a babysitter that were waiting for us since we were checking our phones. It was courteous of them to ask, but we did not. Ten, 15, and then 20 more minutes passed before we were finally told that the people who were supposed to be at the bar had cancelled while the people at our table were ordering more courses and taking much longer than expected. This would turn out to be the great mistake of the night.
When we were told that there was an issue with our table, we offered to eat at the bar. The manager was gracious that we would consider that and said he would comp us our drinks. While we were thankful for this, had we been told earlier that the bar reservations were cancelled, we would have offered to just eat at the bar at that time. It would have been a simple fix. It was clear that the staff was working very hard, but this one oversight on their part could have made a huge difference in our experience that night. Nonetheless, my drink, now free, was ensuring that I had a good time. I decided not to order another one as I was looking to leave the restaurant on my feet after we ate.
We were given dinner menus. One side had the restaurant week fixed price menu and the other had their standard menu. We both decided to order from the restaurant week side which meant picking one of three of each of the following: appetizer, salad, and entrée. The price was $42 each which was a good option considering that ordering off the regular menu would likely have cost even more.
We got some warm bread and proceeded to wait again. In fact, we waited so long that we were offered another complimentary drink. The wife was driving so she passed, but I, never one to turn down a free drink, ordered a Peak’s Organic, still certain that another Manhattan would have left me unable to leave the restaurant on my own accord. The bartender commented that “we are going to take advantage of you at the end of the night” because of the free drinks. I laughed and thought it was good use of humor to ease the pain our hunger was causing. I received my beer and proceeded to drink while we were waiting for the first course of our meal. At some point while engaging in beer drinking and conversation with my wife, someone who left apparently forgot to shut the door, so cold air blew into the bar area. When my wife went to close it, there seemed to be an issue with the hinges which made it impossible to close completely.
Eventually, we were given some Crispy Fried Pork Belly with Manchego and Herbs. It was a good teaser and soon after, the food we ordered came out. I had the Soba Noodle Salad while she had House Cured Gravlox. I liked the salad. While I’m not sure of the intricacies and conventions of naming food, my food was primarily noodles in a broth and was served with a spoon. I think it’s fair to call it a soup. It was good, however. I enjoyed the light wasabi flavor in the broth. She was lukewarm on her food, possibly as a result of her distaste for the long wait we experienced.
The second course was Bacon and Endive for me and Mixed Greens for her. The food came out reasonably soon after our prior course was done. When my wife tried her food though, she noticed an issue. Her greens, which were supposed to include stilton, candied walnuts and port wine vinaigrette, were missing the vinaigrette. I tried a bite and I couldn’t taste it, nor did we see any dressing on the bottom of the plate. We told the bartender and she offered to just bring us a side of dressing “because of the way the night had been going”, adding that their policy was normally to take it back and fix it. I must say that my food in this course was very good. I don’t love endive usually, but the way it was served with mustard and bacon vinaigrette, brown butter apples, and crispy manchego was really delicious. The bacon was strong and smokey and the dressing was superb. Again, Mrs. Portlandeater was reluctant to praise the food too highly.
Our final course was soon delivered. I had Seared Skate Wing which I was pretty sure had something to do with skateboarding sneakers and my wife had the Black Truffle Risotto. Skate, as it turns out, is actually a fish and came in saffron beurre blanc with grilled radicchio and chickpea mash. The risotto was with roasted wild mushrooms, butter braised leeks, and fontina. My fish was excellent and was a healthy portion. The chickpea mash wasn’t great as I felt it was a bit under-seasoned. However, the grilled radicchio was amazing. There were only a couple pieces on my plate as it wasn’t the focal point of the meal, but I could have eaten that all night. I’m serious when I say they should take a bunch of that and make it into a salad. It was truly outstanding. My wife did seem to enjoy the risotto better than the previous courses. She probably wasn’t starving by that point which gave her the opportunity to really enjoy the food.
When we finished our last course, it was 10:25pm. We had been there over three hours. My wife was exhausted. I was amazed at the entire experience. It was also pretty clear to me that the staff was embarrassed about it. In some respects they should be. Though they tried very hard, which was obvious, there was a break in the line somewhere that caused multiple excessive wait times. And while I’m certainly no Peterpeterportlandhater, I believe the waits could have been easily avoided or at least made to be not such a big deal with a little more communication. I never feel I am owed anything but were it not for the much appreciated free drinks, I would be hesitant to ever go back. In this case, I might consider it because of the effort to make up for the errors.
So what can Back Bay Grill and other restaurants learn from this experience?
1. When you have an opportunity for a customer, offer it to them right away. Had we been offered the bar seat at 7:45, we would have taken it instead of waiting for a table the length of time it takes a sloth to run a marathon. They could have offered our table to someone else when it was free and they wouldn’t have had to worry about when the people at that table left. We love sitting at the bar because it offers more of a social atmosphere and you always have a bartender there if you need something. We also had the option of refusing if we didn’t want it.
2. Let your visitors know what’s going on. When we got there, we were given water and menus and then utterly ignored for ten minutes or more without so much as a glance in our direction even though the bartender was walking in front of us repeatedly. A simple “I apologize for the wait, we’re extremely busy, but we’ll be with you in just a few minutes” would have given us a much better impression than the cold shoulder we received.
3. Back Bay Grill did the right thing by offering free drinks. While it doesn’t eliminate errors, it shows an effort to keep the customers happy. It saved us probably $25 while it cost them maybe $5-8 in product. That along with the really friendly, hardworking staff, made what could have been a very bad night more tolerable.
Feel free to email me at email@example.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or feel free to post your thoughts below.