In the past week I have had five separate restaurant start-up ventures ask me what I thought of their projects (I'm a food critic, so that's why they sent these questions my way.) I've sent each of them a detailed opinion of what I thought of their specific plans and menus, etc.
But as I do get these questions from time to time, due to my being a food critic whom restaurants hope will show up at their place and give them a glowing review, I'm going to grab several of their questions, toss them together and answer them here, to give future restaurant question askers a general idea of what kind of things they can expect me to look for in their restaurant.
The question below came from the five restaurants in question:
"We are starting a restaurant. What does a food critic look for?"
"Thinking of a new bar & grill in the Portland area, how important to you are the following menu items: ...menu removed... "
"How important are vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and gluten free options on a menu? Do I need them?"
"What kind of beer do you want on tap? What kind of beer do you want in the bottle? What kind of non-alcoholic beverages do you want available?"
"What do you look for in a family restaurant?"
"What kind of sausages would you like? What do you like on your hot dog? (condiments, relishes, chili etc...)"
"How important are reservations?"
These are things which I look for or consider when I'm eating at your place and planning to write a review of your restaurant:
Not knowing your plans, couldn't say. Personally I would want to see more Asian food, that is actually Asian food. Go to a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc restaurant and there is no actual Asian food on the menu, it's all "Americanized" what people "think" is Asian food, but not what you would actually get if you went to the country itself.
More seafood dishes, less red meat dishes, less bird dishes. More clam dishes. More places like The Clam Bake, Ken's Place, Bailey's (all three in Pine Point)
Why does no restaurant in Maine serve Moxie? It's the state drink. I love Moxie. I drink Moxie every day. If there were 2 restaurants each with the same menu, but one served Moxie and the other did not, I'd eat at the Moxie one.
Iced tea is what I order most places.
Little known fact: people who are gluten sensitive AND people with sunflower allergies are allergic to most Pepsi products esp Pepsi diet and Seria Mist Natural is a life threatening allergy for some. Pepsi products contain an "all natural flavor" that is derived from lupine seed oil, a relative of the sunflower. People with peanut allergies are also affected by this (not specifically listed on the label) ingredient. If you offer Pepsi products, you need to offer allergy-free alternatives. Offering ONLY Pepsi products can lose you a lot of customers who simply are unable to drink these drinks due to an allergy that could kill them in a matter of minutes.
Best restaurant in the entire state: The Golden Rooster in downtown Saco. I give them 5 stars in my reviews. They are one of only 4 eat out places in Maine, I have ever given a 5 star review. (I'm a food critic.) You want to get a 5 star menu at your place, go to the Golden Rooster every day for a week, order a different dish every day. Try the garden omelet with lobster. It's to die for. This is what really good food tastes like. Their chef is an artist. He cooks food to perfection. In this place it's not the menu as much as it is the passion this chef puts into cooking perfect dishes. Get a head chef in your place who is an artist and you'll do good no matter what you serve.
Hot dogs and topping? tofu dogs? soy dogs? sour dill pickle relish, hot yellow mustard. Sausages: vegan by Morning Star.
More vegan food. It sucks when half the family can't order anything but salad because salad is the only meat-free item on the menu. It really limits where we can eat. We used to eat at The Tin-Tin in Biddeford a couple times a week, for years and years, than last January they changed the menu - NOT ONE SINGLE VEGAN DISH! Closest is mac&cheese and mashed potato, but even those have cheese/milk in them. Even the salad has fish or chicken in it! Who in their right mind puts meat in a salad, do they even know what the word salad means? Guess not, not if they are tossing meat in it. Ain't a salad no more once you've added meat to it. It's like calling red stew "chowder" when the word chowder means "white stew".
You mention salads and soup as a major part of your menu. Let me tell you something about salads and soup, something very few restaurants even consider.
KNOW what is and is NOT a salad. Look up the root words. Know what the actual WORD salad means.
KNOW what is and is NOT a chowder. Look up the root words. Know what the actual WORD chowder means.
Get this wrong and you lose credibility with people who a major foodies who DO know the meaning and history of the names of the food they eat. You can laugh and think it's not important, but let me tell you: if there is chicken in your "salad", you are NOT eating a salad, no matter how many fast food take outs tell you other wise, and if your "chowder" is any color other than white, you ain't eating chowder, a TRADITIONAL NATIVE AMERICAN DISH made from potatoes and milk, sometimes with fish or corn added to it.
FACT: If you sell red "chowder" you will lose every Native American customer in the area who will loudly boycott you as someone who is racists against them/us (I'm Kickapoo). The invention of "red" chowder came about as a way to poke fun at "savage red skins" and is viewed as a highly offensive dish, while calling a red stew a "chowder" is seen as a racial hate slur against Native Americans. Serve it as "tomato fish stew" you'll have no trouble, serve it as "red chowder" you'll not get any Native American customers in your place.
I'm a chef, I know food, and I'm an English major I know what words means. I'm also a food critic, I write 2 advice columns AND a food review column that does impromptu (unannounced) eating out at than reviewing local restaurants. I get so pissed off when restaurants call any dish with lettuce in it a salad and red stews "chowder" just because they added fish to it. If you want me to believe you're credible, don't call food by names that do not match the meanings of the names! It's a mistake I see way too often in restaurants and it makes me question the creditability of a chef if they can't get the names of their food dishes right. Maybe it's not a big issue for most eaters, but for me, I've got some serious food allergies and I can't put my health on the line for a chef that can't get the names of their food right (learned that the hard way, by being told the food was one thing and turned out it was another thing, which I found out by ending up in the hospital as a result of a life threatening food allergy) it's enough of an issue that I am likely to write a bad review of the restaurant based just on that fact alone. So whenever a restaurant asks for advice, I always tell them: make sure you know what the name of your dish ACTUALLY MEANS - look it up in a dictionary. A salad NEVER has meat, fish, or chicken in it. EVER. It's no longer a salad if it does. Chowder is ALWAYS white. It it ain't white, it ain't chowder. Don't believe me? Consult a dictionary.
I know I focused on salad and chowder here, but apply this to everything you serve, no matter what it is. I once went to a restaurant and ordered a "Boston Cream Pie" which is a yellow cake with a vanilla custard filling, glazed with chocolate ganache. Is that what was brought to my table? No. I was given a Chocolate Cream Pie, a whipped chocolate mouse, poured into a pie crust and chilled. I asked why they gave me Chocolate Cream Pie instead of Boston Cream Pie, and they were clueless to the fact that a Chocolate Cream Pie was NOT a Boston Cream Pie. Asking farther questions I learned that the cook's grandmother had always called this frozen mouse dish a "Boston Cream Pie" and he had no clue that she had gotten it wrong. Don't follow a tradition blindly. If the recipe is great, use it, but make sure your grandmother had the correct name for that dish. The pie was wonderful, best Chocolate Cream I ever had - I gave the pie a 5 star review, but not the whole restaurant, but it was not as the menu said it was: Boston Cream. It's a mistake that could get some folks quiet angry, and in cases of food allergies, you could actually kill a person if they ordered a dish, thinking it was one thing, while you had the wrong title on what the food was.
What do I wish to see less of? Less restaurants serving beer/wine/etc. Damn, even Pizza Hut now? It won't be long before you can get beer in a cup at McDonald's! Families have children. Children don't need to be exposed to drunks disturbing their meal. If you got alcohol on the menu - you ain't a family restaurant. Period. It really annoys me to go to a "family restaurant" and find alcohol on the menu.
I will admit, I am not your target audience. We're Mormons, we don't even drink coffee (a lot don't even drink or soda), and guess what? There are more than 3,000 Mormon families in York County, 2,000 Seventh Day Adventist families, a large Mennonite Community, a large Quaker community, the largest Salvation Army Community IN THE WORLD due to their headquarters being in Old Orchard Beach, the largest Irish/Scottish/Welsh Traveller Gypsy community in the Eastern USA (15,000 families) most of those families have 4 to 8 children each. Most families of these religious and cultural backgrounds won't even set foot in the building if they know alcohol is served. Same goes for meat - these religions and cultures preach meat free living (not all members practice it, but many do.) Lack of vegan menus is why these cultures generally avoid eating out. I'm not sure that it would be possible for a bar to successfully market to these cultures. Both my race and my religion put me squarely outside of your target group.
Myself I am less strict on the going to places that serve alcohol, partly because I am a local food critic (one of the columns I write is a restaurant review column). Alcohol on the menu won't keep me out, but lack of non-alcohol options will. Being a Mormon I'm also the one college friends look to to be the designated driver if they need someone to get them home. Not having vegan options will make me less likely to be there, and no vegetarian options is a 100% deal breaker. A place that ain't got vegetarian options is not going to get my vote of confidence or a 5 star review.
They are actively looking for true alcohol-free FAMILY restaurants.
I just plain love food. I am one of those people who would be very happen to eat all day long if I didn't get full and have to stop. LOL!
I'm known to drive 5 or 6 hours just to eat at a restaurant I like in Boston or Bar Harbor or Vermont. I'm like that. I drive an hour to get to food trucks in Portland.
I like food and I like driving. If I really like the food, I'll drive there. I drive all over the state to festivals and events just so I can eat the local foods at them. I'm a major foodie, of course I'm also a chef and a food critic (one of the columns I write is a local restaurant review column that also awards "best of Maine" plaques to the best restaurants of the year), so you know, chefs and food critics both tend to really love food, and being a food critic it is my job to drive all over the state seeking out new places to eat.
I always go with my family though. Family is very important when it comes to why I eat out.
And you know what the #1 thing I personally look for in a family restaurant? The ability for my family of 7 to sit together in a single booth at a single table without the restaurant having to pull over an extra table and a set of extra chairs. The average family in the USA has 2 children, but this is Maine where the average family has 4 children. Mormon families have 4 to 18 children PER wife, some have 3 or 4 wives, where will you site them? Mormon, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mennonite families in Maine average 6 children. I got an uncle here in Maine with 15 children, if he came to your restaurant, where will you seat his family?
My family we are Mormon and Voodoo. Family is the #1 most important thing in both traditions so you know it's VERY important to us, that our family has room to all sit together when we go to a restaurant. If you can't seat big families than it's a good thing you are not in Utah where the average family has 8 children.
Don't tell me you are a family restaurant unless you can actually seat a real live family complete with 4 to 8 children, because guess what, when I come rolling in to review your restaurant, I bring the whole herd with me and you better have a place to put us at one table or you will not get a 5 star review. Being able to seat your guests TOGETHER is something I look at when I review you.
Another thing I look at - waiters and waitresses RARELY like serving a family with a lot of kids. Families with children and teenagers typically get really poor service, just because the wait staff wants them to leave fast. This can get your place a 2 star review even if you have 5 star food. How you treat my family, makes a HUGE impact on how I review your restaurant.
And I don't announce I'm coming, and unless your restaurant staff actually knows who I am (and they NEVER do), I'm the last person they'd expect to be a food critic there to give your place my stamp of approval. I've had wait staff refuse to seat us because they said we looked like "ragged white trash welfare bums" and told us we were not dressed befitting of their decor. Yeah, well guess what, I happen to be the area's top food critic, those shiny plaques you see hanging on walls saying they were a top rated eat out place in Maine - I'm the one who awards those - I'm the one who decides which resturant gets them, and if your wait staff is so stuck up and snobby that they won't let my family even sit down because of the way I dress - you ain't never going to see one of those shinny plaques hanging on your wall!
Yes. I have eaten at restaurants that served this way before, and at home I'm one of those people who rarely uses utensils, I am of a "minority" culture and we don't follow "American" traditions when it comes to eating. I am not sure but I believe the Ethiopian traditions are very similar to mine.
I am a Scottish Traveller Gypsy and look "white", but my grandmother was a Kickapoo Native American, and her grandmother was a "black slave" (country of origin unknown), thus I am not "white" but rather "mixed race" consisting of "red", "white" and "black". Voodoo tradition has been passed down in my family and I am myself both Voodoo and Hoodoo (as well as Christian/Mormon). And as I said, food served on a platter and eaten with hands is part of my own family's tradition, through our Voodoo connections passed down from my grandmother.
And as you mention Ethiopian food, perhaps I should mention I am a Damballa (Voodoo) Priestess from the House of the Lansquin, my rank is Medsen Fey, I am Marji Lwa (married to/the bride of) Papa Damballa Weddo (which is why his symbols are painted on my car) I am also a servant of Erzuli Freda, thus why the rhinestones, beads and marbles or glued to my car. It is also why on certain days you will see me wearing white robes, white headwraps, sequined robes, gold embroidered kimono, a 200 year old African Kente cloth/robe passed down to me, or orange kimono - depending on what day it is (in respect to the days of the lwa)
Being the bride of Damballah my diet is greatly restricted, for he is the lwa of purity and requires this. Thus I do not eat meat of mammals or birds and only eat fish on rare occasions. My diet consists largely of white foods with lots of milk, eggs, and rice. My diet consists largely of rice, milk, cheese, eggs, fruit, and vegetables.
Spicy food can be an issue for me, because of an allergy I have. It depends on what ingredient it is which makes the food spicy. Being the bride of Damballa my diet is greatly restricted, for he is the lwa of purity and requires this. Thus I do not eat meat of mammals or birds and only eat fish on rare occasions. My diet consists largely of white foods with lots of milk, eggs, and rice. I only eat spicy food on days of Damballah DuFlame petro when he is in his Petro state.