“You can get anything you want
at Alice’s Restaurant.
You can get anything you want
at Alice’s Restaurant.
Walk right in, it’s around the back,
Just a half a mile from the railroad track;
You can get anything you want
at Alice’s Restaurant.”
-Arlo Guthrie, “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacre"
On Friday night the Captain and First Mate joined some friends for dinner at a local restaurant. I’ll not mention the name of the restaurant here because this blog is not really about the restaurant.
It’s about the draft.
It’s about the experience. The dining experience. I will explain more in a moment.
But just so you know, this was a rather pricey establishment that sells 3 ½ pound steaks thinking you will share it with others at your table.
I had eaten at this establishment for lunch on one occasion several years ago, having heard they had a good bowl of homemade seafood gumbo. I was kind of grossed out that the vinyl gingham-checked table covering was sticky with grease.
And the gumbo wasn’t much better.
But we were invited Friday night, so we went.
While pricey (our bill was $124, including two mixed drinks and a bottle of wine), the restaurant had no ambiance to warrant that distinction. A concrete floor and brick walls works for some of the other eateries in historic downtown buildings, but this place reminded the Captain of the numerous Mexican restaurants in town that just shoe-horn themselves into the cheapest empty building they can find.
“No need to remodel. We’ll just call it ‘Casa de Applebee’s’!”
In an apparent attempt to warm up the space, the walls were masked with the obligatory paintings by local artists (for sale). I spent the evening staring at a cubist interpretation of a woman’s face – actually three of them, of different sizes and colors – none of which we took home.
None of them were this good...
Because of the hard surfaces, the room was loud – made worse by a pathetic college boy who set up his guitar and keyboard near the makeshift bar and whined an odd selection of oldies throughout our meal.
Traffic flow throughout the three-sectioned restaurant was not well-planned, and the Captain’s chair was apparently located on the bank of that river. Every server who rushed past – and they all seemed to be in a rush, yet going nowhere in particular – bumped into me without a single apology.
Our server on this busy Friday night was a college-age woman wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt; others wore a variety of t-shirts with no particular theme. She never introduced herself and she NEVER smiled. Not once! She simply took our orders and disappeared.
The Captain suspects she had previously worked at Olive Garden. After she uncorked a $40 bottle of wine, I had to stop her as she poured my first glass with the intent of filling it to the rim!
As the First Mate finished her salad – a sad array of iceberg lettuce with a few pieces of tomato sprinkled on top – she asked our waitress for the bread that was supposed to accompany our meal. The server replied, “That comes with the entrée.” Then she disappeared again. After the entrées were delivered – great hunks of beef all around! – I asked twice again for bread and received a scowl in reply. As the First Mate finished her steak, the waitress reappeared with a basket of greasy bread.
How was the steak, you might be wondering? Fortunately, the Captain and First Mate agree on steak, preferring our beef medium-rare. So I ordered the 10 oz. filet to share ($39), and she ordered the 6 boiled shrimp ($14) to share. The steak wasn’t the best piece of meat I’ve ever put in my mouth, but it was cooked perfectly; the aptly-named “shrimp”, however, left a lot to be desired. The accompanying “fresh-steamed vegetables” was an uninspired mixture of broccoli, carrots and cauliflower.
Yes, I could have had Fries with that instead. SMH!
As we drove home, we agreed we might go back if invited, but this place would not become one of our “go-to” choices.
At this point you may be wondering, “If the Captain’s not going to tell us the name of this place, why did he go into such detail?”
You see, the Captain is planning his retirement – still many years away – which may or may not include owning/operating a bar or restaurant.
It’s kind of up to the General Board of Pensions at this point!
But since a banker friend advised me many years ago that 80% of all restaurant start-ups fail – and thus, getting a bank loan is difficult – over the years I have been taking notes on what makes up a good restaurant / bar.
And, for what it’s worth, it’s not all that different from what makes up a good church.
Based on years of previous eating experiences, I have found three keys to success (in this order):
1. Ambiance. When a guest walks through the door, the room should look and feel warm and inviting. If a theme is attempted, it should be carefully designed and crafted. In the same way that wearing an eye patch doesn’t make you a pirate, putting catfish on the menu doesn’t make you a seafood restaurant!
Captain’s Note: Catfish is not seafood.
2. Service. Employees should be relaxed and friendly, as though they, too, enjoy being there. They should also be clean, well-trained, and efficient, and empowered to respond to a customer’s needs quickly and graciously. This is as much a management issue as it is an employee issue.
3. Food. Food should be made with fresh ingredients, not the institutional stuff off the truck that supplies every other restaurant in town. And make it interesting & unique. If all you have to offer is frozen buffalo wings, don’t even bother.
Furthermore, while I haven’t tested this theory yet, I suspect the “2/3 Rule” applies. If you can get any two of these three right, you stand a good chance of succeeding.
But always aim for 100%!
Now, some will argue that “food” should be #1. I disagree. The Captain has forgiven bad food when the ambiance and service were to my liking. On the other hand, we have stopped patronizing a restaurant where the food was superb but the service was lousy.
I have perhaps related this story before: at one local restaurant, I ordered my customary Southern Comfort on the rocks. There are three bartenders in town who know to pour this for me without asking.
Wait a minute. That either sounded snooty, or makes the Captain look like a big alcoholic. Sorry about that!
But on this particular occasion, the waitress reported back, “We don’t have Southern Comfort.” Guessing at my avocation, or simply lacking creativity, she suggested a “Captain and Cola” instead. When I suggested they should stock SoCo, the bartender – yes, the bartender got involved – replied, “We can’t stock a private bottle for every customer.”
No need to, my friend. We won’t be back.
So what would a “Captain Dave’s Bar & Grill” look like? Something like this:
My favorite meal experience was at Señor Frog’s in Cancun several years ago. The décor was tropical and fun, the atmosphere was electric, the waitress was perky (as was the girl who passed by our table several times selling shots!), and the food was unique and delicious!
And the good vibes didn’t even rub off when, later in the evening – as we watched with anticipation a local reggae band setting up – they asked us to vacate our table so they could turn the room into a dance floor!
Rock on, Bob Marley!
Captain’s Note: This type of experience works best in locations where there is a dependable bus / taxi service to transport patrons safely home.
So look for "Captain Dave's", possibly coming soon to a town near you!