Best Restaurants, Award Winners, and Signature Dishes

by Sarah Henry on May 7, 2010 · 26 comments

in food flotsam & jetsam

Quick question before you head out the door for a weekend of eating:

How much attention do you pay to culinary awards, magazine lists of best restaurants, and recommendations from expert and citizen critics to check out an eatery?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late because:

1. The James Beard Foundation recently named its annual winners for best restaurants and chefs around the nation.

2. My local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle published its yearly list of Top 100 Bay Area restaurants last month.

3. Every review I read or recommendation I receive these days usually includes the phrase, “you must try the chef’s signature dish…”

4. Eating out is a passion of mine and even so I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the so-called best chow houses in my own backyard.

5. Some of my favorite places to have a meal never seem to get the kind of kudos I think they deserve.

6. I recently suggested someone try a “signature dish” at a new joint and the entree in question included cardoons and I had no idea what these were. My bad. Why did I do that?

A few examples, which will make sense to locals or those who nosh in the Bay Area, everyone else, substitute places you know:

  • Re (#2) above: Why is Contigo not on this list? I’m not on my own on this one. No less a local food authority than Chez Pim asked the very same question via Twitter.
  • Re (#3 above): Vegan charcuterie at Gather: Check. Tea Leaf Salad at Burma Superstar: Check. Hand-made handkerchief pasta with basil pesto at Farina: Check. If someone says eat it, I usually do. Am I a sheep or making smart choices?
  • Re (#5 above): A Thai place in my neighborhood, Anchalee Thai, serves fresh, simple, and appetizing dishes. Plus it has a nice ambiance and owners. Still, I doubt you’ll ever see it on someone’s must-eat-at list. But I could happily eat there frequently — and do.

So do tell dear readers:

  • How influenced are you by awards, reviews, and word-of-mouth recommendations?
  • Are you often disappointed or disagree with others’ suggestions?
  • How often do you throw caution to the wind and let your own instincts — and taste buds — dictate what’s for dinner and where you go?
  • And have you had any disastrous dining out experiences as a result?
  • What’s your m.o. for picking and choosing what and where to eat?

Happy eating out peeps. I look forward to hearing from you.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

The Writer's [Inner] Journey May 7, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Wait! Those cardoons sound quite interesting – feel bad you should not! Food recs are always a gamble because – literally – people have such varied tastes. I have friends that adore Olive Garden and wouldn’t think of eating in a family-owned place. Sounds odd but it’s true.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 9:17 am

Good point, Meredith. But, um, Olive Garden? Really?

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Alexandra May 7, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I’m not in your area, but rather Outer Cape Cod, but I am called upon regularly to recommend restaurants since I’m an innkeeper. My husband and I try to visit all the local eateries so we can dish from the heart. Funny thing happened last year. The Food Channel came to town and decided one restaurant made the best lobster roll in the country. Hmmm. I had to try. I went down and actually wrote a blog about it.

My experience was that it was far from the best. I don’t usually eat lobster roll to begin with, but a guest had returned from dinner raving about the lobster roll at another placed called The Juice. Toasted brioche bun, aioli mayonnaise, large chunks of lobster. Oh, it was so much better than the supposed Best that got the other restaurant, really not much more than a burger joint, the coveted television segment. The experience made me wary of such endorsements. It’s far better to ask the locals where they eat.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 9:19 am

Sound advice, Alexandra. And nice to know that as an innkeeper you do your homework — so your guests don’t have to.

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MarthaAndMe May 7, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Oh, that is a good question! I have strong opinions about this! I am VERY picky. I find that even the best restaurants disappoint me sometimes, but then I find incredible gems that no one else has recognized. In my recession ridden area there aren’t a lot of award-winning restaurants, except local awards, and I have my favorites – which are not the most expensive snotty French places that are “all that”.

When we travel I find that I am searching for something that doesn’t exist frequently. I want a restaurant that is not obsessed with being haute, but which just makes darn good food! I have two examples. When we were in Honolulu, I scoured the guidebooks and Internet and made reservations at the hot place that was supposed to be the best, run by the chef of the moment. It was quite disappointing. I didn’t really care for much of the food and the service was miserable. At the other end of the spectrum, when in NYC we found a little Italian place that made this pasta dish where they brought the huge honking wheel of Parmesan to your table and swirled the hot pasta in the middle of the wheel. I think it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

I am always searching for restaurants that will give me an authentic taste of the area’s food as well. And honestly, I just don’t want to pay what the Michelin rated or James Beard winner places charge. I just want really good food with no foolishness. Some of the best food I’ve had have been in places you would not expect it.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 9:20 am

Eating when you travel can definitely be a mixed bag, M&Me. And I love your line:
“really good food with no foolishness,” Some chowhouse should run with that one.

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andrew rosenberg May 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm

i work in the industry, i’m a little particular about when and where i eat. i know there are interesting places other than my kitchen or restaurant. being informed/ following the reviews is a full-time job, i’m working most of the time, and if i get out i’m too busy analyzing and thinking/talking about the food to really enjoy it. i eat with friends when i can and enjoy a late night supper prepared by other chefs when i can.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 9:22 am

Hi Andrew, Nice to get an insider perspective. And, of course, am sure folks in the biz keep you up-to-date on which chefs whip up the yummiest late night suppers.

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Ruth Pennebaker May 8, 2010 at 6:04 am

My husband, the iPhone fanatic, always checks out Yelp before we go to a new place. It steers us away from the big-time disasters.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 9:23 am

So you’ve had good luck with Yelp, Ruth? I’m curious to hear what others have to say. I hear conflicting things about the validity of this online citizen service. It’s certainly convenient but I wonder how reliable folks find it in their area?

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Jill M May 8, 2010 at 7:43 am

The inherent flaw in relying on another person’s opinion is that we cannot share the same value system. For instance, I have read reviews of a restaurant that said “slow service” but when I dine out, I hate to be rushed, so I am not put off by that warning.

For me, the quality and integrity of the food is the most important aspect of the experience. Therefore, I would not trust the review of a person who ranks Olive Garden highly, as I feel that corporate food has low food integrity. We are just really different diners. Of course, it is a huge bonus when the service, atmosphere, and other aspects come together, too.

I tend to try to rely on somebody whose writing reflects my values, too. You can pick up on what was important to the reviewer (both professional and amateur) by simply reading the cues in the review.

As for awards and other accolades, the same system applies. The James Beard award tends to be the most accurate for compiling the list of the top chefs across the country, but the ultimate winner seems to come down to who has the best PR person. Other awards, such as the Wine Spectator awards, seem to be first based on PR and secondly on quality.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 9:24 am

All good points, Jill M, thanks for your thoughtful response.

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MyKidsEatSquid May 8, 2010 at 11:45 am

My m.o. for finding great food is going to ethnic grocery stores and then asking the store clerks where to find the best food. I’m a big fan of street food–quick, easy, fun dishes from different cultures, so usually there’s some little haunt in a strip mall that you’d pass on by unless you know where to look. These aren’t the kind of places that would garner a James Beard award, but they certainly offer some authentic flavors. So far, we’ve never been disappointed with what the store clerks have recommended–from great sushi, to spicy Chinese food, to killer tacquerias.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm

What a great tip, MKES! Thanks for sharing.

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Kris Bordessa May 8, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Rarely do I take note of awards and accolades. Instead, I rely on the locals. Where do they eat? That’s probably the best place to get a great meal in an unpretentious atmosphere. And I’m with MarthaAndMe – I’m just not willing to spend big bucks because a place has garnered an award. Another really important cue for me? The place must be clean. If not, I’ll walk out.

Yelp does help to weed out the junk.

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Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Sounds like “ask the locals” is the mantra of choice when picking a place to eat. I know I’ve done it countless times, while of course, considering the source, as Jill M cautions above.

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alisa bowman May 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm

At home, I try NOT to eat at highly locally rated restaurants because they are always packed silly with people. And I have my usual haunts and can get good recommendations from friends. So I’m usually disappointed if the local paper talks up one of my faves because that means it will get discovered by the crowds. When I’m out of town, I frequent highly rated Zagat picks and such because you have to level down the choices somehow. The ratings have never let me down.

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Sarah Henry May 9, 2010 at 10:27 am

I agree, Alisa, the crowded “in” eateries are best avoided. Usually the hubbub dies down. Though in some cases, like the Slanted Door in San Francisco, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in the Ferry Building food mecca, you just have to bite the bullet and be prepared for a packed scene (which is actually part of the fun of that place). Still, I have friends who swear they’ve found an even better VN chowhouse without the crowds and for cheaper in another SF neighborhood.

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Jennifer Margulis May 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

I don’t pay ANY attention to awards but I am always interested in other people’s opinions about places. We so rarely eat out, though. I am a pretty good cook and I’m often disappointed by the quality and the price of the food in restaurants! (Plus I don’t live somewhere fabulous like the Bay Area where there are sooo many amazing places to eat…)

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2010 at 8:18 am

Cooking at home is definitely one way to avoid this scenario, Jennifer. And there’s no underestimating the value of a home-cooked meal — it often pleases the palate and provides the kind of comfort that restaurant food can’t match.

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Sheryl May 10, 2010 at 5:25 am

We love to eat out and often rely on Zagat, which is very much on the mark – most of the time. I’m not sure if it’s because the restaurants can be inconsistent or I’m just plain picky.
And I like my own cooking – so many times I either say a). I could have made that better (when eating out) or b). this is a restaurant dish (when cooking at home).

Many times an unknown restaurant will surprise and many times a highly-rated one will disappoint.

Going with friends’ recommendations can be tricky, too. Recently friends raved about a restaurant. When my husband and I tried it, we were thoroughly disappointed. It was empty and downright depressing, and the food left a lot to be desired.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. It’s somewhat complicated.

Eat at your own risk?

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2010 at 8:20 am

“Eat at your own risk,” I like that Sheryl. And I think you and Jennifer hit on something else that’s relevant here — expectation — which is why restaurant food can often disappoint.

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Donna Hull May 11, 2010 at 6:01 am

I don’t pay any attention to accolades and awards. I’ll read a review of a restaurant. I’ll listen to where my friends are dining out. I’ll pay attention to where the locals eat when I’m traveling. In the end, I judge for myself.

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Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 8:14 am

Seems like a sensible way to go, Donna.

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Jessica May 16, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I rely on word of mouth when it comes to choosing a new place to eat. I also enjoy finding small, out of the way restaurants in small towns where they are the only one…many times they provide simple and satisfying meals.

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Sarah Henry May 16, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Good tip, Jessica, though I’ve had mixed luck with such a strategy, myself. Sometimes no competition can mean one very mediocre eatery. But not always.

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