|| Print ||
|Written by Will Parker|
|Wednesday, 14 October 2009 00:00|
We all have them - those restaurants we have come to rely upon for a relaxing evening with friends, a romantic dinner with ulterior motives, or a fancy celebration honouring that new job/degree/cat. There's something very comfortable about having reliable standards - places we know will provide us with the level of service we expect and the quality of food we enjoy. Whether it is for Tuesday night all-you-can-eat sushi or Saturday morning breakfast, we often take for granted how having those essential dependable places to eat makes our lives so much easier. It's important that everyone has his or her list of top performers in the restaurant arena. In an effort to help simplify your own search, I outline below the necessary considerations in securing your own ultimate list of favourites.First you have to think about cost. Let's be honest. We're not all high rollers, and there's a lot to be said for value. While having an entrée consisting of a tablespoon of foamed lobster meat may sound intriguing, it is much less so when the bill is large enough to buy a truckload of live lobsters. An important consideration in any dining experience is how hard it is going to hit your wallet. Some restaurants like the Quebec's L'Academie chain help stretch your dollar further by offering bring-your-own wine without any corking fees. Others like Vancouver's Go Fish offer up exceptionally tasty gourmet treats while saving overhead costs by effectively operating out of a shack. The Bank on College Green in Dublin also deserves mention for consistently serving some of the best quality food at affordable prices in a country that tends to think a bowl of soup should cost $20. There are a lot of very nice restaurants out there, but one has to question whether or not it is worth $200 or $300 per person to enjoy the best food available. Ottawa's Social and Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn should take note.
You also have to think about atmosphere. It is another one of my main guiding criteria when selecting a restaurant. My friends often make fun of me for appearing to care more about the tableware and washrooms than I do about the food, but there's something so great about going out for a meal and feeling like you're on a vacation even if it's in your own neighbourhood. I realize you can't eat the décor, but you have to remember the dining experience isn't entirely about eating. Philadelphia's Morimoto gets this with its ultra-hip neon lighting and super sleek design. Vancouver's Chambar plays up the moody atmosphere with plush velvet banquets, brick walls, and copious amounts of candlelight. The Olde Pink House in Savannah seamlessly blends historical beauty with traditional southern charm, the result of which is one of the most romantic dining spots you could possibly imagine. I understand that in many cases the atmosphere will take a backseat to the actual eats, but some places need to try a bit harder (e.g. Ottawa's Absinthe).
Then there's service. Again, it's not the most important consideration, but it can really make or break a dining experience. If you're from the Ottawa region, you will already know that Beckta, Signatures and L'Orée du Bois have this down. At Beckta I was attended to so efficiently that I would have what I wanted before I even wanted it. At Signatures I was given the name and address of a baker who supplies some of their amazing fresh breads. At L'Orée du Bois my server more or less threw herself in front of a foaming bottle of sparkling cider to shield us from any potential spray. These types of details and dedication to service really make the dining experience exceptional. Honourable mention goes to Montreal's L'Express. At the other end of the spectrum and just a few streets away is Montreal's Pino's. My one and only experience at this restaurant included the waiter yelling at our table, deciding that we all wanted coffee and brunch without giving us menus, and barking "NO/NON" to any question asked or request made.
And of course, there's taste. This one is truly the most important, as even the worst atmosphere, most horrible service and highest price can melt away with the perfectly crafted meal. While I recognize taste will vary considerably from person to person, there are some restaurants that even the most discerning foodie would be hard-pressed to complain about. Take for example Fort Lauderdale's da Campo Osteria. Their "Sunday Family Supper" is a marathon of rich Italian flavours and unbelievable tastes. My mouth continues to water as I type the words oxtail risotto. Or there is Midland, Ontario's The Library, where among the fresh local fare and exquisitely prepared dishes, crème-brulee lovers can rejoice in a trio of these tasty treats in one single dessert platter. Did you get that?! Three crème-brulees!! And of course, this list would not be complete without Vancouver's Vij's where mere words cannot even begin to describe the glorious sensations in your mouth with every bite of his lamb popsicles or "punjabi heart attack." There are so many more that deserve mention, but I suddenly need to break for a snack. You don't realize just how key taste is until you go to a restaurant where the taste isn't a priority. I have now given Ottawa's Royal Oak chain three chances to win me over with simple things like yogurt and granola (did I accidentally order water and All Bran?), club sandwiches (stale bread, no mayo, and oh! Some hair!), and chicken wings (what's worse than a soggy uncooked chicken wing!?). Forgive me if I sound picky, but I couldn't stomach any of them. Royal Oak -- three strikes, you're out.
The final consideration is company. Regardless of where you go, your experience won't be complete if you aren't enjoying the people you're with. If you are heading out with a group of friends try Victoria's Spinnaker's or Ottawa's 222 Lyon. Organic beers at the former and no-nonsense tapas at the latter help make for a pretty fun evening out. If you're on your own check out Vancouver's Kintaro which has the best ramen, or the Toronto chain restaurant Pizzaiolo where they honestly serve up some of the greatest thin-crust slices you can find. If you're heading out on a hot date, assuming your new friend is a seasoned food-lover like yourself, try pretty much any of the above.
Finding the pinnacle of dining isn't an easy task. It takes lots of time, effort and a certain amount of courage. But if you're willing to take some risks, you, too, can discover your own peak restaurant experience. And if you're not the risky type, just go to Vij's. Or the Olde Pink House. Or L'Orée du Bois. Or . . . well, you get the point.