I often wonder what it is that makes people rant and rave about a restaurant where they’ve never set foot.
Reader Arthur M. of Cape Elizabeth posed the question a different way:
“I know you work two jobs so I’m guessing time and money are important when you pick a place to go. My wife and I are always torn between trying a new place or going to one of our favorites. We’re in a rut, but the last time a foodie friend recommended a new place he had heard about, we were so disappointed. Other friends are talking about how great the same place is, too. We aren’t just meat-and-potato people and like to try new things. After we ate there, we joked about what the heck was wrong with us. How do you pick?”
In a town where restaurants pop up like houses on a Monopoly board, feedback from like-minded, palate-sharing, trusted friends is important information, but not gospel truth. After all, let’s not forget I don’t put much stock in formal reviews.
What’s useful, however, is when someone you have dined with before offers you the opportunity to ask pointed questions about a new place. Especially things that are not fluid.
How’s the atmosphere? Cozy or industrial? What’s the pricing strategy (since items posted online may not be accurate, especially if a place is new)? What was your friend’s impression of service? The organizational/operational flow? What was the level of comfort for your demographic? For example, was the music of the head-banging variety, or some well thought-out tunes with subliminal messages encouraging you to order more wine?
I try new places based upon the following three criteria: Does someone I used to work with work there now? Is there a specific food item or style that beckons to me that I’d prefer not to make at home (perhaps well-prepared liver smothered in onions and crispy pancetta). Finally, because I live off the Portland peninsula, I want to try places where the location is considered daring. Portland’s concentrated restaurant rows are a dining afficionado’s food court, but people in Deering Center have to eat, too. Those out-of-the-way pioneers (JP’s, The Cafe at Pat’s, Woodford F&B, to name just a few) have a captive, but limited audience.
The topic of where to go and why is perfect as we segue into Maine Restaurant Week, which, per usual, I will be avoiding like the Zika virus. That said, if you stumble across a place that makes your top three, please let me know.
Truthfully, and with much appreciation, I may never go there. But I’m interested, nonetheless.
Q — I know you’re the mother of college kids, but I work with a guy who said you had wild partying restuarant days in the past. Won’t you share just one escapade. — Rex, Portland.
A — I’m oddly flattered that partying is part of my veteran-status legacy. (It would have been nice if “unique management style” or “stellar service” came into play, as well.)
One of my favorite memories is the time a beloved server/friend tossed her cookies in the owner’s waste basket next to his desk. Even though I got rid of the evidence, the proof lingered in the air of the small office he and I shared.
I denied I could detect an unpleasant odor, but my hungover, guilt-ridden friend later confessed all, thus unintentionally throwing me under the bus. The owner secretly found it funny, and wasn’t really mad, but things were touchy for a while.
So, there you go, Rex. Now, tell the big mouth you work with to clam up.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.