Good restaurant vs. great restaurant: How to tell the difference

I have been dining at restaurants as an industry professional for more than 30 years, and I have developed a benchmark for determining the difference between a good restaurant and a great one.

I will share my criteria with you today, but keep in mind the distinction between good vs. great is you. If you have been reading my articles for a while, you know that it drives me crazy when people use only social media to tell them what is good and what is great. As you will see, my favorite restaurants aren’t always the fanciest, but they are great (or at least good) at what they do.

Inside and out

First for me is that the exterior needs to be clean, well lit and well maintained. When I walk in, I like to see a clean, well-organized and fun/unique interior design. I also put a lot of stock in being greeted when I walk in, whether it’s by a host, server, bartender or manager.

The lighting should be at an appropriate level. Too bright and I feel like the restaurant wants me to rush, but not so dark that I have to use my phone flashlight to read the menu.

The music needs to be appropriate to the dining experience and not so loud that it stymies conversation. I love a Mexican restaurant that plays great Mexican music, an Italian restaurant that plays great Italian music, and if it is an American-style operation, I like music that suits the concept. Loud rock music doesn’t work for me.

Wait staff and menus

The No. 1 quality that separates good from great is a knowledgeable server. I have been at restaurants that serve the most mediocre of foods, but the server knew everything they needed to know, could answer any question and made our time in the restaurant fun. I really believe that a great server somehow makes the food taste better!

I would like to send a message to any restaurant that may not know: COVID is not the health threat it was in 2020 and 2021. It’s time to get back to handing customers menus rather than using the QR code so that I can bring the menu up on my phone. About 50% of the QR code-style menus don’t work, which frustrates me even more. I like to hold the menu in my hands and review all of the options on one or two easy-to-read pages. I find that I order more food and beverages that way.

Table, wine list and cocktail list

I like the table to be set like the table should be set. If it’s a fine dining establishment, the wine glasses need to be on the table, along with the bread plate, silverware, butter, etc. If the restaurant is very casual, I like my silverware rolled up in a napkin on the table. This way I don’t have to wait until my food arrives and have to ask for silverware.

I don’t understand why restaurants give everyone their own food menu but put only one cocktail menu or wine list on the table. Is there a shortage? I like when a server sees four guests at the table and gives each of us our very own drinks menus.

The experience vs. the food

What have we learned today? YOUR experience makes all the difference between good and great. Next month, let’s get together and talk about what makes the food good vs. what makes it great.

Izzy Kharasch is president and founder of Hospitality Works, Inc., a bar and restaurant consulting company. He offers a free phone consultation with Daily Herald readers. Email him at:

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