Good food vs. great food: How do you know?

Last month, we talked about what makes a good restaurant vs. a great one.

My focus was all about the experience in terms of service, design, lighting and music. But no matter how great the service experience, the only thing that makes us a regular at a restaurant and recommend it to our friends is the food.

Good food vs. great food has nothing to do with the restaurant being a “fine dining” establishment. The food at a fine dining restaurant should be great. It probably has a great reputation and certainly is expensive; therefore, my expectations are very high.

However, I have been to my share of expensive, high-end restaurants that have disappointed me. And I’ve been to many inexpensive, even cheap, restaurants whose simple dishes have so exceeded my expectations that I can only describe the food as “great.”

Hot food hot, cold food cold

This is the first lesson taught in culinary schools. While it is the most basic tenet of food service and seems simple, it is much harder than it seems.

A small (40-ish seat) restaurant may serve only 40 guests on a Monday or Tuesday, and the guests are well-spaced in terms of time. In this example, the kitchen can concentrate on every dish and make sure things are timed perfectly so hot food is hot and cold food is cold.

Now it’s Saturday night, there is a one-hour wait at the door, and the kitchen may serve 100 or more meals. Things deteriorate when the kitchen is overwhelmed. The hot food may come out warm or, worse, cold because the timing in the kitchen is off, and your food is waiting on the rest of your table’s order to catch up. When the food is finally sent out, three plates are perfect, but your dinner is cold.

My pet peeve is a salad served on a hot dish. That tells me that the kitchen was not fully prepared for the evening, and salads and other cold foods are being served on plates that are right out of the dishwasher. When cold foods come out on cold plates, my opinion of the restaurant’s food is elevated.

Good is good, but great is unforgettable

Going out and having a good meal is fine. You leave satisfied and in a good mood, but the food you just had will not be a memory. A great meal is a memory.

In my example of how food can come out cold, it is because the restaurant has not controlled the number of guests seated at one time, creating more opportunity for error. I would rather wait an additional half-hour to have that memorable meal.

There is a barbecue restaurant in St. Louis that makes the best barbecue, and they do it consistently, every day and every time. How? They only make the perfect amount each day that meets their strict standards. They could make more, but it would lower the quality. If you don’t get there early, you don’t get barbecue.

My recommendation to restaurants is slow down service so that you can increase your consistency of quality. As a consultant, I tell my restaurant clients that I don’t mind social media comments that say “That place is so busy you can’t get in.” It’s better than, “It was OK, and my food came out cold.”

• Izzy Kharasch is a restaurant and retail consultant. He's worked with more than 700 restaurants nationwide. He can be reached at

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