The Covid Diaries – Vol. 8 – The Shape of Things to Come

robot serving GIF by The Venture Brothers

Day 31, Wednesday, April 15, – What’s Next?

Assuming any are around a month from now, restaurants surviving this coronapocalypse will face a strange new world of less customers. freaked out diners, intense public health scrutiny, and a depleted workforce.

All this while trying to resurrect their economic lifelines and deal with supply chains in ruins.

When it comes to Las Vegas, there’s really two conversations to have here: one about off-Strip dining scene (You remember it don’t you? The scene that was starting to boom over the past three years?), and the Strip, with its hundreds of food outlets serving (primarily) our tourist economy.

For purpose of these predictions, let us concentrate (mostly) on trends which will affect both.

There are no crystal balls at work here, and some of these are beyond obvious, but they bear reminding to brace yourself for the brave new world in eating out that’s right around the corner.

And for the record, it would please us no end if we are proved totally wrong on all of them. Well, almost all of them.

Fewer Diners

Everything’s about to shrink: customer base, restaurant seating, booze consumption, and profits. Those people you see dancing in the streets? Bankruptcy lawyers.

Shorter Menus

Every menu in America that isn’t a Chick-Fil-A has just been cut in half. Many will stay that way. Shorter menus are great for many reasons, but mainly because you can spend less time ordering and more time worrying about that cough from four tables away.

Close tables

Cheek-by-jowl jostling with strangers over a plate of steak frites has gone from good to gauche. Huge Strip restaurants will reduce capacity (e.g. 300 seat places (like Mon Ami Gabi) will suddenly find themselves with a third less tables. Tiny neighborhood joints will feel the pressure too. Guess which ones will be hurt the most?  A fifty seat mom and pop cracker box can’t make a profit if it’s cut in half. No word yet from the epidemiologists on the disease-catching horrors lurking in back-to-back booths.

Buffets

MGM to temporarily close Vegas buffets as virus precaution

Put a fork in them, they’re done. Deader than Julius Caesar. Forget about sanitary masks and table-spacing — after this world-wide freakout, no one’s going to want to stand in line with hundreds of strangers while waiting to eat….much less handle a serving spoon that’s been touched by fifty filthy kids.

Opposing view: Death by calories will not dissuade these eager over-eaters from their orgies of excess. Buffets and Covid19 have a lot in common: both are vaccine-proof and impervious to common sense — always ready to stealthily reinsert themselves into our defenseless body politic as soon as our sneeze guards are down. The same credulous fraidycats  who bought the coronavirus scare wholesale will be only too eager to resume shoveling AYCE into their pie holes, as soon as some authority figure says it’s “okay”. Catching a virus may have terrified them in the short-term, but government can stand only so long between a man and his third dessert.

Loud and Crowded Goes Kaput

A corollary to “close tables” above. Three-deep bars and people screaming to be heard will be seen as toxic. In well-spaced, too-quiet places, expect people to start yelling across tables just for old time’s sake. Baby Boomers, mostly.

Communal tables

No one will want to dine next to strangers anymore. From now on, people will let public health doctors tell them how they should sit and socialize —  in the same way we let dentists tell us what food to chew, and gynecologists dictate who we should sleep with.

Smaller Plates

Here’s one we’re on the fence about.  Will portions shrink to reflect tougher times? Or will the good old “blue plate special/meat and three” make a comeback? In other words, will gutsy food replace preciousness? One thing’s for sure though, there will no longer be restaurants centered around…

Share Plates

Shared plates (and/or everyone picking off a central platter) will NOT be a theme of most menus coming out of this. You might as well ask your friends, “Let’s go infect each other over dinner.” Even though it’s not true, you’ll get a lot of “Ewwww” at the very thought. If you want to eat communally, you’ll have to go Chinese. Possibly in a private room. Probably with a bureaucrat standing over your shoulder.

Tweezer Food

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Can’t die a moment too soon. As Julia Child once said (when looking at a nouvelle cuisine creation): “You can just tell someone’s fingers have been all over it.” The absurdity of molecular cuisine will also perish in a sea of silly foam.

Unfeasibly Long Tasting Menus

Once the dust settles, the 1% will start flocking back to destination restaurants. Or will they? Something tells us all the “chef’s vision” malarkey — which has powered the World’s 50 Best for the past decade — will henceforth be seen as decadent. Simple, local cooking with good ingredients will replace three hour slogs through some overpraised, hipster chef’s fever dream.

Linens? Sanitary or Un-?

Personally, many who dine out often long for the days of real cotton napery and tablecloths. We prefer them to wet, slimy, cold, hard surfaces where who-knows-what has been smeared on it. Unfortunately, it’s a cinch the health Gestapo will mandate the constant wiping down of tables, and human comfort and civilized dining will one of the casualties….at least in America. We can’t imagine the old-school, haute cuisine palaces of France serving dinner on bare-bones tables…although some already do. The smart set will bring their own cleaning supplies….because nothing says “night on the town” like handi-wipes and a personalized spray bottle.

Sommeliers

Sad to say, but somms will be an endangered species in this new economy. Wine lists will shrink; prices will come down; and choosing a bottle will be between you and your wine app. This will save you money (on tips), and gallons of self-esteem points by no longer being humiliated because you don’t know the difference between a Malagousia and a Moscofilero. Idiot.

Wine/Bars

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Expect wine in general to take a hit, especially the expensive stuff. Especially in America. The health nuts will try (and fail) to turn bars into fully automated spaces with all the charm of a DMV waiting room.

Celebrity Chefs

Their popularity has been shrinking for a while now. Is anyone dying to go to a Bobby Flay restaurant anymore? Even if Shark in The Palms is pretty good? El Gordo’s shtick will start (start?) looking stagey and superficial in the culture of asceticism to come. Not to mention the idiocy of $$$s being thrown at him/them by clueless casino accountants, just to see a famous name on a door. And because the cache of chefs has shrunk…

Bad Boy Chefs

…are probably a thing of the past, too. Ditto their tattoos…and tatts on waitstaff and barkeeps. In this hyper-hygienic, monochromatic, new world order, anything that smacks of personal expression and pirate rituals will not be a good look when it comes to selling vittles. Imagine a world where everyone looks like Barbie and Ken, right down to the lack of genitals, and you’ll get the idea. Sexy.

Asian food

Specifically Chinese food. Face it: America is racist, and many blame the Chinese government for this debacle. While the blame may be justified, this isn’t fair to Chinese-Americans or Chinese restaurants in America. But fairness has no place in post-Covid society. Once the tail starts wagging the dog, don’t expect the bull to go easy on the China shop.

More Plastic!

The world’s fear of viral infection will make clean freaks out of everyone. And this means more single-use plastic: gloves, Styrofoam, containers, take-home boxes, utensils, etc.. Germaphobes are going to have a field day “protecting” us from cooties….even if it means ruining our long term health and the environment. This is known in public health circles as saving your life by killing everything around you.

Take-out food 

Every operator thinks this whole pick-up/delivery thing is here to stay.  Doesn’t matter that all food tastes better when eaten right after it’s prepared. (The only exceptions are cold sandwiches and burgers…and even fast food burgers suffer from remaining too long in the sack.) Good food doesn’t travel well. Good food needs to be eaten as soon as it’s done. Human beings have known this for thousands of years. But because of this shutdown, restaurants will try in vain to prove otherwise. Eating take-out from a good restaurant is like watching a blockbuster movie on an iPhone.

Automated food prep – robot chefs!

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To those promoting AI cooking, conveyor belt sushi, automaton waiters, and  computerized everything, this Covid crisis has been manna from heaven. The only thing that will suffer from this automation will be your dignity and good taste.

Home Cooking….

…will NOT have a resurgence, Neither will bread baking. Why? Because cooking is hard and bread baking is even harder. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Less late night/less bars/less luxury spending

Bottle service > dead. Ginormous nightclubs > toast. Dayclubs > history. Lounge acts and supper clubs (circa 1975) will be replacing them. You heard it here first: Once  Mel Tormé impersonators get rolling, Elvis imitators will seem cheesier than a Velveeta fondue.

Hygiene Obsession

MUCH GREATER EMPHASIS ON HYGIENE – of customers,  restaurants, and their staffs. Will everyone have to be tested before entering? Will your waiter be wearing a mask? Will all of these ruin your enjoyment of eating out by turning restaurants into the equivalent of hospital food being served by prison guards in a boarding school mess hall? Does the Pope wear a beanie?

Coffee and Cocktails Will Conquer

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The first businesses to revive after this nonsense subsides will be coffee houses and cocktail bars. They will be the easiest businesses to ramp back up, and will provide a quick, cheerful respite from the misery that has enveloped society. Restaurants, especially mid-tier, independently-owned restaurants will have the hardest time of it. The catchwords will be comfort over creativity. And nothing is more comforting in trying times than a good cocktail…or a cup of coffee.

Critics get Cashiered

Reports of critics’ demise have been greatly exaggerated for over a decade, but this could be the final nail. The last straw. The icing on the funeral potatoes, if you will.

Image(You got what you wanted, restaurants: no more critics! But just think of the cost. Cheers!)

 

Well This Sucks – The Covid Diaries Vol.1

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The Coronavirus Diary. Volume 1, Day 1, Friday the 13th: Clouds on the Horizon

Who would’ve thought that my lunch at Cipriani last Friday would be the last time I had a really good, relaxed time in a restaurant?

We ate well. I ate in two shifts: the first with two colleagues, the second with good friends and The Food Gal®.

Lunch turned into dinner at Soho Japanese Kitchen where I tapped out after a few courses. (Seven straight hours of eating and drinking will do that to you.)

Crowds were smaller at both places; you could feel the clouds of contagion building. Everyone knew fear and layoffs were in the air. We just didn’t know how soon and how severe it would be.

Our waiter Vincenzo looked around the Cipriani dining room and said he was worried for both of his jobs (there and at Giada). Like many in the Vegas hospitality trade, he holds down two gigs — lunch and dinner — often at two very different spots. Vincenzo is as Italian as Pavarotti, with a twinkly charm underneath his sing-song-y accent, and he fits an Italian restaurant like parm on pasta. Three days later he will be out of both jobs.

Day 2, March 14: Canary, Meet Coal Mine

The Bellagio announces it is closing all restaurants except Sadelle’s and Prime.

Day 3, March 15: Reality Looms

Beware the Ides of March, Caesar was told. He ignored the warning; the rest of Las Vegas took it to heart. Within five days of the announced severity of the coronavirus, MGM uses today to let the hammer drop on all of its venues. Some hotels, like Caesars and Venetian/Palazzo stand firm and act like they can weather the storm.

Because of this, for about two days, locals feel restaurants and bars will still be functioning, albeit with far fewer customers. Still, it’s obvious the virus has mushroomed into society-wide panic. Most media outlets are claiming the virus is “sweeping the nation,” even though the number of Americans actually infected with Covid_19 amounts to .00016% of the American populace.

“We’ll figure out a way to keep the doors open,” Venetian and Caesars say. Silly them.

I spend the afternoon getting drunk on expensive hooch on my patio, and eating some tasty cheese I had flown in from The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills — because eating and drinking well is to me what swinging a golf club is to Tiger Woods.

Day 4, March 16: Support Your Local Chinatown

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Hotels and Strip restaurants closing left and right. Local joints girding their loins but seem safe. I make a show of going to Every Grain for lunch (it’s mostly empty), and China Mama for dinner (ditto). And I’m not shy about letting social media know what I think about all of this viral hysteria and how it will devastate the hospitality industry. For this I get called everything from Typhoid Mary to the worst thing since Hep C.

I also get into one of those Facebook commenting wars with someone named Emily Jillette, who’s married to someone named Penn Jillette, who calls me everything from a joke to an asshole. It’s really quite amusing to have her (try to) insult me by telling me how she’s “friends with lots of chefs” who “universally hate me.” Emily hates me (apparently) because I’m eating in restaurants and encouraging others to support these businesses in a time of crisis.

She’s not the only one who hates me for thinking this whole quarantine-thing is a huge overreaction, but she’s definitely the most profanely entertaining  of the bunch.

Day 5, March 17, Goodbye to all That:

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In less than 24 hours, every bar and restaurant is being told to close or serve customers by take-out only. This results in my having to drink my coffee outside of my favorite coffee bar — Vesta Coffee Roasters — in downtown Las Vegas. I do not like being told I have to drink my coffee on a grab-and-go basis. My lack of amusement at this ridiculous restriction will be made more than apparent in the coming days.

This is when reality really starts to sink in. By noon everyone knows the Governor is going to order the shutdown of all “non-essential businesses.” The Governor of the State of Nevada does not realize that for many of us, restaurants, coffee bars are just as essential as a warm bed.

For these reasons, we hunker down on Tuesday and eat leftovers (yummy) from China Mama for lunch as we await the governor’s proclamation. It is Saint Patrick’s Day and no one seems to notice.

That night we eat at Edo Tapas & Wine to show our support, and as good as the food is, the place feels like we’re administering its last rites. No way will a chef-centric, highly-tuned restaurant like Edo be able to survive on take-out trade. Someone should tell our clueless Gubenator this, but he’s too busy listening to the hysterics.

Day 6, March 18, The Day the Music Died:

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Last night the Gubenator shut down the Strip (which he has the power to do). He also “ordered” all “non-essential businesses” to close, which, technically, he does not have the power to do. (At least it’s debatable in some quarters.)

Regardless, he’s a politician and politicians pander to the majority and the majority of people are screaming for government to “do something” about a virus that’s infected .000017% of the American population. So order away he does.

And everyone complies. Everyone complies because, 1) they’re scared not to comply; and 2) they know everyone will hate them if they don’t comply. (I know 1 and 2 are basically the same thing, but I’m trying to make a point here.

In support of our Chinese-American restaurants — who, after all, have been doing to-go food better than anyone for 170 years — we order take-out from Kung Fu Thai-Chinese. (Las Vegas oldest – since 1973 – Chinese restaurant.) I’ve never been quite sure whether Kung Fu is a Chinese restaurant that serves Thai food or a Thai restaurant with a Chinese menu, but it doesn’t matter these days. It always does a solid job, and it’s been years since I’ve been. so there’s a silver lining to the unfortunate circumstances that bring me here.

The Food Gal® picks up our huge order ($66 + $10 tip) we gorge ourselves on Yen Ta Fo, Todd Munn, Pad Thai and Spicy Chicken. We have enough food to last for days.

I announce on Twitter that no one’s getting a bad review while we try to weather this economic body blow, and I mean it.

Day 7, Thursday, March 19, Pastries and Steaks:

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I wake up at 4:00 am with an idea(s): 1) to start this diary; and 2) not to let this craziness defeat me. Restaurants are as much a part of the American cultural identity as football and gas-guzzling cars. It’s sort of amazing how quickly sports dried up (and how no one seems to miss them all that much), but restaurants are where we sustain life and enrich it. Methinks people are going to be screaming for food to return to normalcy a lot faster than begging to see if Andrew Bogut dunks on Miles Plumlee.

I’ve also decided to stick with my normal routines as much as possible. And by “stick with my routines as much as possible” I mean start my morning with good French pastry.

This part is easy. Food serving operations like Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe are not being shut down, you simply can’t stay and sit to enjoy your morning brioche. Mr. Curtas is very fond of his morning brioche, and will therefore pick-up, take it to his office, and enjoy it there.

These pastries taste to him both of butter, dough and normalcy, so, for fleeting seconds he can pretend his world is not crumbling around him.

As he’s munching and pretending with his Danish, Mr. Curtas wonders just how fucked is the American restaurant industry? 

Answer: Very. 15 million people are out of work in less than three days to combat a virus that will never infect even 1.0% of our population. A virus that all medical experts say 80% of adults will recover from without any medical intervention.

As Mr. Curtas ponders these statistics, he decides to do two things: 1) refer to himself solely in the third person til this thing blows over; and 2) eat steak for lunch. Good steak. Steak directly from the Capital Grille meat locker.

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With the help of Manager Drew Weintraub, we get a tour of the locker and get to pick out an entire strip loin to be bandsaw’d into individual steaks. This costs $250, but we get eight, restaurant-quality strip steaks (and a porterhouse)out of the deal.

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We take them home, and with the help of our comrades-in-epicurean arms the Tollefson’s, we cook up the porterhouse — heavily-seasoned (above), seared on both sides, finished under the broiler). It was damn tasty, and half the cost it would’ve been at the restaurant. But let’s face it, great steaks lose some luster when nibbled on your kitchen counter.

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Sounds pretty okay, doesn’t it? Super steaks and expensive wines for lunch?

It’s not. It’s bloody awful. As he’s chewing his steak and quaffing his wine, Curtas can’t stop the emptiness from grabbing his stomach, like a clouded mood settling permanently into his gut. Fears and fatalism sickening in their ubiquity, unquenchable by food or drink.  And now they are upon him. The world has lost its fucking mind. And things are about to get worse.

The Mind of a Restaurant Critic

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When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He’s proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes. You get him. Maybe you don’t always agree; but when you’re looking at getting a babysitter and maybe dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk. For that, the user reviews on Yelp are beyond useless….So there in that whirlwind of trends and fad ingredients and hype and backlash, are a few immense ancient trees, with sturdy roots and massive trunks to hew to. – Josh Ozersky

The two questions I get asked most frequently are, 1) How did you become a restaurant critic? and 2) How do you decide where to go…. and how do you critique a restaurant once you’re there?

That’s actually three questions, but for the purpose of this piece we’ll treat the last two as a single inquiry into the my machinations and methodology used when reviewing restaurants.

Regarding question #1: I’ve gone through the story of how I became a critic so many times even I am tired of telling it. The fastest explanation is best summarized by the axiom “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Vegas in 1994 was extremely near-sighted when it came to food, and yours truly was the only one urging our local press to wake up and smell the celebrity chefs. Thankfully, KNPR- Nevada Public Radio was hep to the idea of commentary on our burgeoning restaurant scene, and a (second) career was launched. Click here if you’re interested in some of my (now ancient) reviews.

If you’re interested in spending a few minutes inside the mind of a critic, read on.

Many ask if there is some sort of master plan in how I go about my reviewing business? A highly detailed outline of restaurants charted days, weeks, months in advance for possible exploration, delectation, and possible evisceration. In a macro sense, the first half of the year is spent scouting new territory; the middle three months (summer) is spent writing/updating EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants. Once the final copy is in around September/October, and once I weigh in on Desert Companion’s Restaurant Awards issue, I then spend a couple of months (November-December) trying to lose a few pounds (good luck with that).

On a micro-level, it’s much more ad hoc than you think — a mixture of ear-to-the-ground interest in what’s new, blended with a need to revisit old haunts to see if they’re still up to snuff.

These days my attention centers upon all the action downtown and in Chinatown. Kaiseki Yuzu just opened in its new digs on Spring Mountain Road, and another kaiseki joint is coming hot on its heels, soon to pop its doors on Decatur and SMR in the next month. Apparently there’s an udon noodle bar on West Flamingo that slipped through my attention cracks, and the just-opened ShangHai Taste needs a return since my initial visit only a few days into its run.

Such are the thoughts running through my brain at any moment.

Competing in this crowded space are sugar plums awaiting at the soon-to-open Main Street Provisions and the new Good Pie — two highly-anticipated, chef-driven joints just days away from boosting the Main Street dining scene.

And oh, by the way, someone told me to check out the food at Able + Baker brewpub, and Sheridan Su’s new concept…and isn’t it high time I gave vegetarian tacos a try at Tacotarian?

(Side joke that practically wrote itself: Me, walking past the almost-empty Tacotarian last night: “Why are there no customers in the vegetarian taco joint?” Friend of Me: “Because it’s a vegetarian taco joint.”)

Also swimming through these synapses are yearnings for return visits to tried and true favorites. I really don’t need to go back to Sage, Bardot Brasserie, Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Guy Savoy to remind myself how tasty they are, but their menus beckon me like the seductive song of a siren. Odysseus may have strapped himself to a mast to resist his temptations, but my only restraints are time and my waistline.

The older I get, the more I realize how my appetite for restaurants usually splinters into one of three shards when the stomach growls: there’s the curious (“I need to try check out _____)”), the complacent (“Let’s go to an old favorite”), and the conscientious (“Duty demands I revisit ______, even though I have -0- interest in doing so.”) Thus am I compelled, sometimes, to haul my ass to some far corner of the Vegas valley to check out a chef, or recheck that I either still like or loathe someplace. (It was this motivation that led me to embark on a cook’s tour of classic Las Vegas restaurants a few years ago….a trek for which my stomach still hasn’t forgiven me.)

Having decided on where, the next issue is how. As in: How do I size up the places I write about?

Before I go any further, let’s start by stating I am well aware of the subjectivity involved in judging anything that involves personal taste — be it food, fashion, music, or movies. If you like your burgers well done I feel sorry for you, but you are not wrong.

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I could argue with you that you’re not experiencing your burger’s inherent juicy, tangy, deep-roasted wonderfulness by eating it one step removed from a piece of desiccated charcoal, but if that’s how you like it, so be it. What I will do is explain that the full flavor of the meat is being shortchanged by a chef who either doesn’t know or care to lift the patty off the grill at the “right” time. In this sense, I am merely reflecting popular wisdom (and perhaps my own prejudices) about when beef tastes best.

But there are standards in cooking and restaurant operation (just as there are in music performance and movie production). All a food critic does is try to hold a restaurant to them.

All a restaurant review does is filter a consumer product through his own prism. A writer should never lose sight his own prejudices, lest the focus of the review become more about him than what is on the plate. I strive to remember this unless, of course, you are dead wrong about liking some shitty Italian restaurant, or gluten-free anything.

As for the standards I try to uphold, the criteria is much different for new v. old.

At an old favorite, I let my guard down and take a lot for granted. All I’m there for is to confirm that the place hasn’t lost its fastball.

A new joint gets the full once-over: from the lighting to the silverware to the taste of the water they pour.

How’s the greeting? Where is the greeting? Is it awkward? Polished? Sure, they might know me, but how are those three ladies right behind me addressed? Does it feel good in there? Do you get a feeling of comfort and warmth when you enter, or something more cool and aloof?

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What about the chairs? The booths? The depth of the seats? Their width? Do you stick to them? Slide off? Does the table wobble? (Iconic old eateries get a pass here; brand new ones, not so much.)

Is the design unique? (Hatsumi) DIY? (Elia Authentic Greek Taverna) Beautiful? (Lamaii, Weera Thai Kitchen) Hackneyed? ( Majordomo) Or does it fit the food? (Rao’s) (BTW: nothing gets graded on steeper curve than decor. Local joints hanging on by a thread get a lot more leeway than Strip hotels who pay millions to come up with the hideous cruise ship look (Lago), or a coffee shop/bus station (the otherwise excellent StripSteak).

Is the place too big? (Usually, yes, e.g. Mott 32) Or too small? Or poorly laid out?

Can you hear yourself think? Does the music intrude? How energized is the staff? Are they working in silent, satisfied synchronicity? (They should be.) There is a hum that great restaurants exude — it can be almost silent as in the case of a haute cuisine frog pond, or close to a cacophonous roar in some over-amplified gastropub — but you know it when you hear it, and it means the place is firing on all cylinders. (If you want to hear what I’m talking about, go to Cipriani sometime.)

What about the napkins? (Polyester? Paper? Real cotton?) The plates? How close are the tables? Does the bar serve food? Does it look comfortable doing so? Would a single diner be happy eating there? Did they spend money on the glassware, or do it on the cheap?

How uncomfortable are the bare tables? Are they naked as a design statement? Or because of an impecunious proprietor?

And while we’re at the table, how clean was it when you sat down? Still wet from a wiping? And how long has it been since those place-mats were steam-cleaned?

Does it smell like a restaurant? Or is the ventilation so good you could be in a library?

Is the staff alert? Young? Old? Happy to be there or biding their time until the Culinary Union calls? Snappily dressed or slovenly? (A staff in t-shirts can look sharp; frayed-around-the-edges formal wear is fooling no one.)

Is there an adult in charge? Or are a bunch of 20-somethings aimlessly looking for direction?

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Does that adult help with service? Busing of tables? If a table is in distress, does the manager, or another waiter offer to help, or give you that “it’s not my station, I’ll go find your waiter” look? How fast do the menus arrive? How chatty (too much or not enough) is the waiter?

Can they handle a corkscrew? (You’d be surprised how clueless some waitrons are. This is not their fault. It shows a lack of training, which shows a lack of caring….by management.)

While we’re on the subject: How seamless is the transition from water to cocktails to wine?

Then check out the least sophisticated table in the place. Are they happy? Being treated with respect? Frustrated? Acting intimidated? If the latter, how patient is the staff (or the harried bartender) being with them?

Lastly, and most importantly, is it a passion restaurant or a money restaurant? (Esther’s Kitchen is a passion restaurant; Ada’s – its offshoot – is a money restaurant.)

Then there’s the menu. Easy to read? All over the map? Too descriptive? Minimalist? Too cute? Full of cliches? Tourist friendly or gastronomically challenging? Or a little of both? Can you parse the  the food from the card before you, or will you require the assistance of a soothsayer, shaman, and a polymath’s transliteration to figure it out?

Automatic deductions for roasted beets, salmon, scallops, and chicken breasts. Bonus points for offal, strange birds, good soups and singular focus.

Believe it or not, I process most of this information in about 90 seconds.

I’ve usually filed away the answers in the Rolodex of my mind before the food even arrives.

And then it does and then it’s a whole new ballgame. But you’ll have to wait a week to hear about that process.

This is the first of a two-part article.