Restaurant meals are incredibly complex experiences. A table of four might try more than a dozen different dishes, each with multiple components. Servers move back and forth from tables in an intricate rhythm, balancing the need to pay attention with the need not to intrude. The design of the room, its acoustics, temperature and lighting help set the scene. In an average two-hour dinner, a thousand details add up to a meal.
Conveying even a small part of this complexity in a dining review is a real challenge. Because the review must focus overall on the restaurant there is rarely space to comment extensively on small details or to draw general conclusions about a specific practice. That's too bad, because the small details often are significant, but get overlooked.
Looking back on restaurant visits in the past few years, I noticed a pattern of details that, when handled poorly, left a bad taste in my mouth, but helped guarantee a pleasurable experience when they were handled well. It's not a foolproof system, but I noticed that the restaurants that get the little things right tend to get the big things right as well.
The first time I visit a restaurant's Web site, I get the same feeling of excitement that comes from walking into the dining room or picking up the menu. Web sites convey their aesthetic sensibilities. If your Web site is frumpy and out of date, you'll lose some customers before they even step in the door. A well-designed site doesn't have to be fancy. At minimum, it should present basic information, including address, phone number, hours and reservation policies in a straightforward, easy to locate manner. Ideally it should include up-to-date menus. Sound effects and videos never made anyone want to go to a restaurant.
Web-design dynamos: Abay Ethiopian Cuisine, Dinette.
As cocktail culture soars to new heights, creating a modern, interesting drink list might seem like a Herculean task. But if every restaurant bar in Pittsburgh made just one change the impact would be enormous: Throw out the bottled sours mix and start squeezing your own citrus. Fresh citrus helps create drinks that are refreshing, well-balanced and that stimulate the appetite -- true aperitifs, perfect for sipping while perusing a menu. Restaurant bonus: Bowls of lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits make gorgeous bar-side decorations.
Drinks that inspire dining: The "La Diabla" at Yo Rita, the Salty Dawg at Mantini's Woodfired, almost anything at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen.
Cooking from scratch is essential for a quality restaurant, but there's one item that should almost always be made by an outside supplier: the bread. Baking bread is a complicated craft, part science and part alchemy. Restaurants shouldn't do it unless their bread is as good as the best available.
Best bread basket: Lidia's Pittsburgh, Eleven Contemporary Kitchen.
One of the greatest pleasures of restaurant dining is being able to order exactly what you want for dinner. It's understandable that we all feel a little crushed when a server must make the walk of shame back to the table to inform us they've just run out of that dish tonight. Worst of all is the situation where an order is placed and the server immediately says that they're out of a dish. Don't hope we won't order it. Tell us up front.
The occasional oversight is understandable, but often this type of confusion indicates poor communication between the kitchen and front-of-house.
Best Teamwork: Vivo, Dinette, Eleven Contemporary Kitchen.
Beautifully prepared food can lose some of its luster when presented on plates that are the wrong size, shape or have seen better days. Wine literally tastes better when it's served in the proper glass. Not every restaurant can afford (or should spend money on) Riedel, but the quality and style of a restaurant's dinnerware should match the food.
Prime plates: Pittsburgh Chop House, Wild Rosemary.
Farming out bread baking is one thing, dessert is another. No restaurant should entrust such a significant portion of its menu to outside hands. One thing I've noticed? Restaurants that don't make their own desserts almost always have oral dessert menus (although the reverse isn't necessarily true). Diners should have a chance to mull over the dessert course, rather than ordering the chocolate cake because they can't remember the other options. The dessert menu should also list coffee, tea and after-dinner drinks.
Drool-worthy dessert lists: Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar, Sonoma Grille, Legume Bistro, Dinette, Paris 66.
The meal is over, perhaps the check is even paid. But restaurants have one last chance to impress. Are leftovers plopped in styrofoam containers, wrapped in plastic wrap and plopped onto the white linen covered table? Or are they neatly packed in paper boxes, dated and labeled, and secured in attractive bags for easy carrying? It's particularly elegant when restaurants keep the bags and give the diner a check to reclaim their leftovers along with any coats.
Classiest carry-out: Cioppino