How Do You Judge a Wine Bar? A Coffee Shop? A Tex-Mex Restaurant?
That's the question -- or, rather, series of questions -- that arose at a recent dinner.
Photo by ysakaki It says "Craft Beer Bar" right on the awning. It has to be legit, right?
My friends and I had chosen a new-ish Tex-Mex restaurant that night and the chips and salsa that arrived first were appallingly bad. So bad, in fact, that we were left dreading the rest of the meal. And as expected, what followed was one of the worst dinners I've had all year, Tex-Mex or otherwise.
Are chips and salsa at a Tex-Mex restaurant an overall indicator of quality? Quite often, yes.
I know a few places where the chips and salsa are unmemorable although the rest of the food is terrific (Los Dos Amigos, for example) -- but I also know places where the chips and salsa are perfectly reasonable yet the food is awful. Still, these places are outliers on the bell curve of overall quality, and chips and salsa remain my bellwether for gauging a restaurant from the start.
The discussion over dinner quickly turned to other establishments: How do you judge a cocktail bar? A coffee shop? A food truck?
My friends and I compared and contrasted our own litmus tests and came to some fairly distinct conclusions. To broaden the pool a bit, I also polled my rough thousand friends on Facebook as to how they judge ten different establishments -- a cocktail bar, a beer bar, a wine bar, a Tex-Mex restaurant, a French restaurant, a sushi restaurant, a food truck, a bakery, a coffee shop and a burger joint -- and received a slew of responses.
The results are here, but I want to hear your own ideas in the comments section below.
Judge a Tex-Mex restaurant by its chips and salsa.
Photo by prayitno
Are the chips stale? Too thick or too thin? Is the salsa too watery, too bland, too heavy on inappropriate spices like garlic? Does it taste like a jar of Pace salsa dumped into a ramekin? These are all indications that your meal ahead may be rough.
Alternate answers: Cheese enchiladas, how expensive the fajitas are (anything over $20 is an automatic disqualifier), guacamole, queso, tortillas (made in house is preferable by far), margaritas
Judge a cocktail bar by its martini.
Photo by Michael Nielsen
If the bartender asks you what kind of vodka you want in your martini, leave. Just get up and leave.
Alternate answers: Manhattan (and whether or not the bar has rye whiskey), whether or not the bartender can make you a simple bitters and soda, whether or not there's a dress code (if there is -- again -- leave), knowledge of the staff, the colors of the bar's signature cocktails -- are they colors found in nature?
Judge a sushi restaurant by its sushi rice.
Photo by Island Vittles
Good sushi rice is hard to find. Is the rice bland? Does it stick to your fingers like glue? Does it fall apart when you touch it? Does it even look like sushi rice, or just some Uncle Ben's that the kitchen found at the store? If the restaurant doesn't care about its rice -- the most basic component of sushi -- it won't care as much about its fish.
Alternate answers: Ratio of rolls to actual sushi or sashimi (more rolls usually indicates lower quality fish that the restaurant is trying to disguise), sashimi, tamago (if the restaurant can make tamago and make it well, the chef can probably make everything that good), whether or not the restaurant carries cuts like collar or belly, availability of real wasabi