Dining Reviews

The Importance of Attention to Quality at This Precarious Time

Restaurants should focus on dishes they can do well to keep patrons returning

Downtown restaurants like Mozaic have adapted to provide maximum space for outdoor patio dining. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Dining outdoors is what’s for dinner. 

Bantam’s outdoor seating has been attracting the regulars for two months now. Vim’s petite patio books up fast. Avanti’s open air seating feels so inevitable it’s hard to remember when it wasn’t there. Sotola’s balcony serves outdoor dining with an ocean view. 

Downtown Santa Cruz is wide open for dining and the sidewalk cafe atmosphere is thick and vibrant. Pacific Avenue has reconfigured itself for outdoor seating: at the Kianti veranda; at Gabriella, Oswald, and Mozaic, tables along the fronts of the restaurants host patrons eager to enjoy the warm evening weather. Up at Chaminade, the panoramic view is matched by al fresco dinner specials. And everybody’s glad to see that Shadowbrook is back open! Limited seating indoors and 50% capacity outdoor patio dining.

Cautionary Tale

Restaurateurs, we’re on your side. You’ve got the toughest road to hoe during this whole pandemic crisis. Smaller clientele, social distancing, costs of setting up new interiors and adding outdoor seating. I get it. You can barely meet your costs, much less employee payroll. That’s why I want to be able to nudge GT readers toward the best meals. I want to be able to recommend dining spots that have maintained their standards even during the worst of times. 

And that’s why I was so disappointed when I brought home a takeaway dinner from an established place and found it pretty much inedible. Meat and seafood practically raw. The salad limp, watery, and flavorless (it only took me five minutes max to get this meal from restaurant to my house). Here was the real deal-breaker: hard, tough rice pilaf. Like little plastic ovals tinged with yellow, this was rice that simply wasn’t worth eating.

But I kept thinking, since this is one of those times where quality can make or break a restaurant, how could they have been so indifferent? Didn’t anybody in the kitchen bother to taste the food? Maybe they’ve made ten thousand orders of rice pilaf and the kitchen is bored. But that’s no reason to send out a meal that is such a negative advertisement for the restaurant. What about pride in their reputation? Every patron paying for a meal deserves better.

The more I fumed over having spent $70 for food that was frankly a joke, the more it hit me: A restaurant that doesn’t even bother to care about pleasing patrons might not survive these hard times. Survival of the fittest.

Pro-tip for diners—an obvious strategy. Reverse triage. You know the restaurants you love. You want these restaurants to survive, and they deserve to! Show your love by dining there or ordering takeout—often. Your support will help keep them going during this delicate period. And your devotion will be rewarded with a meal you want to eat. If you have the resources, you can expand your dining horizons to include places that other people recommend. Give them a try. See what you think. If you have a good experience, by all means go back. Often. 

Finally, restaurants like the one I described above that can’t be bothered to give fair value for the patrons’ money should cut back their menus to a handful of dishes they can do well. Dwindling patronage is a clear indication that they’re not delivering the goods. I for one won’t return.

Chefs and owners: Never let a meal leave the kitchen that you wouldn’t be proud to serve to anyone. Even a restaurant reviewer.

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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