Le Bernardin’s List of Service Sins

waiter1 Le Bernardins List of Service SinsI’ve worked in a lot of restaurants, but Le Bernardin wasn’t one of them. I like to imagine that I could have held my own in at least a front-of-the-house position, but after reading a list of Eric Ripert’s 129 rules for employees of his Michelin-starred (three!) restaurant, it’s pretty clear to me that I wouldn’t have measured up. My hat is off to seafood mecca’s staff for constantly upholding top-notch service standards — and for being able to remember 129 things at once. Impressive!

Restaurants and Book Clubs: Meeting over a Meal

book Restaurants and Book Clubs: Meeting over a MealI love being in a book club, but not always because of the books (Ask me about The Mercy of Thin Air…blech!). What I love is that we dine out every time we meet. This wasn’t always the case. We tried gathering at members’ apartments, but that didn’t work as well as we’d hoped. Conversation strayed too far from the book and interruptions (spouses, hosting duties) popped up. Restaurants were a better fit – but finding the right one proved to be a process.

We first met at a pub owned by a famous author. It was a bit too rowdy and no one was really thrilled with the fattening, downscale fare offered there. We tried a yummy Korean restaurant that made sublime bibimbap, but the slim wine list and lack of a full liquor license left us cold (and thirsty).  A deceptively overpriced restaurant proved financially disastrous.  A too-casual joint (think chili!) was yet another letdown, although we did discover Dorothy Parker was on to something: Round tables are a must!

Armed with a refined list of our needs (reasonable prices, upscale cuisine, interesting cocktails, respectable wine list, vibrant crowd, round tables, and convenient location), I set out to find the right restaurant for us. It turned out to be Elizabeth, a new-ish place in the NoLita section of Manhattan. A tall banquette provides us with privacy and fosters conversation. The restaurant offers budget-friendly, $25 Mondays (two courses and a glass of wine or beer), a noted mixologist helped craft the cocktail list, and the menu appeals to our diverse appetites. Nearly two years into our book club, we’ve guaranteed that we’ll always enjoy our meetings even if we don’t always enjoy the books.

Want to avoid our trial and error and make the most of your book club meetings? Use these tips:

Consider picking a regular venue. As my fellow book clubber Nancy commented, “I love that we have a regular book club restaurant, and that it’s so adorable and elegant. Just like us.” The latter sentiment may be debatable, but having a place ideally suited to our needs has made planning our meetings a snap.

Look for pre-fixe deals – or ask if the restaurant might create one for your group. Depending on how big your club is and how often you’ll commit to going there, you may be able to work something out.

Get cozy. Don’t be afraid to sit a bit closer than you normally might. Squeezing seven people into a table for five actually makes things more fun.

Note your needs. Use the “Special Requests to the Maitre D’” section on OpenTable to let the restaurant know your party is a book club and make personal requests (such as a round table or sitting closer than usual).

Start at the bar. Avoid veering off topic by meeting at the restaurant’s bar for a drink beforehand. Catch your breath, catch up, and trade gossip.  When you sit down for your meal, it will be much easier to keep the discussion focused on the book.

Garden-to-Plate: More Restaurants Grow Their Own

beets Garden to Plate: More Restaurants Grow Their OwnCoast to coast, more chefs are adding pitchforks to their batterie de cuisine as they create gardens to feed their culinary imaginations — not to mention their diners. From Dan Barber, the doyen of delicious, just-picked ingredients and owner of New York’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, to ambitious and environmentally conscious chefs on the West Coast (and everywhere in between), growing what you serve is growing in popularity.

Next door to New York, New Jersey chef Corey Heyer raises herbs and vegetables for The Bernards Inn, getting local schoolchildren involved in sowing in the spring. In Ohio, restaurant gardens are taking root at Cincinnati eateries, including Lavomatic Cafe & Urban Wine Bar, Chalk Food + Wine, Bistro JeanRo, and Orchids at Palm Court. Across the state, some of Cleveland’s chefs are getting into gardening as well, and you’ll find “homegrown” produce on your plate at Lago.

In California, arguably the birthplace of local, seasonal cuisine, many Los Angeles chefs are getting their hands even dirtier with urban restaurant gardens, including Jonathan McDowell of Blue Velvet, Rustic Canyon‘s Evan Funke, and Scott Garnett of Blue on Blue. Michael Bauer points out San Francisco and Napa restaurants where the line between chef and farmer is also blurred, including The French Laundry, Spruce, Poggio, Ubuntu, and Madrona Manor.

As both a devoted diner and home gardener, I hope this trend proves to be more than a foodie fad and we’ll find more as-local-as-local-gets produce on restaurant menus each year.

Restaurant Critic Frank Bruni to Leave New York Times

frank bruni Restaurant Critic Frank Bruni to Leave New York TimesMuch-loved (and oft-maligned) restaurant critic Frank Bruni is leaving the New York Times this fall, and hearts are breaking all over the world. The twitterverse was, well, atwitter about his imminent departure, and food bloggers are already speculating about possible replacements. His memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, is being released in August and while he’ll likely be busy promoting it for a few months, some people (yours truly included) are wondering why anyone would willingly walk away from one of the world’s most-coveted jobs.

We may never learn exactly why he’s stepping down, but I do know I’ll miss Mr. Bruni’s witty reviews and thoughtful blog posts very much. As for whom I’d nominate for a replacement, with the fate of the San Francisco Chronicle up in the air, perhaps it’s time for Michael Bauer to set his sights on the New York dining scene.

The Upside to Dining out in a Down Economy

fork knife menu1 The Upside to Dining out in a Down EconomyIs the recession keeping you out of restaurants?  The New York Post details 10 ways a weakened economy is actually a boon to hungry diners, highlighting deals at Fishtail by David Burke, David Burke Townhouse, Chanterelle, Per Se, and more. Other trends include bar areas that are — wait for it! — for drinking rather than dining and burgers showing up on some very upscale menus (Sorry, no Per Se sliders!). Similarly, restaurants in your neighborhood that may have been out of your reach may be well within it. So, stop denying yourself and start dining out!

Gael Greene’s 12 Reasons to Eat out Now

Renowned restaurant critic (and one of the first folks to coin the term “foodie”) Gael Greene is, obviously, a fan of dining out and an ardent supporter of the restaurant industry. Acknowledging the recently more-limited budgets of her New York cohorts, she gives diners 12 cheeky reasons to reserve a table at the city’s pricier temples of gastronomy. With all due respect, I’ll add one of my own: 13. It’s fun!

Water Fight: Is Charging for H20 a No-No?

water glass Water Fight: Is Charging for H20 a No No?A San Francisco restaurant is charging diners for water (a buck per bottomless glass) and Michael Bauer investigates on his “Between Meals” blog. While the restaurant’s reasons are legitimate (the water they offer is filtered, available at room temperature or chilled, still or sparkling) and the dollar-per-diner charge helps offset the loss in sales of bottled water (a result of the City by the Bay’s Take Back the Tap campaign), most of Mr. Bauer’s faithful readers are outraged.

Confessional moment: I was a bottled-water consumer in restaurants until very recently. I like sparkling water, and when I ordered it, I was much more likely to stay hydrated during a meal. My inner tree-hugger forced me to abandon the bottled bubbly stuff, but if I could get an endless supply of environmentally friendly, sparkling water for a dollar, I’d consider it a deal. However, I do know that if a New York restaurant refused to serve a diner a gratis glass of our city’s tasty tap water, it would ignite a firestorm of controversy.

This probably isn’t the first time economical issues have collided with environmental concerns in the dining arena, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Where to Eat Like a ‘Top Chef’ Judge in New York

tpg Where to Eat Like a Top Chef Judge in New YorkThe New York Times checks in on some former “Top Chef” contestants cooking in Manhattan, including recent contender Leah Cohen, now head chef at Centro Vinoteca, Season 1 winner Harold Dieterle, head chef and co-owner of Perilla, and Season 3 winner Hung Huynh, who currently cooks at Solo. Bottom line: It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll, but, apparently, it’s an even longer way if you want to be a standout chef in the Big Apple.

To show your support for your former faves, book a table the next time you’re in the city that never sleeps — and enjoy the chance to channel your inner Gail, Padma or Tom.