I propose extending the science of Epidemiology to apply to restaurants. We could study why good (or bad) experiences occur more frequently in certain areas than in others. We could predict the schizophrenia of Sundas. A rash of Rias. And even the wonderful rebirth of Public House’s Pump Room.
The art of solving nasty problems in one discipline with elegant solutions from another is nothing new. The Black-Scholes option pricing formula was the product of bringing Fischer Black’s scientific expertise to bear on economic problems. Myron Scholes was a finance prof at Stanford and Robert Merton was an economist at Harvard. In the early 70s, options were brand-new and traders were working off of hunches. This made prices highly, highly volatile – almost random. It is not likely that either professor could have distilled the theory and assumptions into the options pricing formula without Black, who, being a physicist, saw almost immediately that what seemed random from above could be described formulaically, a close analogue to Brownian motion. Enter the stochastic differential equations and we have ourselves a whole new arsenal of financial weapons designed to make rich richer and you poorer. But seriously, they lose me at “equation” so if you care, go read further. And if you don’t give a flying flock about interpretations, then just skip to the last paragraph.
Every time I walk into an eatery, I may as well be going for a random walk. This bothers me immensely. I rely on reviews of trusted gluttons. Personal knowledge of the staff. Perhaps the chef, or owners or the managers. None of the aforementioned is worth a bowl of gruel. Sometimes you get exceptional. Sometimes you trip on a dreadful fat tail. But most of the time you end up somewhere in the middle. A pretty standard distribution of experience. But…why can’t we look past our selfish one-off experiences and treat dining as a group affliction with the same series of causations as every other thing in life?
Can we notice that at restaurants attached to a hotel, the skill of professional management on the hotel side tends to percolate down to the dining room? This is because the hotel business is so investment-heavy and commoditized that making money depends on squeezing out inefficiencies to a degree that requires professional education on the subject. Few can afford to learn on the job. Most restaurants, however, are case studies in inefficient operation and for every Gibson’s that can set a wristwatch with consistency there are 1000 Rias that think that the romance of making tonic at the bar will survive the onslaught of a single Thursday night. Anyone who has experienced a Thursday night on Rush street can tell you otherwise and people would rather have their drink than wait ten minutes for something marginally better. And besides, on the 16th round, nobody can tell anything about the vodka, much less the tonic.
Next, there’s the neighborhood. Split 20 meals between the Gold Coast and Hipsterville, and 19 will be better experiences in the former. Why? Staffing. Stereotypes aside, when I am served by a member of the Great Unshowered, more often than not the job is just transitional while he/she finds a less demeaning way to plug the $80k dollar art degree. Transience always equals caring less. Turn-over with such staff is well over 50% and since the shoddy service rarely earns good tips, the bus staff also quits and soon the downward spiral is complete. Since quality bus service is the key differentiator between a good experience and excellent, any restaurant where bussers can’t make a decent living goes to service hell much faster. By contrast, look at some of the city’s greatest service restaurants. I’ve known some staff at Gibson’s Group for the better part of a decade - it’s their job, they accept it and strive to excel at it. The bussers at Vivo and even some other (earlier) KDK Restaurants had worked there since the kitchens opened and earned a very healthy living which was often complimented by a C-note from idiots like me for truly exceptional performance. FYI, I knew the bus staff at Vivo very well and they all had houses and properties for rent – which they likely rented to the armies of the third tactical division of the Royal Bucktown Buffoonery.
So…needless to say our Pump Room experience was stellar. The redesign was great and the food itself was great (not excellent). Service, however, was truly excellent and made up for the rare misstep. I must admit that as a long-time Vong fanatic, I really expected my taste buds to jump onto the plate as they did with staples like the veggie-curry pizza, the spicy pad thai, and the passion fruit soufflé. They did, but not at the level I remember. Notable exception was the pork chop which was served with a green curry salsa that would have made my eyes bug out if not for the quick availability of alcohol to wash away my tongue. To their credit, I was warned. The tomato bisque soup tasted like they used skim milk and the tuna tartare was nowhere in the league of Le Colonial. Having an uncomfortable amount of gristle, it should cost less than its $14 since all it seems to be is a tuna waste receptacle. BUT!!! A Maker’s Mark (neat) only costs $10 which is rare this side of Damen – especially at a Hotel. Pump Room has plenty of affordable wine and lots of clever drinks. On a prior barhop, I ordered a martini made with tobacco juice that the staff prepares themselves. Very very good. This is the kind of thing that deserves a premium price – not pouring Maker’s in a glass. Anyway, I readily admit that my critiques of the experience are more driven by past knowledge of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s true capacity to please. Any other chef would not be held this much accountable for not giving me an oral orgasm with every mouthful. Whoa, sorry, that sounded really bad.