going to a restaurant for the first time is like going on a blind date. no matter how much effort you put into the evening - how well you dress, if you arrive on time, etc... - you never really know what to expect. just as your date may or may not show up, or, worse pretend not to see you and leave, so, too, might the restaurant just not show up. the food, like conversation, could be bland and boring, the wait staff missing in action, the dinning room could look like it could use a shower and a shave. you could spill red wine all over your shirt. (after all, not everything is your date's fault - be your date a person or a trattoria.) but the most important part of subjecting yourself to potential disaster - and we do subject ourselves to this, time after time, until we're married or we just decide to eat at home for the rest of our lives - isn't getting through evening; it's deciding whether you want to go for a second date.
for the most part, restaurant reviews tend to ignore this vital question. they give us a taste of the food, the price, the atmosphere, but very rarely does a review ever encourage repeat visits. we're told to try a restaurant out, give it a chance - but watch out for the steak, it's a little dry. maybe skip this café, but try that one. they have better eclairs. no where in any of these suggestions is a hint that this next restaurant could become your regular hangout, that you could find yourself part of a community made up of staff and regulars - that you could become a regular yourself.
while i may not agree with all server/restaurateur opinions expressed in books and blogs and other such media (see waiter rant), i do agree with one constantly repeated concept: the key to exceptional service (and often a superior dining experience), is to become a regular. of course, to become a regular, you have to give up the one thing that most diners hold most precious: your anonymity. you have to let the restaurant get to know you just as you get to know it. and that means you have to take responsibility for your own actions in public. there's no dining and dashing, snapping your fingers loudly in anyone's face, getting upset because your dinner didn't magically appear five minutes after you ordered it. the role of a regular is a relaxed customer - not an anxious or abusive one. however difficult it may seem to roll with the punches - and restaurants can be notorious for sucker punches - by cultivating this relationship you're not only ensuring the quality of your future nights out, you're supporting the restaurant. simply put, you take care of the restaurant, the restaurant will take care of you. it's a win-win situation.
so how do you decide where you want to become a regular? a general review isn't going to tell you that - just like your friend isn't going to tell you that your blind date has a penchant for paisley and a bizarre habit of smacking his or her lips loudly after every single bite. (unless it's a really good friend, and then you probably wouldn't be going on that date, anyway.) jl and i have a funny habit of trying some place new, going back one or two times, and being remembered as quasi-regulars. maybe part of it is that we often sit at the bar, don't mind waiting for food or drinks when the restaurant is obviously busy, and enjoy holding conversations with the people around us - including the staff. but it could also just be because we both shower regularly. who knows?
i don't have an exact criteria list for what an establishment needs for me to become a regular there, but i'm working on it. when i have a better idea of what i look for in my collection of usual hangouts, i'll start posting my version of restaurant reviews/blind dates. (i'll do my best to speed things up, i know a few people have been asking for them. plus, eating out is fun.) so what about you? what do you look for in a normal dining experience and what would encourage you to become a regular at a restaurant?