I’m not entirely displeased about this part of the downturn. Despite an abundance of competition for fine dining restaurants in the Bay Area, the fact remains that prices have gone up well beyond the rate of inflation, especially for wine. It’s not uncommon to see a bottle of wine that I know goes for $24 retail selling for upwards of $60, and that goes well beyond what is reasonable profit from this diner’s perspective.
Not since 9/11 have Bay Area restaurants, whether it be the fancy, white-tablecloth ones or the cozy neighborhood hangouts, seen such a lull in business. But this time, restaurant owners say, it’s worse. Even in an area known for its obsession with food, some restaurants say revenue is down as much as 40 percent. Many restaurateurs are laying off workers; others reducing the days they are open. Then there are those who are just plain calling it quits.
The biggest problems hitting Bay Area restaurants are me-too entrees and shitty service. Even my local favorite, Village Pub, has gone down in service quality and the menu features fewer new dishes, instead focusing on tired standards that have lost much of their novelty.
In recent years there are only two restaurants that I would say exceed expectations on every level. The first is Quattro at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto, not only is the food and service outstanding, and reasonably priced, but even the valets and hotel staff remember you and treat you like a regular. The second actually is surprising to me but I would say that French Laundry delivers on every ounce of the hype and then goes a step further, with food that I would pick for a “last meal” and service that is impeccable at every turn. It’s hard to believe that French Laundry can still do it after 10 years but they still hit it out of the park every night.
For the rest of the Bay Area restaurant community the strategy should be one of getting back to basics. If you aren’t going to innovate new dishes that truly are of a level that differentiates you from everyone else, then focus on value and deliver good food even if it is me-too food at a fair price and do it with professional service that recognizes that the food is just one thing you are looking for when you go out to dinner. And yeah, I’m okay with paying up on a bottle of wine but don’t insult me by trying to gouge me and then do it with a smile.