There are tons of
sources on the internet and in print for restaurant reviews.
Professional food critics make big bucks, small newspapers often hire
freelance food reviewers, there are user generated food review sites
like Zagat (the original user generated book of amateur foodies) and Chow.com
(one of the first big amateur food review sites and forums), as well as
countless blogs, independent papers and websites, online city guides
and iPhone apps devoted to food and restaurants. Many of
them use some sort of standardized criteria or rating system that
includes thoughts or values ascribed to the quality of the food, the sprightliness of the service and the beauty or appropriateness of the decor.
In previous posts, I've created a methodologies for reviewing products (including websites) and cookbooks, so I'd like to do the same for restaurants:
The Food - Obviously the most important one - it's why we go to
restaurants and I personally am willing to forgive any of the following
criteria if the food is tasty enough.
2. Eco-ness - There are tons of publications, blogs and personalities talking about local and sustainable agriculture these days, and rightly so. Many restaurants have taken the lead in showing consumers what can be done with a seasonal menu that is locally sourced and in many cases organically grown. I think this is an important criteria and one that I look for when I eat out.
3. User Friendliness - Most restaurants don't think of their customers as being 'users' (many restaurants don't think about their customers, period) but they should. When I enter a restaurant space I want to feel reassured and like I can accomplish what I am there to do. This could include everything from decor and furnishings to menu design to service and ambiance.
4. Value - This won't only be about cost, but also about how a restaurant makes you feel about the money you spent. Was it really worth it? If given a choice, would you spend that money in the same way again?
The first restaurant I'd like to apply my new methodology to is T.J. Buckley's, a lovely little restaurant in Brattleboro, VT.
I lived in Southern Vermont for about six years. For 4 of it, I attended Marlboro College. I briefly moved to Brattleboro where I lived above the Shin La restaurant (my landlord Mr. Kim thought my first name was funny and never fixed my leaky roof) and I worked at the Latchis Theater selling tickets and at Tom & Sally's Handmade Chocolates making their then famous "Cow Pies" and other handmade chocolates. All very romantic, but not very lucrative. I always wanted to eat at T.J. Buckley's - a little restaurant down Elliot Street, housed in an old dining car (or diner according to some people) that I heard was amazing, but was very expensive, so I never did.
I was visiting Brattleboro last weekend for my annual trip to Vermont, and my BF and I had a free evening, so called up to see if we could get a table. The place is SMALL (8 tables - holds a maximum of 20 dinner guests), but maybe because it was Sunday night (or maybe because of the economy...) we were able to get a table for two on short notice. Happily, it was one of the best dining experiences I've had in a really long time.
1. The Food - The menu is small - 3 appetizers, 4
mains and 4 deserts, and for the mains, generally a choice between
beef, fish and poultry. It's also not printed, but is 'delivered' by the server when you are seated and have ordered wine.
For an appetizer, my BF had the crab cakes which were really amazing - they tasted of crab but not overwhelmingly so - they were very herby and nice. I had a philo/feta pastry with honey. It was really tasty, though almost had too much feta. Each of the main courses automatically comes with a salad. I have to say that the salad was one of the highlights of the evening (how often can you say that?) Beautifully composed with fresh lettuces, radish flowers, beet slices, real edible flowers and a simple vinaigrette, it was so beautiful I almost didn't want to eat it. The choices for main courses that night were hanger steak (which isn't my favorite cut of steak) scallops, halibut or rabbit. I had halibut that came with risotto, cabbage, lentils, cucumber salad and amazing shaved fennel that was toasted and crispy and so delicious. My dish was a nice mix of different tastes, textures and was nicely plated to allow for eating elements separately or to mix them together. After some hemming and hawing and overcoming his guilt, my BF ordered the rabbit. A loin stuffed with greens as well as a leg were served with beans, vegetables and boudin blanc. It was tender and delicious - an earthy dish. I've always thought rabbit would be gamey and/or stringy. This was neither.
We ordered a small dessert - classic creme brulee which was perfect (surprisingly, many restaurants ruin this dish by doing the brulee before hand, then putting it in the 'fridge so the whole dish is cold rather than having a cold-ish custard with a warm sugar top) and a lovely clover honey ice cream.
2. Eco-ness - I think that T.J. Buckley's was one of the first restaurants that I ever heard of that focused on local and seasonal food. The rabbit was locally raised, salad and vegetables from local farms and the menu changes daily to reflect what is available. Vermont has always been a socially progressive state and I think is still one of the leading states that focuses on natural and sustainable food, and has a still very active farming economy and culture. It's one of my favorite places to be in the summer - a Vermont summer bounty of fruits and vegetables almost makes up for the months and months of winter that you live through there.
3. User Friendliness - Even though T.J. Buckley's is very small it's also very comfortable. It doesn't feel crammed or crowded. There is nice attention to details like little vintage flower vases at each table. Assorted and tasteful silver cutlery and vintage dishware lend the space a relaxed character while providing a nice Vermont-y charm without it being about doilies and lace, or conversely, tie-die and wrinkled hemp cloth. The space itself is a simple oak paneled dining car (the exterior is a unprepossessing red metal dining car with a kitchen sticking out the back. You wouldn't really guess what's inside). Your focus really goes to the open kitchen where you can watch the sous chef composing the salads and the chef Michael Fuller work the stove.
I mentioned before, there are no printed menus. The only thing I didn't like about not having a printed menu was that the entree's were actually pretty complex - with lots of different ingredients. I always feel bad making the server repeat something over again, and I often focus on one element in the dish (polenta? fennel?) and don't listen to what comes next. Also, when you are thinking about ordering wine, it's difficult to make a choice unless you have some idea about what you are going to eat. I also think that the presentation and design of a menu can speak volumes about the food you are about to eat: Is it too detailed? Not detailed enough? Well written? Well designed? Because the menu changes daily, it may not make sense to have a printed menu, but a chalkboard might be a nice compromise.
The service was friendly while not 'hover-y,' the pacing of each dish was great. I got my leftovers wrapped up in foil then shaped like a swan. The bill was handwritten and signed.
4. Value - T.J. Buckley's is not cheap. Each entree was $40.00 (which included the fabulous salad), apps were $11 each, dessert ~$5 each. The decent wine list has a nice mixture of prices and selections - from $30 to $100+. While our total meal cost us over $200 (including tip) we both felt like it was one of the better meals and eating experiences we'd had a in a long time and that it was definitely worth it. It's definitely (for me) not someplace I could go as a weekly or even monthly habit, but I would return for a special occasion and will recommend it to anyone traveling to the area who is looking for a great meal.
132 Elliot St
Brattleboro, VT 05301
(please forgive the quality of the photos...iPhones have OK cameras, but in low light aren't the best.)