Served: What Is My Restaurant All About Anyway?


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpg"Philly is a great restaurant city!" The Philadelphians chime.

To me, the restaurant scene is in an awkward adolescence. When my boyfriend and I began to explore, we noticed there was truffle oil everywhere, and on everything, fries and pasta and dumplings and pizza; a teenager gone trend happy.

Thanks to the Philly restaurant Big Guys, Steven Starr and Jose Garces, every establishment is immediately identified by its concept. There is the Spanish tapas place, the sceney bistro, Latin-Asian fusion (hello green curry chicharrones), the over-the-top steakhouse, the English Gastro Pub, and on and on—a veritable Disneyland of dining!

But something is missing sorely here: the great restaurant. Or rather, the great theme-less restaurant.

Which is why I was taken aback when one of our servers asked to speak with me. He was concerned we were lacking a clear-cut concept, and that this was a potentially fatal flaw.

Jump back a year and a half ago, when I had a meal at my now restaurant and interview with the owners, when they asked me what I thought of the place. I said something like: "Successful restaurants, like successful people, know who they are. I don't feel a strong sense of identity here."

The place, back then, was a total mishmash. The chairs, silverware, and art on the walls were hand-me-downs from deceased restaurants (much of our stuff still is). The menu called itself Argentinean/Italian, but the food was missing creativity, missing the spark of life.

Who We Are

When my boyfriend Micky took over the kitchen, he came with a flurry of ideas. Our opening menu was playful and full of wonderful details. I loved the rainbowed trout, rainbow trout covered in a rainbow of summer zucchinis and carrots.

We tried to engage all the senses, including the brain. There was Kindai tuna wrapped in a careful envelope of phyllo. The gazpacho had layers of gel and liquid, a beautiful science experiment in a bowl. The crew in the kitchen assembled intricate layer cakes of terrines, fried fish skins, crafted marshmallows out of yam juice.

While spewing plans and suggestions and techniques, Micky sometimes stood back and tried to pinpoint his philosophy. He had worked for and learned from some of the world's great chefs, but he resented when people dropped those names in reference to his work. Micky was making Micky's food, and nobody else's.

Inspired by my conversation with the server, I asked Micky again last night: "What are we all about?" I think it is a question for everyone at my restaurant. We are a small group, and we are building something (great) together. Who are we? Who do we want to be?

Like most people, our restaurant is figuring itself out. We are in our own adolescence, as our restaurant (in its current incarnation) approaches its first birthday. From what we set out to do each night, from how we do it, I feel I know us pretty well. And yet, it's challenging to put into words. And I'm a writer!

No question, we are farm-to-table. But that phrase can sound canned—and more importantly, doesn't do us justice. Yes, our ingredients are meticulously sourced from small, local farms. Yes, we are all excited about our blood red edible flowers, our miniature flowering cucumbers, our watermelon radishes. And yes, we change the menu constantly, as inspired by the seasons and the latest crop of spring garlic or summer peaches.

But we are more than exquisite ingredients. What they do with them in the tiny kitchen—it's pretty much magic. No roasting chickens and sautéing asparagus and calling it a day. Carrots are cooked in their own juice until they transform into something uber-carroty. Octopus is slowly confited until unfathomably tender. The kitchen crew slits and juices individual kernels of corn to make wildly sweet fresh polenta. They puff wild rice and tapioca into crunchy topping for soup, and turn tomatoes into flower petals and olive oil into powder.

Yet, neither is our restaurant a delicious science project. The dishes are assembled deliberately, and carefully. They are meant to be striking at first, and then satisfying for mind, belly, and soul.

I want us to be the best restaurant in Philadelphia. We already have the most stunning garden. My goal: best food and best service. Not best Farm to Table. Not best Fine Dining yet Casual Unpretentious Atmosphere with Molecular Touches. Just a really solid, wonderful restaurant that gets better every day. A place to come to on any given night, or to celebrate something special, and leave feeling really good. Is that possible. And if so, is that enough?