Even the best restaurants have off nights. The truly great ones stand apart because they don’t slip up very often. But every person can’t have a perfect meal at a restaurant every time—no matter how great it is. Unfortunately, as dining culture has grown so have our expectations. It’s not unusual to hear people describe meals as religious epiphanies using words like “euphoric” and “life-changing.” The truth is, most of the time we set ourselves up to be underwhelmed. As we raise the bar to unattainable levels, it creates a vicious cycle that suppresses our enjoyment of dining out.
We need to stop sensationalizing the way we talk about restaurants. When we have one bad experience—even if it’s the only time we’ve been to a restaurant—we have no compunction about slandering it to everyone we know. The food media stokes the fire with gossipy news and negatively-toned clickbait. When an influential critic denigrates an iconic restaurant (see: Pete Wells v. Per Se) it goes viral on social media. We may hate to admit it, but it’s much more satisfying theater having someone eviscerate an established restaurant than to praise an emerging one’s potential.
A restaurant is an imperfect organism, a complex ecosystem with many moving parts. When things are firing on all cylinders it can be a well-oiled machine behind the curtain and a beautifully orchestrated ballet on stage. But when you work in a restaurant, every night starts from zero. Nobody cares how good you were yesterday. The human component that fuels a restaurant’s operation gives it an even more unpredictable level of fallibility—language barriers, depressed wages, egos, alcohol abuse, drugs, burnout and apathy are all enemies of consistency. People make mistakes.
A restaurant staff’s performance is similar to that of a sports team or a troupe of actors. When the game or show starts, anything can happen. Even the most dominant team suffers an unexpected loss or the award-winning musical has a sloppy performance. Servers and cooks are trained rigorously to be precise in their day-to-day execution of tasks but the wheels can come off the wagon. Sometimes they fuck up. Even the most loyal diners have very little patience or understanding when restaurants get knocked off their center. But like theater and sport, the thrill of the live performance keeps the seats full and the audience hungry.
But we could stand to be more forgiving. Accepting that restaurants are flawed, we can learn to love them even with their faults—like staying in a relationship with someone despite their eccentricities. Coming from a more compassionate place, it shouldn’t be as disappointing when your steak is slightly overcooked or the pasta is not al dente. If you’re expecting to have a religious experience in a restaurant then you need to learn to have a little more faith.