I recently read another glowing review of The French Laundry, which is a restaurant in Napa Valley by Chef Thomas Keller. There are some people who believe it is the best restaurant in the United States. Apparently, most food critics also believe this or are at least afraid to say anything to the contrary. I feel the urge to add my own French Laundry story to the mix, just to show another perspective - an ordinary person's experience with dining at the finest restaurant in the United States.
My mother's only request for her 60th birthday was to have dinner at the French Laundry. I was put in charge of making the reservations, which is easier said than done. For large groups, the French Laundry gives you two options. There are only 15 tables in the dining room, but there is one big table upstairs for a larger group - it seats 12. You can either have this table for 12 or you can rent the entire restaurant for $30,000. Well, that wasn't exactly within our price range, so we went for the table of 12.
Now, if you want to make a reservation for a normal number of people, such as two or four, you have to call two months in advance. But, if you want to make a reservation for more than six people, you have to call a year in advance. So, I did. I began calling a year before my mother's 60th birthday. And I called, and I called, and I called. I called at all hours of the day and night. I never got to a person or an answering machine. Nothing. The recorded message just said, call between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm to make reservations.
After a month of this, I got creative. I emailed every person who was listed on the website. I was very nice and explained my problem. I didn't get a response. I emailed again, this time I was not so nice. Finally, the PR person contacted me and, after some back and forth about dates, we got a reservation. Incidentally, I had to take my third choice of nights because the other two had already been reserved. I would like to know HOW they were reserved since I tried in vain for two months before a response.
So, ten months later, twelve of us descend upon the French Laundry. And, of course, the food was incredible. Beyond incredible - unbelievable in some instances (such as the kobe beef, which I still have dreams about). But, you expect that when you are eating at a place like the French Laundry. It better be damn near the best food you have had in your life. However, overall, I wouldn't say it was the best dining experience I have ever had. Charlie Trotter's in Chicago far exceeded the French Laundry.
My evaluation is not based on differences in food, per se. The food at both restaurants was outstanding, as were the wines paired with the food. At this level of dining, it is overall experience that clouds or enhances the evaluation. At Trotter's, we ate at the kitchen table, a small table actually in the kitchen. At the French Laundry, we were shoved into a tiny little room, barely big enough for the table and chairs. The service was impeccable at both places, but at Trotter's the service was friendly and warm. You could tell that everyone from the waiters to the sous chefs to the expediter were happy to have us there. We actually met Charlie Trotter, briefly. At the French Laundry, everyone was courteous and professional, no more.
At Trotter's, we got a personal tour of the restaurant, kitchen, and wine cellar. At the French Laundry, we were allowed to peek in the kitchen. At the French Laundry, we were told to keep our voices down when the drink went to our heads. At Trotter's, the kitchen staff laughed and joked with us and gave us more wine. One chef even took on my challenge to serve me some sort of "foam" that didn't look like dog vomit. (It didn't work, I am still not a fan of foams.)
Given the chance, would I eat at the French Laundry again? Absolutely, although I do not believe it is the best in the country. Restaurants should not be rated just by how well they treat food critics and industry big-wigs. They should be evaluated by how they treat every customer. On that score, Trotter's wins hands down.
Statistical inference and the morning weight room
17 hours ago