Stephen Dare has 20 years of experience at Restaurant ownership and cafe development. 30 years of professional experience as a chef. In this article he provides a short and impolitic list of the best food and dining options in the city from a purely food based perspective. Join us after the jump and weigh in!
As a chef with a lot of experience (30 years) and training in a lot of different ethnic cuisines and a few restaurants under my belt I find that I judge restaurants with an internal double standard. Its like I have two different sets of standards. Im pretty sure that I have this in common with most other chefs.
The first one is how I publicly speak about restaurants. I try and take into account something like a bell curve. How many people really have access to what levels of food and service quality, vs the average experience in a corporate food production environment, and how do the quality and prices really stack up given the averages of the city its located in. Its a kinder measure, obviously. And certainly a lot more 'fair' to the restaurant owners, chefs, employees etc.
I've learned from experience how freaking difficult the city can make it to produce really great food for the public. The expenses of the restaurant are sometimes crippling. The availability of quality ingredients can be very sporadic and limited. The level of training in food culture of your employee pool can be very shallow.
And if you can't afford to spend money on back end quality, or you can't physically get the best ingredients possible or your employees don't really know what the hell they are doing, then it can be almost impossible to execute the vision of the owner/chef. So I try to be as flexible as possible and as understanding of every possible link along the way of delivering the food to my table.
Under this first 'standard', I recommend a whole lot of restaurants locally. Many wonderful people with decent food and great concepts plus decent prices. More often than not I will recommend a restaurant to friends based on the type of other diners that can be found there. Jacksonville is such a chatty town that its hard for a friendly person to go to a restaurant or cafe and not meet at least one other person involved with it. So under this first set of qualities, the social milieu can definitely come into play. At least for me.
My second opinion, the more private one, however is a lot more selective, and probably a lot less 'fair' to the people and restaurants in which I dine.
Because you have to know food pretty intimately, menus don't have any mystery for a trained or experienced chef. For example, I can taste the ingredients, and the flavor, intensity and texture tell me how they were cooked, and with what level of skill.
The quality of the original ingredients is instantly obvious to a chef, and we can look at the cutting techniques to guess almost everything there is to know about the methods used to prepare the food.
We can tell where corners have been cut, when super premium ingredients have been used, and almost every mistake along the way from prep to execution to server mistakes in delivery (like leaving the food in the window for too long or garnishing with disastrous sauces or the like) Most of us can taste when the sauces were rushed, or overcooked. If there was a burnt bottom to them, whether or not real cream was used or just milk, or in some cases, cornstarch and water.
We also know how much the raw ingredients cost, and how difficult the prep was to make the food. I would bet that a few other professionals here also have an automatic chef's algebra that is constantly working inside their heads to determine the price of ingredients vs the difficulty of the recipe and the skill of the chef's execution to calculate how much the dish should cost retail. On top of that we also can gauge how trained the service staff is and whether or not service standards are being ignored or if the restaurant is simply overstaffed and temporarily overwhelmed..
Using this second set of standards, badly executed food can really put you off privately, and that ire is radically increased in the presence of two other factors: pretentious bragging about the food quality and a smugness of expectation, or when the food is radically overpriced in comparison to what is actually being served.
Most of us will never share that second opinion with other people unless they are very close friends or family or other professionals. The criticisms always sound like nit picking assholiness to people who don't have experience with food and you risk coming off as a pedantic, pretentious asshole yourself.
(It also makes one a very unwelcome dinner guest as the person who prepares the dinner is constantly on the defensive and worried that they are failing on some visceral level. For the record, I think most professionals appreciate the ambiance and luxury of being invited to a private dinner provided by someone else far more than being in a commercial setting. Usually I am fascinated and very much in love with the unexpected flavors and free form cooking that a person will lavish on home cooking that simply doesn't make sense from the point of view of time limits, efficiency or food cost. Its usually like Water for Chocolate, and home cooked meals are often a really wonderful break for a commercial chef.)
Also, while the second set is more honest in terms of food quality and price, they can also be terribly unfair for the reasons given above.
I eat out a lot. And I 'like' a lot of restaurants locally. But there are really only a few places that I go to where the act of dining is an actual pleasure and I feel like I am getting the best quality food for a reasonable price.
In compiling this list, I realized that they don't really have a lot in common. Some are a little pricey, some are a very inexpensive, some are diverse, and some are very narrowly focused menus.
Anyways, I don't want to talk about the reasons why restaurants haven't made this list, (If your favorite high profile restaurant isn't on here, the exclusion is probably not an oversight) but I did want to list the food products and environments that I think are the best in the city from a chef's point of view. The places where I enjoy the food and think the price point accurately reflects what is getting to the diner.
Here goes. Please, fellow chefs feel free to weigh in with your own lists. Solely on the places that you personally enjoy eating, and lets go ahead and establish the rule that you don't have to mention the restaurants of the company that you work with. Let us all assume that your individual establishments are brilliant.
Here are mine, in no particular order: