Our critics sound off on the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant. 

Critically Speaking

Food, architecture, ambiance, personalities, service, marketing and, yes, even location, location, location magically converge when a restaurant works.

Today, with so many choices and so little time, perception matters more than the hard goods. The savvy restaurateur who can convince diners that "andouille sausage breaded Vietnamese catfish with herb tomato concasse" (an actual dish on a local menu) is a winner will have a chance of wooing diners back.

The cult of personality, the perception of the dining experience through promotion, word-of-mouth, news coverage and marketing matter immensely. Look at Havana '59, Tobacco Company and Ruth's Chris. Is there anybody in Richmond who doesn't know Jimmy Sneed's name?

Beneath the branding and the image-making of restaurants, Richmond enjoys a healthy food culture with many good places but few great ones. Consistency is a defining characteristic of a great restaurant. We want assurance that the wonderful experience will be re-created when we return.

What else makes the difference between good and great? Here's what Style's restaurant critics have to say:

First impressions matter. The gracious welcome and opening scenes should match the demeanor of the establishment. A scowl, a look at the book, and "Do you have a reservation?" never cuts it.

Then, there's the food. If your eatery is hip, the food need only be good. If it's a shabby scene, the food better be great. And there are plenty of those places.

At whatever level, the food should be wonderful and creative but not silly. We want to trust the kitchen to do what it promises — consistently with only the freshest ingredients cooked as described on the menu, in good time and presented at the right temperature.

We want good wines by the glass in nice — not small — wine glasses.

We want a pretty plate with a presentation that is eloquent without shouting.

We love it when the chef is generous, when there's a little flourish (a nice olive oil for the bread or an extra vegetable), or when the chef offers a little something extra, free, rather than piling up the plates.

Service is the hardest part of making a restaurant great. We want servers to be knowledgeable and well-trained, patient with misbehaving children or whining adults. We — let's face it — want them to look good, and be communicative but not overly friendly. We really don't want them to introduce themselves by name.

We don't want to wait for or ask for water or a spare napkin or our check.

We want servers who know their product and help you make decisions.

We want hot things hot and cold things icy.

We want the courses paced properly.

We do not want to feel ignored or rushed.

We want our server to make us feel important. We don't want her to whiz by with an "everything all right?" and leave a vapor trail. We want him to be generous to a fault and gracious in the face of adversity.

When it's all over, we should be handed a tab that accurately reflects the experience. And we should leave feeling wonderful and wanting to tell the world all about


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