One of my absolute favorites for an easy drinking, grab and go bottle of Red, Cren del Gufo offers bright flavors of cherry, beets, and stone fruit without being overly sweet. Many (Americans…) shy away from any wine that is unfamiliar to them only to miss out on some of the best, most affordable wines out there. The Nebbiolo grape is the very same which makes the world famous Barolo wines in Piedmont but, without some of the strong tannins and need for long aging which the Barolo wines are known for earning the Nebbiolo the nickname, “Barolo in Blue Jeans.” At $10-13, it’s well worth the risk, so pick some up and be adventurous!
Mr. S and I met for well over an hour the very next night and discussed areas of improvement for the service and the food. Unfortunately, being a part of the hotel, his own hands are tied and so much of the ideas we looked to implement had to be service and food oriented and not much could be done about over-all improvement of the menu, pricing, ambiance, etc. In this case, Mr. S is apparently forced to sell glasses of Rex Goliath Cabernet for $10 a glass when the bottle itself sells for less than $8 in most of the area surrounding the hotel. He shouldn’t be serving that stuff, anyway…c’est la vie, and on to the next!
I had a very interesting night at dinner tonight and I think the following email (with the names removed to protect the innocent) sums it up nicely.
I’ll post about the next steps and/or keep you involved with how it all went!
Dear Mr. S,
My name is X and I am a guest for the next few days at the (hotel) and I had the opportunity to dine at The X Restaurant this evening.
“Micheal” served me at the bar and a few bites into my main course, he gave me your card and encouraged me to write you and to report back on my experience.
The irony (or perhaps this is why Michael picked up on my interest in the restaurant and my meal) is that I have my own mystery dining consultancy in Philadelphia. I am here on other business, but, “Michael” did a good job tonight and was very friendly. If all I can convey tonight is that he did well, I would like to do just that. If you would like to learn a bit more about the meal and some of the areas for improvement, I would be happy to share them with you. I can’t really “turn it off” when I eat out and so, I can let you know a good deal about what I found tonight.
I can also report on my stay at the hotel over the next few days. I currently work only with restaurants in and around Philadelphia but, I spend nearly 60 nights a year sleeping in hotels and would like to add hotels to my client list at some stage. Perhaps you could critique me in my findings and help me in growing my services.
Please feel free to call me to speak further about my findings tonight at any time.
Many thanks for your time,
Interesting post here…
Not saying I don’t agree, or that I do, but, eat at these three exceptional additions to the Philadelphia food scene because your mind will be blown away at the consistency and quality of the food!
Thanks, Building Philly
Prosecco is a wonderful alternative to more expensive Sparkling White wines such as Champagne. In fact, in many cases, Prosecco’s light and fruity characteristics lend themselves even better to many food parings when compared with Champagne. Additionally, many people find that the Champagne is excessively dry and Prosecco’s sweeter composition makes for a more pleasant drinking experience on its own. Next time you are in the bottle shop and are thinking about Mimosas or Bellinis, or even just to celebrate reach for a bottle of Prosecco and you (and your wallet) will be glad you did!
Located at 252 South 16th Street, in Rittenhouse/Center City, La Viola Ovest (West in Italian) is a tried and true Italian BYOB. It is actually the expansion of the original restaurant which at the time was simply La Viola, but if you are a local, you now know it as La Viola East. If you are a traditionalist and want to experience the original, fear not…it is directly across the street (La Viola – 253 South…..well, you get the idea…because, you know, it’s across the street). Remember, BYOB is often synonomous with “Cash Only” and this center city standby is no exception; bring cash!
People end up at La Viola Ovest for many reasons, but I think if you were to survey the locals as they entered, they would say something like this: “The food is so consistently good and such a great value that when you think of going to any other local Italian BYOB (Philly has dozens…and dozens…) that there is no sense risking it anywhere else.” I know they would say something like this because this is what I tell people every single time I am asked for a recommendation on a local BYO, regardless of whether they ask about cuisine. Now, before you think this food critic has lost his mind because I know some of you are already rolling your eyes, re-read what I wrote. The food is so consistently “good…” This is, no matter who you are, good food. It is not great! Now that I have won some of my fellow food snobs back, we can continue.
La Viola (either location) has the quick dinner down to a science, and with good reason, as it is located only two and a half blocks from the Kimmle Center and The Academy of Music as well as the rest of Philadelphia’s burgeoning Music and Thea….Ha! No, I am sorry, I couldn’t finish that, The Academy has been in continuous use since 1857 and is still one of the most sought after tickets on the East Coast…but, I digress from La Viola, West….
Here is the good part though, if you want to eat and run as many of us city dwellers do, they are absolutely able to accommodate you. If you would rather take the slow rout, they can do that to and sometimes, the servers will even ask right at the beginning of your dining experience, “Are we heading to the show tonight?” They do a great job of reading the diners body language and though far less difficult, their attire. How does a server at such an affordable place have such a fine understanding of proper service etiquette (most times)? The staff turnover rate is shockingly low. (But, the standard table turn over rate isn’t, so, feel free to tell your server, “We are in no rush tonight,” or you may find your night out is cut a bit short.) Another perk for the locals…it only takes about 3-5 visits before the friendly staff greets you with a genuine smile and asks you how you have been.
I’d speak in more depth about the food, but, I am happy stating what I already have. Get what you like, it will be good, maybe even very good. For the out of towners, BYOB stands for, “Bring Your Own Bottle” (Most places, this means wine and beer…and that is fine and normal at La Viola, but, if you have a bottle of Spirits you would like to pour, they won’t flinch at it and there is no corkage fee, either…you gotta love Philly).
It wouldn’t be fair to sing only praise for admittedly one of my favorite spots near by, so I will say this; it is loud at peak times (7-10 pm, weekends and the odd Thursday). If you are on a first date or one of the many Penn/Drexel students who frequent La Viola, this is welcome music. If it’s “the more, the merrier,” book a reservation for your large party in the newly opened (2012) downstairs “cellar” dining area. It is shockingly loud and full to the brim with young, enthusiastic and soon to be very drunk local lovers of La Viola. Heck, even the odd 50+ couple will enjoy the energy, but, if you are looking to keep it more low key, you may want to find another place…Like La Viola (East).
Opened in 2009, Village Whiskey is one of Iron Chef Jose Garces’ mainstays these days in Philadelphia. Located at the corner of 20th and Sansom in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse neighborhood, VW has become well known for it’s burgers and expansive selection of whiskey from all over the world. The standard burger comes “neat” and has 10 optional add-on’s, ranging from cheese and caramelized onions to truffled mushrooms and even a fried egg. The good news is, it is every bit worthy of the $12 burgers we Philadelphians have become used to dinning on. The bad news is, for $12, that’s all you get; a burger (well, that and tomato, bibb lettuce, and a beautiful brioche bun) and for some, that will be enough, but, for me, I think you need the fries, the cheese, bacon…the whole 9. So, you add the Duck Fat Fries (take my advice and ask for them “extra crispy” or they can end up starchy and brittle), cheese, bacon, onions and your $12 gourmet burger is now a $25 meal. And again, it is worth it, but, expensive, so don’t sit down thinking you will just pop in and out for a cheap bite. If that is what you are in the mood for, best to go to the other corner of 20th and Sansom and hit up Shake Shack.
As long as we are talking expensive burgers, you may wish to go whole hog and try the Whiskey King; a bacon blue cheese burger with maple glazed cipollinis all topped off with a melting slice of frois gras. Regardless of what burger you try, you will notice the quality of the beef and will be rewarded for your splurging. With an impressive beer, wine, and cocktail list of classic and signature concoctions, VW is sure to keep you well watered, too. Try a Negroni while you are there if you’re not feeling the extensive Whisky list. On the other hand, you may want to take a cue from the name and try a tasting flight of 3 whiskies.
As with most places in Philly, you get what you pay for and VW is no exception. It’s unlikely that you will be disappointed in the quality of the food and the service, but, don’t go with an empty checkbook.
It always strikes me as funny what some people react well to and, what others do not. Sure, no one likes to be judged, but, that doesn’t mean that they will not be. In fact, it is really rather silly to walk around thinking you are not being judged by those around you. When it comes to restaurants, I am constantly shocked that, when I present my business card to the management or even the owner, that I am often times treated with much disdain. One restaurant owner said to me, “What on earth would I need you for?” His restaurant is closed now…
I am always encouraged by managers who invite honest feedback. After all, this is the service industry. These days, people know the basics about cooking, thank you Rachel Ray…and after all, the simplest of things are often times the best.
Fortunately, Philadelphia is full of restaurants who want to compete and become the local leader. Three such restaurants have come to my attention this week alone, and I am very excited about working with them. More to follow, and I hope I have a good few more establishments which I can recommend, soon!
Till then, Happy Eating!
This was just the question I found myself asking nearly 10 years ago when I first heard the term used by my now friend and mentor, Ken. But, perhaps I had ought to start a little further back.
I was fresh out of college having attended Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. I studied Sociology and Business there but learned as much outside of the classroom as I did in it.
Anyone who’s ever been to New Orleans will tell you that the locals live life their own way. Sure, everything is a little slower yet at the same time, the volume is turned up. If ever there was a city to challenge New York for living life at 11, it’s New Orleans. Unlike New York, (and yes, I lived there, too) in NOLA, food was culture. Food was the reason you did nearly anything. Sure, a party followed, but it was all about the food. Food is so ingrained in the culture that grown men, completely outside of the food industry would frequently get into heated debates on who’s jambalaya recipe was best, or even more important, who’s mother’s recipe was the best.
The only problem being a student in a city obsessed with food was that, as a student, I couldn’t afford any of it. I often looked forward to my father’s visits from Philadelphia because I knew he would be taking me out to dinner at least a few times. He had remarried after my parents were divorced 4 years earlier and my still new Step mom, Chavonne, was the first person I ever met who described herself as a “Foodie.” We didn’t get along terribly well at first and if it were not for food, we may never have become closer. My mother, whom I would later come to appreciate as an accomplished cook, raised three rambunctious boys nearly on her own, ran the house and worked full time as a school nurse. This didn’t leave her time to be a creative genius come dinner time. Her lack of time to prove her culinary chops was my Step mom’s in.
Chavonne would host elaborate dinner parties and would cook all day long in preparation. She put the same amount of effort into Christmas Dinners, Summer Barbecue’s and Birthday’s alike. I simply never knew food could taste so good. By the time I was 19, I’d eaten all over the U.S. and Europe and called New Orleans home. Still nothing came close to the food I ate in Chavonne’s kitchen in Philadelphia. I paid close attention to her techniques and began cooking on my own in College.
I had to constantly challenge myself to stay within a tight budget. I knew that quality mattered but also learned where a cheap substitute could come in handy. Fresh was best, but frozen would do. Time also mattered. Why spend a half hour making fresh puff pastry when frozen would ultimately taste the same (if not better) and anyway, I didn’t have a mixer! So, I cooked aiming to replicate the dishes I loved over the years but, on a shoe string budget. I had plenty of neighbors to test recipes on and my craft came into focus.
By the time I graduated, I was 23, had traveled and eaten extensively, worked nearly 10 years in restaurants as anything from a dishwasher to a waiter, loved to cook and could do so for pennies on the dollar compared to most. What I became, was a critic.
I saw flaws in nearly everything I ate because I rarely ate anything I couldn’t prepare myself for less than half of what I was paying for it in a restaurant. So, I looked to service, ambiance, anything, to try and stomach paying the difference. I rarely found what I was looking for but, I loved the challenge and from time to time, usually on someone else’s dime, I would find it.
Like many new college graduates, I returned home to find work and was thrilled to find an entry level sales position. I worked just outside of Philadelphia in one of so many suburban office parks which spring up on major cities edges to avoid big city taxes. This particular building was the flagship of several in the complex and came with its own Corporate Concierge, something I had never known existed. I’d ride the elevator up in the morning and view advertisements reading, “Need a Reservation? Speak with Ken, our Corporate Concierge.” Until my girlfriend at the time called me up asking me to make a reservation at the most expensive restaurant in town for her parent’s upcoming visit, I had never thought to do any such thing. But now, I had my bankroll.
I knew enough about Vetri, Marc Vetri’s then only restaurant in Philadelphia, to know that asking anyone short of the Mayor himself wouldn’t do much good getting a reservation in only 3 days time, but, I had also learned that what is never asked for may never be given. It was worth a try. When I asked Ken, “I don’t suppose you could get me a table for 4 at Vetri this weekend, could you?” my sheepish tone was enough for him to graciously smile and say, “Ah. No.” However, instead of thinking of the next most expensive place he could have gotten us into, he did what all great service professionals do and began to ask questions. What do you like? What do they like? Have they been here to Philadelphia before? What sort of ambiance would you like? How well do you know them and they you? Ken, was a pro. Ten minutes later, we had discussed food and wine up and down and Ken had come up with a great recommendation. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, I’d dug through enough of Ken’s charming humility to extract a very interesting bit of information; Ken was a Concierge, because Ken was a bona fide Food Critic. He wrote for the Philadelphia Inquire from time to time and was published an numerous magazines up and down the East Coast. My goodness. This man was paid to eat. He thanked me for my time, assured me the reservation would be set, and said something I will never forget, “I’ll be very interested to hear how everything turns out.” “I will!” I promised, and I returned to my cubical and twenty-six thousand dollar a year job and frankly, sulked.
Nevertheless, I had a girlfriend with cashed up parents and I was going out to dinner at a premier restaurant in Philadelphia in just 3 days. What could go wrong? As it turned out; a lot.
My girlfriend’s father ordered the whole table the seven course chef’s tasting menu, paired with wine for $89 a person. This just went from dinner out to an all night affair. It was going to have to be perfect. Suddenly, everything seemed amiss. Water glasses sat empty, busboys ran into the back of our chairs, forks were missing and then, the pièce de résistance; the main course plates sat, finished in front of us, for no less than 20 minutes. Yes, I counted. Enough had gone wrong already and I had promised Ken I would tell him how everything turned out. Now, in the grand scheme of things, 20 minutes is nothing, however, in a not so busy restaurant with my good name on the line and rapidly running out of things to talk about with my dinner guests, it felt like an eternity. There wasn’t a waiter to grab, a busboy to lift a polite finger to or a manager to be found. We sat, knife and fork together, and waited. Finally the plates were cleared, dessert came and port was poured but, it was too late. An otherwise masterful meal in a softly lit center city corner gem was ruined.
The following Monday morning I happily found Ken on the phone as I snuck into work past him knowing I had far more to report than a stand up meeting could provide. Mondays meant a whole weekend full of emails to read and this was to my advantage. Who knows how many would come in over the weekend? Not even my boss! It could take all morning, perhaps all day to read them and write back! I spent the first hour recapping everything I could remember about the meal for Ken. I wrote as one possessed. As if I had any business whatsoever writing about such things. Not only the 20 minute lag between main course and dessert, but, the missing fork, the dirty water glass, the lackluster welcome of the Maitre’D, everything came pouring out. An hour later, I had (in my mind) the New York Times Food Critic’s Review ready for copy but, had the foresight to preface it with the following note:
Good Morning, Ken!
I must admit, I have been so extremely jealous of your status as a food critic! Besides being paid to snowboard, I can think of absolutely nothing better as a profession in my life! I hope you will forgive a bit of Monday boredom, but, I decided to fill you in on the meal “as if I was” a food critic.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Many Thanks, again!
I couldn’t wait to go downstairs for lunch to see what Ken thought of my little diatribe. When I did, he smiled coyly and said, “Mr. X, do you know what a Mystery Diner is…”