The Equation for a Fine Dining Experience


“The bottom line, in dining and in life, is this: it’s how we treat one another that matters most.”

Recently, I dined in NYC with The Daughter at Pearl & Ash, a restaurant on the Lower East side with a casual-yet-sleek bistro atmosphere, lusciously prepared small plates, and a killer wine list. The experience was so stratospherically sublime— exquisite in food, service, and ambiance— that we both declared it one of our favorite dining experiences ever (tied for first place now with Ely Wine Bar in Dublin).


A contrasting experience this week, in which the food was brilliantly prepared but the service was abysmal, leaves us thinking (as we often do) about how large a role service plays in the dining experience, or any experience, for that matter. The bottom line, in dining and in life, is this: it’s how we treat one another that matters most.

The specifics of this particular #ServiceFail were as follows: we had a group of eight celebrating a special occasion at a highly touted restaurant that we’ve all had good dining experiences at before. When the entrees were served, all but one was delivered to the table. Full disclosure: Yes, that one was mine. I sincerely and strenuously encouraged everyone to eat, certain that the missing entree would appear in a reasonable amount of time, thus relieving my tablemates of the awkward discomfort of eating while one amongst you doesn’t have any food. The last thing I wanted was for this very special occasion to become about my missing meal. Thankfully, it didn’t.

Good conversation, good humor, good wine, good company and very good food, too, I should emphasize, all kept the focus where it ought to be: on the occasion being celebrated. My tablemates shared their dinners, and I did not go hungry. Far from it!  Despite the fact that my meal was still not delivered by the time everyone else had finished theirs, I left the table quite full and happy for the shared occasion. It was not a tragic disaster, just an inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, the credit for which goes entirely to our hearty bunch for creating our own spirit of celebration and not allowing the misstep to mar our evening.

Here at The Thirsty Kitten, we’ve stubbornly resisted writing negative reviews, of wine or of dining experiences. If we don’t like it, we don’t write about it. From time to time, we are tempted to stray from this practice, but we always arrive at the conclusion that we’d rather spend our time lifting up successes rather than writing about failures. After all, everyone stumbles once in a while. We all can have a bad night. Just read Yelp. Even the most acclaimed restaurants have some not-so-good ratings alongside the five-star ones.

The biggest point we want to make is that great service doesn’t have to mean doing everything flawlessly (although it would be pretty slick if you could pull it off all the time). What it does mean is that when you do stumble, you do everything in your power, within reason, to make things right. (just like in life, right?) The truly great restaurants know this and encourage and empower their staff to make such problem solving happen when the need arises.

In the case of our dinner, the offering made at the end of the evening was a $10 gift certificate for a future visit, which honestly felt a bit like someone who leaves a penny for a tip. Insulting. The sticking point was not about the dollar amount, but rather that the gesture did not feel commensurate with the magnitude of the bumble or the occasion being celebrated.

We are fortunate in the Twin Cites to be in the midst of a veritable revolution on the fine dining front. Though we’ve lost some stalwarts recently (like our beloved Vincent, boo hoo, and La Belle Vie), other longtime local favorites like Restaurant Alma are still very much alive. And we’ve gained places like Spoon and Stable and Victor’s, two new favorites of ours.

So in the spirit of celebrating successes, rather than belaboring failures, we raise our glasses this week to the restaurants that have mastered the art of fine dining, those that understand that preparing outstanding food is only the first step in the process. Most especially, we salute those establishments that know how to nimbly recover from a misstep and the teams of staff, from the front of the house to the back, that make it happen. You are what turns a great meal into a stratospherically sublime dining experience, and you are the reason we return, again and again. Cheers!

14 replies »

  1. I have not written about Pearl & Ash yet, Charlie. I’d like to go back again with Kip before I do. Have you been? If so, what was your experience like? It certainly knocked my socks off on first visit.

  2. No, I haven’t Lucy. But after what you wrote, at some point I will. If you decide to write about it give me a heads up. I’d share it with my friends on Facebook and elsewhere.

  3. Will definitely let you know, Charlie. The wine director there was superb entertainment the night we went. Perhaps it’s a regular event, but he took to the bar top twice to saber champagne and his choice of sabers looked more like a Napoleonic weapon than a sommelier’s tool. I imagine you’d be amused. Side note, also took my first trip to McSorley’s (at last) and thought of you.

  4. McSorley’s and Pearl and Ash. Now there’ a contrast. Did you go to McS in the day, during the week? That’s when it’s best. The nights and weekends can get a little crazy. Too touristy, too frat house.

  5. Charlie, I went to McSorley’s on a Saturday early afternoon and had a brief but lovely time. However, I’d like to go back again on a quieter weekday as you suggest. I am impressed at how you switch between your two wordpress identities. I thought that was some kind of fancy footwork of yours. :)

  6. You’re very witty, Lucy. If y’all make plans on being there midweek in the future, give me a heads-up. I’d love to see you and your family.

  7. Thank you, Mimi! We wholeheartedly believe it is much better to focus on the many who do things well, and yet sometimes it’s the experiences when things awry that help highlight what a great art phenomenal service truly is.

  8. I love that your focus is on the positive, mine is too. However, there is a time & place where you just have share the negative appropriately in hopes to spawn a change or awareness. Well done.

  9. Loved your witty commentary, Lucy, and your focus on the positive! How wonderful it is when a restaurant marries superb food with excellent service. I can forgive less-than-excellent food if the service is good, but it’s easy to ruin an excellent meal with crappy service. We’ve had many wonderful dining experiences that are based solely on our interaction with the servers.

  10. Thank you, Michelle and Donna. Michelle, one of the many reasons we enjoy your blog so much is that you, too, focus on the positive. [ for our readers who are not familiar with it.] You’ve hit the nail on the head for our reason for sharing this experience in the way we did. We hope that any restaurants that are not putting service at the top of their list will give thought to how important it is and make improvements if needed. Donna, we completely agree with you that less-than-excellent food combined with more than excellent service can actually win our hearts. But its impossible to cultivate a loyal fan base if service is consistently rotten, no matter how good the food is.


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