In earlier iterations of this column, we sought to describe singular experiences we had at restaurants, reporting the highs and lows of dining in Washington, D.C. Since our last piece, we have surveyed a dozen more toothsome bites, including Garrison, Café Berlin and Thip Khao in the District, and flour + water and Auberge du Soleil in the San Francisco area.
Two weeks ago, as we closed off an excellent meal at California’s flour + water with a salted caramel gelato, we pondered the very question of what makes a restaurant superior. Is it the aggregate quality of all the dishes combined? Or the experience of being in the physical space, surrounded by food, beverages and company?
Of course, the most appropriate system would consider a holistic set of criteria, taking the entire dining experience into account. With our experiences in mind, we derived the theory of the impossible trinity of dining.
Any introductory course on international economics will feature at least a cursory discussion of the impossible trinity. The hypothesis essentially states that it is impossible for a nation to have more than two of the following: a fixed exchange rate, an independent monetary policy and free flow of capital. We shall skip over the mechanics of this theory, at risk of re-traumatizing any readers enrolled in International Trade.
Such an impossible trinity exists too in the restaurant business. From our experience, we have found the majority of restaurants can only excel at a maximum of two of the following: cuisine, service and decor.
Our first case study is the esteemed Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil, a staple of Napa Valley, Calif., and a gastronomic treasure trove. Stepping into the ligneous dining room is an experience, not to mention the sweeping vista of the vineyards afforded by the outdoor terrace.
Our server and sommelier were both knowledgeable and attentive, especially as our meal extended into the late evening. Yet, the dishes were disappointingly standard for their hefty price, featuring an overly-salted Petrale sole and peculiarly cold veal sweetbreads. The restaurant prioritized style over substance, though the former certainly impressed.
Flour + water offered a phenomenal pasta tasting menu: The gold beet chitarra with Dungeness crab, pomelo, uni butter and mint stood out from an already terrific repertoire. The waitstaff was properly trained in thoroughly explaining the dishes, as well as the wine that paired with each pasta.
The décor, however, was nothing to write home about. The space was dimly lit — unconducive to the photographic documentation of our meal. If the interior of the restaurant was decorated at all, we would not have noticed.
Occasionally, one comes across a restaurant that — in failing to deliver neither adequate eats nor etiquette — satisfies little more than the eye. Garrison, a New American eatery in Barracks Row on Capitol Hill, fit this description.
Serving self-proclaimed seasonal and locally sourced fare, the restaurant underwhelmed with its overpowering fondue, overpriced bison hanger steak and overfamiliar cauliflower. The chic surroundings did little to salvage the subpar experience.
Still, the more catastrophic part of the meal was the ineptitude of our servers. The plural is no mistake: We had at least four waiters tend to our table over the course of the meal, all of whom seemed puzzled about our queries. One dish was mysteriously retracted after it was served, without explanation. The maître d’ lost one of our jackets at the coat check and did not care to help recover it. It appeared the only thing that was locally sourced at Garrison was the lack of coordination and glacial inefficiency of the staff.
Fortunately, a few restaurants defy the trinity altogether and offer an all-around superb culinary experience. D.C. Laotian joint Thip Khao was a delight — full of pleasant surprises for any diner unacquainted with the cuisine. Who knew fried pig ears could be so moreish? The hustle and bustle of the open communal space also added an excitement to the evening and the waitstaff was swift and adept.
Another exception is Café Berlin, a German eatery that serves some of the best Bavarian style pretzels and currywurst in D.C. The homey ambiance and friendly staff affirmed the restaurant as one of our new favorites.
For the average restaurant, however, the impossible trinity remains an unfortunate reality. Most restaurants cannot be good at everything, but we will continue, as we have done, to seek them out. We eagerly await the day the exceptions to our theory outweigh the rule.
Daniel Almeida is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. Toby Hung is a senior in the College. Table for Two appears in print every other Friday.