Chow Town

Count Down: A dining guide by the numbers

Lobster Pasta at Café Sebastienne
Lobster Pasta at Café Sebastienne Special to The Star

I know I’m not much of a writer and I’m OK with that.

So a while back, I enthusiastically attended an event that one of my real writer friends, Rachel Ellyn, hosted. Every once in a while she holds what she calls a PENthalon. The event is designed to get your creative writing juices flowing, while at the same time, eat some really good food … so you know I was all in.

To jump-start things, Rachel has a list of ideas or challenges that you could write about. Ideas such as “Write Captain Obvious’ autobiography,” or “You’re eavesdropping. What do you hear?”

I was really struggling just to get started when I happened to see “Write a story that involves a countdown. Start the story at 10 and end the story at 0.” That’s when it hit me: Dining by the numbers! So let’s get started.

10 — Is the maximum number of minutes that I’ll wait to be acknowledged, both before being seated and after being seated. I understand that things come up, a server may have called in sick, and another table may need some extra attention. That’s why I wait as long as 10 minutes. Most people wouldn’t. But to me, by that time, if you can’t stop by and at least say, “Hi,” I’m out of here.

9 — Is how many lives some locations seem to have. Have you noticed that some locations just can’t seem to keep a restaurant in them? It’s like a revolving door. One place goes out of business and a few months later, a new, sometimes similar restaurant seems to go in to the same space, only to have a similar fate. All I can say is that I just don’t get it.

8 — Is generally the maximum number of people we like to eat with when we are dining out. Any more, and it’s just too many people to have any sort of meaningful interactions. Eating out is a social activity and we like to strike a balance between conversation and food.

7 — P.M. is my preferred eating or reservation time. For us, this seems to be a perfect time. Not too early, and not too late.

6 — Is the minimum number of items that I like to try from a new menu before evaluating the menu or the restaurant. If I judge a restaurant by just one or two items, I may miss the specialty. I might not fully appreciate an otherwise wonderful establishment. It always helps to talk to the servers to find out what they like on the menu, too.

5 — Is the number of courses we might have in a given evening. That may seem like a lot, but not really when you order the way that we do. Usually, when we eat out, it’s just my wife and me. So to enjoy the experience more, we often ask that each item we order come out separately. We then usually split those items – say, a couple of appetizers, one at a time, so we can each enjoy. A couple of entrees, again one at a time, so we can each have a chance to sample, enjoy and chat about the different dishes, and then maybe order dessert. Granted, this is not a quick way to eat. And I may not suggest trying this on a really busy night. However, most of the time, this method works and it allows us to really plunge into the culinary fare of a place. And due to the elongated dining time, we get to experience the ambiance of a place, too.

4 — Chances is what I give a restaurant before giving up on it. After the fourth visit, I’m pretty sure that I’ve had a chance to try more than six items on the menu. It’s more than enough time to let a place find its stride, assuming it is not brand new. After four visits, I should be able to correctly estimate what my next experience would resemble. And if it’s not good, I’ll just pass. Too many places, too little time.

3 —Times back in one to two months. If we do that, it means that we’ll probably become regulars at a restaurant. Our final question to each other after a dining experience is, “Would you go back?” If the answer is “Yes,” that’s a good first step. If you actually do go back, and then enthusiastically back again, that means that place is for you.

2 — Drinks is what we’ll usually have while dining out. Since most of our dining usually takes over 2 hours, that just seems to be the perfect pace. Too many times I’ll see someone ruin a perfectly good dinner and experience by overdoing it with alcohol. Don’t gorge yourself with food or drink. Enjoy your time.

1 — Bite is all it takes to find “That Place” or “That Dish.” Ever have that experience before? You walk into a place. Everyone seems nice. You might get some help with what to order. And then it happens. The first bite. It’s a combination of the flavor, ingredients, texture, ambiance, hospitality. But you know that is the place, and you just can’t wait to come back. I love those experiences.

0 — Hesitancy to try a new place. Our motto when it comes to dining has always been “No stars to 4 stars.” And we really mean it. We’ve just always enjoyed checking out new places. Biker bar, bowling alley or Crown Center? Doesn’t matter to us. We’ll check out a new place. And to that point, I hope you do, too. Sure, you have your regular places that you like to go. We all do. But get out a little. Explore. Of course, not everything new is going to be a winner. But who knows? One time you might find a new “regular” spot.

So there you have it. Dining by the numbers. I may not be a better writer yet, but I’ll keep trying. You can count on it!

Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.