You know the old saying “you are what you eat”? Well, I was thinking in today’s world of celebrity chefs, culinary destination travel, and movie premier-like restaurant openings, it would seem you are also where you eat. And while many people believe the trendiest, hippest or most expensive restaurants speak loudest, I like to think some of the smaller, lesser known, and more unique places say a heck of a lot more.
Ruth Reichl, a Spirited Woman if there ever was one, talks about this in her book Garlic and Sapphires which chronicles Reichl’s ups and downs as The New York Times’ restaurant critic, arguably one of the toughest jobs in the industry. Reichl brings you into her world, column by column, detailing how she found the restaurants she reviewed, the politics she faced putting together the reviews, the disguises she used to attain anonymity, and how her job affected her family and her own psyche. It’s a fantastic journey. And one of the things Reichl touches on is the importance of a restaurant’s “soul” – the connection between its chefs, the food, the wait staff, the décor – everything that makes it a complete package - something less tangible than cuisine, but no less critical to creating a great dining experience.
Reichl gives a great example in Honmura An – the New York City soba noodle eatery that was recently re-located to Japan. A small, unassuming place, Reichl said “the cool, peaceful aura of Honmura An is so profound that most people reach the top of the stairs and lower their voices, as if entering a temple.” She goes on to talk about how the minimalist, yet beautiful atmosphere really underscored and supported the deceptively simple yet sophisticated buckwheat noodles served there.
As a spirited diner myself, I’d like to offer some other great examples of restaurants with soul a little closer to home. In New Orleans, there’s Petunia’s, serving simple, Creole cuisine (breakfast is best) in an old three-story townhouse with original woodwork, coal-burning fireplaces and pocket-doors separating the multiple dining rooms on the first floor. The cozy, funky rooms (painted pink and white) really support the menu which features old New Orleans favorites with a slight twist, like Crab Etoufee omelet.
In San Francisco, try Betelnut, a standout, local favorite because it is unpretentious, warm, and fun . . . and the food is consistently good. Dark wood paneling and funky accents (some bordering on kitschy) surround diners who happily munch away on Mongolian hoisin pork or killer Szechuan green beans. It’s in the Cow Hollow neighborhood – away from the convention centers and tourist attractions -- which also makes it a welcome respite.
And in New York, Perilla is a modern, clean, yet comfortable restaurant that mirrors its creative and classic cuisine. Tucked away in Greenwich Village, Perilla is the brain-child of TV’s “Top Chef” season one winner Harold Dieterle. Dieterle could have gone way over the top given his immediate celebrity, but instead has created a high-end neighborhood restaurant that provides a perfect canvas for his seasonal and eastern-inspired food like pork belly with apple kimchi and pickled watermelon radish and carob molasses.
Now, I’m not saying popular or trendy restaurants don’t have soul . . . but as spirited women I think we owe it to ourselves to seek out the hidden gems that Reichl so highly prized – the one’s that capture the spirit and essence of the food being served and give us a clear connection to our meal.