I was recently eavesdropping on a conversation about destination restaurants and the question of what makes a restaurant something for which people will leave their own neighborhoods (and boroughs). Brooklynites tend to get a rep for being rather smug about their restaurants, and I can't deny that I have been known to go on and on and ON about the high quality restaurants within walking distance of my Cobble Hill home.
But destination restaurant implies something beyond being merely "good," because most New Yorkers are equally smug about their own neighborhood's and borough's restaurants. I find the phrase "Manhattan-quality" to be both offensive and irrelevant when discussing Brooklyn restaurants, but truthfully, there are some spots that bring diners across the East River and some that remain undiscovered or unexplored by non-locals.
The poster child for "Manhattan quality destination restaurants" in my neighborhood remains The Grocery, which burst onto the fevered chowhound scene with a 28 rating in Zagat three years ago. It's become a benchmark for Brooklyn restaurants, much in the way that Luger's = steak and Babbo = pasta when comparing quality of restaurants. In the same way that the phrase "Manhattan quality" makes me roll my eyes, the use of The Grocery as an example of that meaningless phrase generates equal amount of eye-rolling.
I've eaten at The Grocery a handful of times, and had nice meals each time. Nothing transcendent, nothing that made me particularly interested in returning. Nothing that was bad either, but the good food has never been enough to compensate for what I have found to be a cold, sterile room and spotty service. (And sure, what I find cold and sterile is someone else's serene and uncluttered elegance...) The last time I dined there (because afterward I swore The Grocery was Dead To Me) was in the winter; my dining companions and I arrived on time for our 9:30 reservation but out table wasn't available yet. We were asked to wait at the bar down the street and told a waiter would come get us when the table was ready. Forty-five minutes later, we still waited at the bar, and eventually went back to the restauranty, where it looked as if the table we were expecting had turned and been given to another party. We waited another 10 minutes before finally being seated at 10:30, and hour after our reservation time. We ordered appetizers and entrees, and there was an extremely long lag between the two courses. We assumed that there had been a glitch in the kitchen that caused such a long (half an hour with nothing on the table) gap in service. When entrees were served, the two diners who had ordered duck found their dishes completely cold. They flagged our waiter, who returned the food to the kitchen -- the duck was fired under the salamander, I think, because it reappeared less than two minutes later, and in all fairness, was quite good. We finished our entrees around midnight, and were literally the only diners left in the dining room. The chef came out and apologized for the problems, and offered us dessert wines on the house, which we drank. I have no complaints about the food, and I appreciate that the restaurant is small and that all restaurants have off nights and services glitches, and I appreciate the manager and chef's efforts to acknowledge all of the problems.
Still, nothing about The Grocery has ever been so stellar that I am willing to return.
Restaurant Saul, on the other hand, has consistently been delicious and innovative, and I vastly prefer its warm dining room to The Grocery's austere gray walls. We have eaten at Saul time and time again, in small parties and groups as large as 12, on holidays and on weekdays. I find Saul highly deserving of its Michelin star, and always eagerly mention it when discussing destination restaurants.'
But one person's destination is another's disaster, and dining is a subjective experience. I'll go out of my way to eat at Babbo or Jewel Bako or AOC Bedford but have little interest in returning to Daniel or Fiamma or Union Square Cafe. Not because the latter were not good, but because they were not great, not to me. To be great a restaurant has to click with me, and that 'clicking' isn't based solely on menu or wine list, it's based on feeling comfortable and happy and like you've just experienced something special. That is something I will travel out of my way for, that is something I'll cross a river for, those are the restaurants I consider to be destination dining.'
We're lucky to live in a city with most everything one could want available within a 20 minute walk in any direction. It a city whose culture is all about the neighborhood, what gets you out of your comfort zone and into a new zip code, or even (gasp!) a new area code?
I can tell you that if my husband and I were to leave our neck of the woods, Restaurant Saul, al di la and Almondine would get me back, pretty frequently.