This revelation was brought on by a dining experience at Cyrus in Healdsburg, CA a few months ago. Cyrus, by many published ranking I've come across, is reported to be one of the best restaurants (most say it's #2 to the French Laundry) in the Napa/Sonoma wine country area.
But first, a little history:
I suppose I'm like many of you - I will spend too much on food. Actually, my guess is that my salary is probably way more out of line with my restaurant choices than most of yours. Once a trip is agreed upon, I spend many, many, many hours researching restaurants, and once chosen, I have many more good hours daydreaming about how pleasurable the meal will be. Then we dine, and the experience often lives up to or even surpasses my expectations! Oh food! How I love thee!
Back to my revelation which I will now expand on. A good dining experience for me takes place when I'm in a good mood, hanging with my homies and eating tasty/interesting food in a relaxing environment. I've found that to eat the really, really interesting and really, really good food means sometimes I gotta go to an expensive restaurant. Like I said earlier, expense is no problem. The problem - I'm finally realizing - is that many expensive restaurants do things that are not relaxing to me! This point was driven home at Cyrus.
Opinion: Cyrus is disgustingly shi-shi. Shi-shi is not relaxing.
Soon as we sit, a clumsy attempt to up-sell the caviar and champagne option is made by a chap in a monkey suit. "Champagne and caviar" is such a shi-shi cliche, oui? The staff all wore a variation of strange tuxedo-like monkey suits that I believe indicated their rank and function. They looked so uncomfortable! Why the formality?
We tried to connect to the staff as human beings, but failed on all accounts. They smiled and engaged and were pleasant, but not in a natural way. They seemed to have been programmed to respond in a way that reflected the belief that elegance and lavishness are high virtues. Go to the restroom and a specialist rushes to grab your napkin and neatly fold it on your chair. As these useless acts of elegance pile up my comfort level goes down. I suppose the idea is to make people feel important and pampered, but my guess is that more and more people are like me and find this a distraction from the overall experience. What say you? By the way, the food was pretty good - a bit trendy, overly-precious, and not great, but still pretty darn good. I say this as an aside because food is only part of my equation. The meal was $500 for two and not much fun. My equation now includes fun.
You can see some Cyrus pix mixed in with a set of mine on Flickr:
This experience made me re-evaluate other experiences at "great" restaurants. Lutece in the 1980's. The menu is in French with no prices, and the waiter corrects my father when he tries to order two dishes with puff pastry: "No-no monsieur, you do not want two pastries." I told all my buddies how awesome it was! I see it differently now - the food was really, really good, but the experience was the opposite of "awesome". It was not fun, but somehow I was conditioned to value it. How was I conditioned this way? I can't fully explain it.
Nevertheless, a good meal should be fun. Seems so simple. . . now I know. . . future plans will take this into consideration.
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