What makes a great restaurant?
When you hanker for a hunk of cheese and want a night out on the town, what do you look for in a restaurant? Let's assume some basics: tables, chairs, clean utensils, no rats. Beyond that, what makes a place great for you? Take NOPA (pictured above) for example: time and time again, it reiterates its greatness. I'm always enchanted by what they do.
First, let's set a baseline: I simply cannot eat at a restaurant that has a spiral bound menu. Greatness is repelled by spiral binding. Take note, Cheesecake Factory.
Greatness is fresh, seasonal ingredients that are prepared more deliciously than I could ever do so myself (this is not hard, restaurateurs of America). It's a curated menu that both surprises and comforts me--and changes often (except for my favorites). It's service that is immediately friendly, attentive, and unobtrusive. Don't take my companions' plates when others are still eating. It's a little awkward.
A great restaurant is one that you want to revisit time and time again with friends, where dinner becomes an event not because of the formality involved but because of the passion and engagement of all involved. I think I've been lucky to have this experience many times. If you haven't, then you must visit SF. We've got excellent chow houses out the ying-yang.
How about you? What tells you that you're in a great restaurant? Seriously, I want to know. And I can always use some local recommendations.