What Makes a Restaurant?
Never did I expect to be having this conversation. But I’m glad that we are. Here is just another way that the FUSSYlittleBALLOT can potentially improve the food in Albany, by expanding the parameters of what a restaurant can and should be.
But first, let’s back up.
With your input I selected All Good Bakers as the nominee for Best New Restaurant. This was based on a combination of factors, which included the number of times it was mentioned, and the number of times it was the top pick. Like everything else, it was a choice I could feel good about supporting.
Jessica R. even had it in her top three. So I was surprised to see the following challenge from this awesome member of our community (which makes her no less awesome):
The only item I still can’t really get behind is All Good Bakers for Best New Restaurant. I just don’t think of them as a restaurant, but more of a bakery, even though I realize they make sandwiches, and i would definitely consider going there for lunch. As another commenter mentioned, Ultraviolet Cafe or other coffee shops do the same, but I wouldn’t consider them traditional restaurants – with table dining and waitresses. Can you win me over on your choice for this category?
It turns out Jessica isn’t alone in her feelings on the matter. I had thought this was asked and answered in the last installment of Ask the Profussor.
-R asks a question that should get more ink than this, but it needs a decisive answer:
Finally, should [All Good Bakers] really be included as a restaurant? I know they do more than bake, but so does Uncommon Grounds for example, and I would not consider them a restaurant in the truest sense of the word.
Yes. Absolutely, yes. They cook, they do not just bake and assemble. There’s a difference. Nick excels at putting flavors together, balancing colors, textures, heat and sweet. That’s what makes a chef.
And while DerryX enjoyed his recent trip there, he too is not convinced of their status as a restaurant. Put these three things together, and you’ve got a pretty solid trend line. It’s time to add some other data points to this conversation, both theoretical and practical.
So what makes a restaurant a restaurant?
Well, I think you have to have a building. That sounds ridiculous, but I think it’s a great starting place. Because there are plenty of dining establishments that are a lot like restaurants, only they are trucks. And trucks are trucks, not restaurants.
However I reject the notion that you have to have table service at a restaurant. Allow me to cite some examples. My favorite Indian restaurant locally didn’t make the FLB 3.0 and that is Parivar. It’s a counter service Indian restaurant in the back of a grocery store. This counter service set up is similar to one of my favorite Indian restaurants in San Francisco too.
Counter service and take-out aren’t just for ethnic restaurants. In Berkeley there is a cute little French/Californian restaurant called Gregoire. Gregoire has a changing monthly menu that accommodates for the seasons, and the place is so small it’s all kitchen. There are three stools wedged inside under a counter that overlooks the grill. Outside are two communal picnic tables. Food is handed through the window from the cooks to the diners. And food ranges from sandwiches to soft shell crabs to roasted leg of lamb. The things they can do with potatoes are legendary. Gregoire is undoubtedly a restaurant, even though most of their business is take-out.
I could go on and belabor this point further about table service not being a requirement for a restaurant. Let me know if you’d like a dedicated post on the subject, and I’ll write one.
But let’s get back to practical concerns for a moment. Some might argue that All Good Bakers is more like a café or a bakery. The problem with this is that café is simply wrong and bakery is far too limiting.
The focus of a true café is coffee, and while AGB serves coffee it’s hardly their focus. Given my thoughts on coffee, it’s unlikely I would ever consider getting a cup of it there. But if you are using the word “café” as a stand-in for “informal restaurant,” well, then you’ve acknowledged that it’s a restaurant.
The argument that it’s a bakery is far more understandable since it has the word Bakers in its name. And they do bake their bread from scratch every day.
There is no easy way to say this, and I know not everyone will agree.
Their bread is notable because it’s made by hand, without any junk in it, from great local and sustainable ingredients. By some measures that makes it special. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not their bread that’s special – it’s what they do with their bread that puts them on the map.
The bread is the vehicle for well-conceived flavor combinations that take advantage of local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients. But the food at All Good Bakers goes beyond sandwiches and includes soups with homemade noodles. Nick also prepares hot and cold side salads that are made from the same local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients. To drink there are light and refreshing homemade beverages served in reusable mason jars, that can be taken away (for an additional charge, but then you’ve got a bonus glass jar).
There is even a chalkboard that lists all the local farms and producers who are supplying the foods that aren’t made in-house. Did you even know Albany has its very own seitan maker?
All of this is eminently affordable, and most of it is incredibly delicious. You can read more about the balance of flavors and the miracle of the homegrown-rosemary-infused oil in the grilled cheese sandwich that I enjoyed over the winter. This was the visit when I realized why Nick was selected as one of Albany’s rising star chefs.
He has a vision. He is passionate about what he does. He has a mastery of combining color, flavor, and texture on a plate. And I’m convinced he will never, ever sell out. Well, he may sell out of bread. But he’s not going to sell out his principles to make a buck.
If All Good Bakers is not a restaurant, they are running a higher quality food-based business than almost every other restaurant in town. And I can understand how one can look at the business and see a place that defies easy categorization.
But for all the reasons above, I am proud to endorse this decidedly casual & small eatery with neither table service nor liquor license (and limited hours of operation), as the best new restaurant in the Capital Region.