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What Makes a Restaurant?

April 4, 2012

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessica R permalink
    April 4, 2012 11:12 am

    Daniel, thank you for your reply. I think my basic take away is that even if they are not a traditional restaurant, they are doing all of the things you (and I) would like to see new restuarants do – support and promote local products, offer good vegetarian options, encourage community involvement through their CSB and general online and community presence, and in general just seem like very friendly people that take comments well and want to improve their business. Therefore, they are a great model for all new businesses, and deserve the recognition you have given them.

    I would also like to claim a small victory for getting you to answer my question outside of “Ask the Profussor”. However, I kind of knew you would want to address the issue right away, and wouldn’t leave it hanging in the open. Haha. (and I feel no less-awesome too).

  2. -R. permalink
    April 4, 2012 12:16 pm

    Thanks for the reply. My intention wasn’t to gather strength in numbers (though obviously I did), but I felt the need to explore the topic further as I’ve had to stray from the FLB ‘party line’ vote on this one. It bothered me, and frankly still does. Without quibbling too much about semantics, I will simply have to agree to disagree.

    I can stand behind neither Parivar nor Gregoire (at least as seen on Yelp) as restaurants in the proper sense of the word (at least as I define it in my own little brain) any more than I can AGB. I do not fault the output of any of these establishments; the proprietors are all fine chefs and advance their art nobly. Parivar is a grocery store with a take-out counter at the rear. A corollary would be to call Jumpin’ Jack’s or Ted’s Fish Fry restaurants – they are take-out counters/drive-ins with some degree of indoor or outdoor seating; both could be put on wheels and called ‘trucks’. Parivar serves food cafeteria style, complete with stainless steel slider rails for your ugly orange plastic trays and wax coated paper drink cups. The presentation/quality of the food at Parivar as it reaches the customer is the same whether one is eating at the tables in the rear (with plastic utensils) or is about to be packaged for take-out. The same holds true for Ted’s or Jumpin’ Jack’s. No – a restaurant in the truest sense of the word (for me) must have a waitstaff, and the menu must be more diverse than offering only soups and sandwiches in addition to a plethora of baked goods. I go to a drive-in, cafeteria or commissary to eat for nourishment, but I go to a restaurant to dine and relax: I don’t want to wait in a line, I don’t want to bus my own table, I don’t want to drink out of plastic and I don’t want to be limited to a narrow range of options. Having a decidedly alcoholic beverage isn’t a bad thing either.

    If you are arguing that one reaches the seemingly lofty status of ‘restaurant’ based solely on the skill of preparation and/or quality of ingredients, then my house is a restaurant too (albeit a private one with room on most days for a deuce only). I’m sure you and most folks who read this blog would qualify as well. Thankfully, your comments have crystallized my nomenclatural confusion: hereafter, I will refer to AGB as a bakery that happens to also serve soups and sandwiches of enticingly fine quality. I will go there to eat and pick up baked goods, but I won’t be dining there anytime soon.

    • April 4, 2012 6:33 pm

      While I totally understand and accept your personal definition of and preference for a full-service restaurant, I hope we can one day tempt you w/ our lunch offerings when you stop in for baked goods, R.!

    • October 27, 2012 6:54 pm

      -R: “If you are arguing that one reaches the seemingly lofty status of ‘restaurant’ based solely on the skill of preparation and/or quality of ingredients, then my house is a restaurant too (albeit a private one with room on most days for a deuce only). I’m sure you and most folks who read this blog would qualify as well.”

      This comment has been nagging at me for a while, so I figured I would address it – hopefully not in a defensive way (your tone was very kind which is very much appreciated), but with just a few points of information:

      1) Running a restaurant requires us, as owners, to carry an enormous $ amount of insurance (worker’s comp, unemployment, disability; equipment, building and general liability) and pay quite a lot of taxes, (several types of federal & state which are crushing, even with just two part-time employees; I don’t count sales tax because we collect that from customers; property taxes). Yes, some of these you pay on your house, but not all of them, and not in the same $ bracket.

      2) Just the food aspect of running a restaurant requires an enormous amount of physical stamina and intellectual creativity, every single day and hour! In addition to that are customer service, employee management, marketing, accounting, quality & damage control, developing farmer/small-food producer relationships (no small feat for even the relative little volume we do), festivals, markets and more. We pay almost 4 figures a month for electricity and gas to run our 3 commercial ovens, a proofer, 6 burner stove, grill top, 5 commercial refrigerators, a freezer, hot water & air/heat – the same level of which aren’t available in your home kitchen…and we do all of the dishes by hand (what we would give to have solar power and a commercial mechanical dishwasher). Take the stress you might feel preparing Thanksgiving dinner & dessert from scratch (with say, two helpers for 1/3 of the time and cleaning up without a dishwasher) for 20 guests at home once a year, and multiply that to include 5 times as many people who all want different things on their plate at different times & have specific dietary needs (but it all has to be served correct, hot, equally delicious, in a timely manner), in the space of 7 hours, every single day (add our continuous shopping for fresh food & menu planning) .

      3) The profit margin for running a totally fresh-food restaurant/bakery/cafe/whateveryouwanttocallus is really not that high (yes, we could raise our prices but we feel clean/local/fresh food shouldn’t only belong on an expensive fancy menu). We do it when we’re exhausted; sometimes after 10 or 12 hours we push on for longer because this is what we signed up for and we LOVE doing it. But let me tell you, it’s NOTHING like preparing dinner for two, even 7 nights a week (which, ironically, we hardly ever get to do anymore). We have reduction of cartiladge in our knees, tendonitis, rotator cuff damage and the widely spread feet to prove it. I’ll take this life any day over sitting in a cubicle (which I did for a long time while working in restaurants at night – the avoidance of which adds to my personal drive to succeed, with my very talented husband being the main reason I’m willing to put in so much effort).

      4) The Health Dept & all of the other state/federal agencies consider us a restaurant. We don’t serve anything on plastic and we’re putting out what we feel are some really incredible plates of food (from some absolutely amazing local producers), in a way that no one else in the Cap Region is doing. While we too were very surprised by our win in the TU poll, obviously greatly influenced by Daniel & FLB readers, it is validation, for our dreams coming to fruition & subsequent hard work, that we accept with a measure of pride.

  3. April 4, 2012 12:54 pm

    I’m afraid there isn’t an answer to your question, the term restaurant is much too general. Outside of the fact that it is licensed to sell food and/or beverages, a restaurant can take on many, many faces. What makes a Cafe a Cafe? What makes a Bar and Grill a Bar and Grill? This is just a rhetorical question which could elicit a miriad of responses/opinions.

  4. Kerosena permalink
    April 4, 2012 3:27 pm

    I have no horse in this race. I already placed my vote, and although AGB as restaurant feels like a tiny bit of a stretch, it didn’t prevent me from voting for them.

    My question is for Britin (apologies to The Profussor): What do YOU call your place? Suppose you’re at home one evening, and you realize you’re without your favorite sweatshirt. How do you complete this sentence, “Oh, tiddlywinks! I have to run back out to _______ to pick up my hoodie!”

  5. April 4, 2012 4:16 pm

    We’ve started calling the shop “home” inadvertently already! We’re here longer each day than at our actual home, but we started as soley a bakery so that or “the shop” is usually what we use.

    • April 4, 2012 6:35 pm

      Wait, I’ll have to correct myself. Our “tagline” is “Albany’s Farm to Bakery~Cafe” so even though we don’t focus on coffee, I think “informal restaurant” is what we intend to imply.

  6. April 4, 2012 10:41 pm

    If we restricted what a restaurant should be to places that gave out reservations from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m., we’d leave out a hell of a lot of great places. Tartine Bakery on Guerrero comes to mind. I think Britin F. is exactly right – “informal restaurant” is a great tagline for a lot of venues that provide great food in a casual context. We need more of them in Albany.

  7. April 4, 2012 11:28 pm

    Scattered and a bit tired these days as we get up to speed: I should have immediately, before resonding to other comments, thanked Daniel B. for this endorsement which, as I read the entire post aloud to Nick and our new Sous-Chef Lauren today, made them both (and I) beam with the warmth ot true appreciation from someone so Fussy and outside our immediate circle of friends, famly and long-time regulars (although DB is the Duke of AGB on Yelp and someone we consider a dedicated advocate of the sort of work we do, and us!).

    This conversation has been enlightening and gives us a better idea of what to strive for in the future. We’ve just made a huge leap in hours, workload, organization and creativity, but you can bet that we are looking towards the future in order to find ways to satisfy a larger community of people in the Cap Region who appreciate well-prepared, clean, locally-sourced, delicious foods.

    The TU best of list doesn’t matter to us as much as being appreciated by our larger community. The list is an admittedly inexpensive means to an end for us to connect with more people personally over “real-food ” conversations. In our minds, 50% of our biz is providing good, clean food, the other half is connecting w/ our community and making it stronger.through supportive networks created by everyone involved locally in sustainable food production.

  8. Caroline Barrett permalink
    April 7, 2012 7:40 pm

    My kids and I stopped in to AGB on Friday for the first time. It’s very sweet and cozy inside. And I would say that it gets the restaurant vote from me too. The thing that seems important to me is that while they do bake up lovely breads and cookies and such, they offer more lunch items than baked goods.

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