(originally posted June 2, 2010) Barndiva received some wonderful press last week, which we wanted to take a minute to share with you. We have been very blessed over the years with incredible newspaper, magazine and online coverage. Incredible because we are a family with little PR experience that started a restaurant in a small town knowing next to nothing about the business. When we first opened we were flavor of the month, and that went on for a long time. But even afterwards, when the occasional barbs would come, we’ve tried to put criticism, good and bad, into a context that could help us understand what diners really want, what we might be missing. It was wonderful to hear what we’re doing right this week. Barndiva is our baby. We want the world to love it.
But it hasn’t always been easy to ‘simply’ define who we are, or what we are trying to do. Barndiva was very much a ‘build it and they will come’ adventure. We wanted to make the point that it’s possible to balance cool with accessible, serious with playful. There is a famous image from the 40’s of a café on a side street near the great meat markets of Les Halles, taken in the early hours of morning. Ladies in gorgeous gowns and men in tuxedos, all at the end of a glamorous evening, are sitting elbow to elbow with big butchers in blood-stained aprons, fresh from the market. Everyone is eating and talking, smoking and drinking ~ you just know the food is delicious. What struck me about the photo was how comfortable everyone looked, despite differences in class, the odd hour of the morning, the randomness that brought them together. The photographer had captured a moment where good food and the warmth it generates had brought a totally disparate group together. The meat markets of Les Halles are long gone now, having morphed into a giant underground shopping mall in the late 70’s. It saddens me to think restaurants like the one in the photograph disappeared with it.
Imagine two ideal ends of the dining spectrum. At one end you have a great Thai (or Chinese or Indian) joint, with platters of food served in rooms that are too hot and overcrowded, where service is rushed, the waiter is perfunctory, the music (if any) is scratchy, and you don’t give a damn because the food is so delicious you want to eat it with your hands. We return again and again to that place.
Now travel to the other extreme. Lots of room between the tables. Sound is hushed. Waiters glide. Plates are composed like a Caravaggio still-life, using ingredients in ways that test what you know about taste and texture, making you think about flavor anew. A big bill is coming at the end of this meal, but if it’s been perfect (and it has to be perfect) you won’t care. You are happy to be alive and able to afford it. When you can, you will come back here too.
Barndiva doesn’t fall somewhere in the middle of these two restaurants, that wasn’t why we entered the game. Middle is not what we do best. We wanted to take the vital parts of both of these experiences and combine them, to create a business that was uniquely honest in the way it approached sourcing, preparation and presentation of food, but nevertheless managed to elevate the dining experience, to make it really special. We wanted to design a space where every piece of the room celebrated the food on the plate and the act of eating. The visceral act of eating, that was crucial for us, but so was the before and after. We wanted fresh soundtracks and soft lighting. We wanted to show some love in the service, not just professional indifference. We didn’t want stuffy. We wanted the opposite of stuffy. We have all suffered through one too many evenings of “fine dining” where a ‘church of food’ approach demands supplication, taking the air out of the room, along with any spirited conversation.
We got a lot of props those first years from so many strangers who “got” what we were trying to do, but we also found there was no way to make everyone happy. For some the music was too loud, for others the lighting to low to properly read the menus. We had very few seasoned servers the first few years, preferring to hire children of friends and neighbors who dined with us, but while it was true they didn’t come to us with tired old habits from other restaurants, their enthusiasm did not make up for their lack of experience. Great restaurant service is not instinctive, it must be learned, and in order to be learned, it must be properly taught.
One reviewer in the early days called our menu, which we had flavor profiled into categories of ‘light, spicy, comfort,’ “Barndiva’s mood food.” He wasn’t wrong ~ we all set out to dinner in a frame of mind that the restaurateur is wise to acknowledge ~ but it looked silly in print. On the other hand, the last thing we wanted to present to our guests was a polemic about our food. We put as much information as we could on the menu and hoped intelligent diners would ask questions.
And so we learned, sometimes the hard way, to improve our game and fix what we could, without succumbing to the ever-present desire to take the easy way out and just give people what they were used to getting. I’m not sure why we are so stubborn about keeping it real. Perhaps in part because, in our short but interesting lives, it was usually the things we least expected that turned out to give us the most pleasure.
The recession has upped the ante with respect to making it in this high stakes business as there are decidedly less diners out there willing to part with their money without a good reason to do so these days. But the challenge of perfecting a hybrid like Barndiva is important enough to pursue even in these trying times. Maybe it’s more important now, considering that, thankfully, the underlying politics of food sourcing is becoming more relevant to diners.
I still find it hard to reconcile that even if you put everything you love into place ~ beautiful rooms and gardens, flowers, music, candlelight, inspired drinks, delightful plates of food ~ sometimes it’s just not enough. The timing is off, or one of your key players who should know their lines flubs them. You can apologize, but this being a performance art, prone to mishap, you just have to move on. Sometimes it’s the diner who has brought the unhappiness of his day (or his life) with him to the table and nothing you do is good enough, even if it should be, even if it is. Again, you have to move on.
Through it all you try not to forget what made you get into this crazy business in the first place. Oddly for me, it’s not the nights of perfect service that bring that message home. Since Ryan joined us, and now with Tommy out front, we have many more perfect nights that ever before. But there is still that incredible frisson of not knowing what can happen when you open the doors. Back stage in the kitchen the mix is always heady and slightly dangerous ~ knives, fire, product from hundreds of mercurial purveyors in the hands of a few dozen people who are responsible for carrying out different complex pieces of a single unifying vision. Timing is crucial. So is the chain of command. While on stage in the dining room the scene is the polar opposite, romantic but charged, like a house before a party. Timing, for that first drink, between courses, again, is crucial. Mood, how to create it, how not to destroy it, is essential. Physical semaphore rules. A raised eyebrow can mean something is not quite right at the table and you need to get over there, or, wait, something is happening there you should not interrupt. In a split second, you need to know the difference.
Whatever goes wrong in the kitchen cannot be allowed to interrupt the flow of the evening out front. Everything is in play. Everyone is important. Every detail matters. Getting it all to hang together is magical when it happens, and can haunt you, for days, when it doesn’t.
We served 690 plates this past Saturday and until ten o’clock every one was presented to the diner having met chef’s exacting standards. We were rocking. This, despite the fact that the dishwasher had failed to show up for work and one of the big fridges broke down in the middle of service. Then, heading into the homestretch, with the dining room and both gardens packed, a full board of entrees to fire, inextricably, four plates slid from a shelf and landed with a terrifying crash onto the stainless steel table below, obliterating ten first courses and four desserts. I don’t know what Ryan and Tommy felt. I know what they did. They carried on.
At times like these I think of Alice in Wonderland. No one made her drink the bottle to change her size in the first place, curiosity made her do it. What she discovered in the end was that accepting risk was OK, so long as she accepted as well that growing larger and smaller goes with the territory. Changing shape without changing your essence is sometimes necessary to survive. Restaurants are a consummate collaboration, but for the key players, those of us who have chosen to crawl through the looking glass, growing larger and smaller is the skill we strive to master every night in order to create the art and the thrill of a great dining experience. The rest ~ the security, the reviews, the respect of our purveyors, our peers, and our customers ~ hopefully, will follow.