Food as bragging rights

I’ve emphasized it in the past and I’ll emphasize it again now: your restaurant’s menu cannot simply be satisfactory. Not anymore. It has to be outstanding to the point where guests will remember what they ate two, three or seven days later. You have to “wow” guests with bold choices, unique combinations and fresh ingredients in order for your restaurant to count as a worthy selling point and word-of-mouth generator for your hotel.

Here’s the issue. I liken the going trend in the cuisine world to that of an arms race. Take burgers, for example. One diner updates their most indulgent choice to be a double patty oozing with four different types of cheese. A nearby competitor fires back by replacing the buns with grilled cheese sandwiches. Then, the original diner modifies their greasy double cheeseburger to include six strips of bacon and onion rings, all somehow organically sourced (like that would even make a difference at this point). This happens back and forth, back and forth, ad nauseam.

Meanwhile, consumer expectations continue to climb as the bar for decadence increases, leaving all the standard fare behind. I used burgers as an example, but this could easily be substituted for pizza, pasta, salad, chicken or steak.

Whereas 10, 20 or 30 years ago, a steak dinner would surely please and astound hotel guests, now, unless there’s something special going on, such a meal goes down with a shrug and a contented smile, but not likely a, “This was so utterly fantastic I have to tell all my friends about it” recommendation. When you factor in such things as Yelp reviews, the Food Network (which constantly shows outlandishly dazzling gastronomy) and the general ADD nature of the times, a meal might be superb at the time, but will it be a talking point for weeks or months in the near future?

I’m not saying you have to reinvent how you cook meat. Rather, a little touch goes a long way. Take Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse in downtown Toronto. Like all other high-end steakhouses, every item on the menu is exquisite both in preparation and presentation. But what sets this place apart, and what I will always remember about it, are its salts. When you want a sprinkle, instead of them sidling up with a shaker or grinder, they present your table with a minimum of three different types of salt, all with palpably different colors, flavors and textures. This tiny, unique aspect goes a long way towards me remembering my time there, even though I haven’t visited in years. It serves as the entry point for a host of other associated memories — the people, the ambiance, the food.

A good way to reframe your menu in this regard is to ask the question: Is my food brag-worthy? Will a person use your cuisine as a comeuppance when his or her friends start discussing the latest and greatest eateries?

I’m not suggesting you completely change every menu item to push atop this supposed arms race (even though that’s still a fun and exciting option!). Instead, look to offer one or two dishes that are completely different than what’s offered elsewhere. Or, incorporate an extra touch like the salt example above. And as always, go out and explore the wide world of restaurants, keeping an astute eye on what they do to make you remember your meal.

So, do you have any adventures in culinary decadence or extra touches worth sharing?