The dining ‘experience’

When I was about 10 years old, I won an art contest sponsored by the local bank in my neighborhood. My subject? Superdawg drive-in, a restaurant that dates back to 1948 and in a landscape littered with hot dog joints still has managed to become a Chicago institution.

Now, I like the food at Superdawg just fine, but what makes the place really stand out — even to a naïve 10-year-old who knew nothing about cuisine or restaurant design — is the overall experience of eating there. You can pull your car up and have your food delivered by old-school carhops, and even if you opt for carryout, it’s hard not to be charmed by the giant, winking hot dogs on the restaurant’s roof.

I thought about Superdawg earlier this week as I sat in a session at the International Hotel, Motel + Restaurant Show about designing hotel bars and restaurants “for the guest experience.” The panelists brought up ideas like creating an authentic storyline for an F&B outlet, engaging people emotionally and crafting a menu inspired by the restaurant’s story.

These can seem like abstract concepts, especially in an environment where times are still tough and there must be a tight focus on the bottom line. However, I believe they are important ideas. Of course the food must be satisfying, and there definitely must be value for the price paid — Superdawg promises both these things. But if your hotel restaurant also can deliver the intangibles — memory-making details that contribute to the overall dining experience — that is the pinnacle. Even if you skip the life-size hot dogs.