We love to eat. As such, we’ve had our fair share of great food around the world. For us, it often isn’t only about the food– a confluence of factors conspire to make a dining experience truly great. Excellent food quality is, of course, paramount, but sharp service, a welcoming atmosphere, and even the aesthetics of the space are hugely important to us. Indeed, two of David’s all-time best meals (just based on food stuffs alone) didn’t even make the list because the rest of the dining experience lacked a certain something. In continuing with our Top 5 series, here are our Top 5 dining experiences, ones that have risen above the host of others.
On a trip to Boston, David’s friend Justin pointed us to Sportello for dinner, a minimalist diner-style eatery serving Italian fare. He happened to be working at Drink at the time, the bar in the basement below Sportello, so we happily stopped in for a visit. It’s a great space–all brick and wood and giant ice blocks–a bustling spot that turns out some excellent drinks. It was particularly fun to get taken up by Justin from Drink through the kitchen and into Sportello (definitely felt like a very sneak-in-the-back-door celebrity). Sitting at the bar in sight of the kitchen is also a fun pastime for us, as we love to watch the crazy goings-on by all the chefs. Their hard work provided us with truly fantastic food (the pasta was divine!). Much like their minimalist aesthetic, it seemed to all be about simple ingredients done really well. It was a wonderful evening, and we left feeling very well taken care of.
4. Le Crocodile (Vancouver, numerous occasions)
This list really couldn’t be complete without including Le Crocodile, one of our absolute favourite restaurants. The first time we visited was to celebrate our one year (dating) anniversary back in 2008, and we’ve been devotees ever since (we now have an annual dinner there with our good friends around Christmas time). Le Crocodile holds a special place for me, as it was one of my first introductions to French cuisine, which has now become my favourite style of food. Le Crocodile is so proficient at the classics–everything is always excellent, which is particularly impressive given the extensive menu. Over the last seven years, we’ve sampled copiously from that list, with their lobster bisque, pan-seared sweetbreads and duck breast with foie gras being notable stand outs. What’s really nice about getting the chance to re-visit a restaurant is that you can really get a sense of its consistency, and Le Crocodile continually turn out delicious food and provide impeccable service, year after year.
3. Girl & The Goat (Chicago, 2015)
This Chicago establishment is on numerous restaurant lists as a must-visit, and indeed, it’s been on my list for quite some time. It is notoriously difficult to get a reservation, but I managed to make one four or five weeks in advance for a Thursday night, just a couple days ahead of our anniversary. It was a bustling spot (much larger than I was expecting, given how difficult it is to get in), but we were somewhat removed from all the hustle at our kitchen table (one of two in the restaurant), which afforded us a nice view of the kitchen. The restaurant had a fun, lively atmosphere. The menu had a variety of strange and interesting items, including pig’s face and goat belly, and David, unsurprisingly, wanted to try everything. Service was relaxed and friendly, and the drinks were top notch. The food was the real winner however–lively and unique and challenging. They definitely had a different take on familiar (and some not so familiar) foods. We stuffed ourselves to the brim with 5 dishes, but still wanted to give dessert a try. We were ultimately a bit indecisive with what we wanted, finally settling on miso-butterscotch budino (I kind of custard). Ultimately, they very kindly sent out small portions of the other two desserts we were waffling over. All in all, one of the best times we’ve had in a restaurant in Chicago.
2. L’Affaire Est Ketchup (Québec City, 2015)
We can thank Anthony Bourdain for pointing us in the direction of this tiny gem in Québec (read the full details of our meal here). We had our last meal in Québec here, and boy, did they give us a fabulous send off! The restaurant is in part known for its laid-back, casual vibe, just a couple of guys cooking in a kitchen with a pair of electric stovetops for a tiny restaurant seating maybe 20 people. The food was absolutely fantastic (we couldn’t believe that they were just cooking on the kind of stoves we have in our apartment). Everything felt so genuine, really from the heart, like we were just hanging out in a friend’s apartment, cooking and drinking. Our waiter (who also served as host/dishwasher/bartender) happily chatted with us, giving David samples of red wine to try. It was a truly wonderful dining event, everything we could want in a meal–super delicious food, convivial atmosphere, and a real feeling that they love what they do. I remember waddling home from the restaurant, excitedly talking about how much fun we’d had and how great everything was, which is the mark of an excellent dining experience, something that stays with you.
1. La Grande Cascade (Paris, 2010)
Changing gears completely from our number two, for our honeymoon, we wanted to have one grand, decadent dining experience–something to really commemorate the occasion. In my research, I discovered that “fine dining” is taken to a completely different (and largely unattainable) level in places outside of Vancouver; however, La Grande Cascade had a prix fixe option that made it fiscally possible to give it a try (read about this dining experience in full here). The restaurant is gorgeously situated in a 19th century former hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris. The whole experience from start to finish was just sublime–beautiful space, absolutely impeccable service (a little stool for my purse to sit on, a cart of champagne to sample from, kind waitstaff who explained some of the more unusual French food terms) and fantastic food. The whole evening had such a feeling of elegance and spectacle, elaborateness without being pretentious. We were made to feel special, almost regal, and that is something we will always remember.