The difference between good food and great food has a lot to do with its relationship with place.
Tonight we ate at Lucilla here in Tallahassee, and it was really good. I had the vegetable pot pie–a flavorful concoction of corn, squash, asparagus, tomatoes, field peas, shiitake, and scallions in a roasted shallot tomato velouté ,suspended between a couple pieces of flaky pie crust and served alongside a decent-enough salad of mixed greens with cucumbers and radishes drizzled with a vinaigrette. It was all really well done–for real, you should eat there if you’re in Tallahassee–but I don’t know that I’ll remember anything about the meal beyond its quality a few weeks from now. I think this is because we remember stories and, unfortunately, the menu at Lucilla doesn’t have a story to tell.
While it’s clear that the menu is mostly “Southern,” it’s a little bit all over the place. You can get “Snapper St. Charles” or Blistered Shishito Peppers, if you’d like; or perhaps you’d prefer to choose between Pasta Bolognese or Shrimp & Grits. Each of these would be undoubtedly delicious, but the menu doesn’t have a story to tell about the people who made it or the things that inspire them. Contrast this with The Grey in Savannah, Georgia. On Chef’s Table, Executive Chef Mashama Bailey recounts how she originally developed a really eclectic menu. After she was encouraged to focus the menu by mentor Anne Willan, she chose to focus on place. This is a big part of what makes the restaurant so successful. It’s not a Savannah institution, like Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, but it might as well be; because everything about it, from the location and decor to the menu and attitude, is so richly evocative of the city that it seems almost impossible to skip the restaurant when you visit.
Telling a story about place the way that The Grey does elevates the occasion from a merely sensuous thrill to an aesthetic experience. This, I think, is what we remember most about restaurants. It’s what drives Vice to make a film about Pok Pok in Portland. It’s why the Travel Channel is mostly food shows. It’s also what keeps us going back to some really mediocre places, like Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse.
So here’s maybe a lesson for budding restaurateurs: evoke an interesting place well, and you’ll be successful. Add wonderful food to the mix? You’ll be legendary.
Seriously, though: go eat at Lucilla! You won’t be disappointed.