At Restaurant Business, we write about a lot of the cutting-edge restaurants. We cover the latest moves of the industry’s hottest chefs; we check out who is using the coolest technology and how; we keep up to date on the newest food trends hitting menus. And, lucky for us on the editorial team here, we get to test out a lot of them. But, much to the surprise of most, these hotspots rarely make the list of my go-to restaurants. Yes, I can tell you about my favorite fancy steakhouse or the really trendy Asian spot, but I hit those restaurants maybe once or twice a year on my own dime. The ones I frequent multiple times a month are the neighborhood joints, the ones that I tell friends to check out because they “just do a good job.”
And it seems I’m not the only one. These salt-of-the-earth jaunts don’t have fancy bells and whistles. Rather, they focus on getting that regular neighborhood following. Yes, they are conveniently located. But it’s more than just walkability bringing people back time and again. There’s a few things that all of my favorite restaurants do that keep me—and plenty of other regulars—coming back for more.
It may sound basic, but it’s a key part of building that regular following. It may not be the fanciest or most glorious meal I’ve ever eaten, but I know what I’m getting—and my favorites always are on the menu. The words I often use to describe the menu are “good” and “solid.” If I’m going to come in for my favorite meal twice a week, I want to know that I’m going to leave satisfied.
2. Local pride
If you’re looking to win over the neighborhood, be a part of the neighborhood. And I’m not necessarily talking about promoting the use of local produce or meats or anything like that. I live within a few miles of The United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks. And you better believe that all of my go-to spots hung some Blackhawks memento during the road to the Stanley Cup in June.
3. Tech-free genuineness
Most people love the idea of having their own “Cheers,” a place where everyone knows their name. Thanks to tech, it’s a little easier for restaurants to simulate that we-know-you feeling. But that’s not what I want. Yes, I know it’s challenging for servers to recognize guests and memorize names, but staffers that can make real connections make the experience. There’s a big difference between me checking in via app or making a reservation ahead of time and you pulling my details from a computer, versus me walking into a restaurant and the server saying, “Hey, Sara! Gumballhead today?”
4. Leisure time
This is for those full-service spots. Often, while it might not be intentional, diners at popular hotspots know the restaurant wants their seat for that next reservation. I know how important table turns are for a business. But if I’m not just camping out—I’m having another round of drinks or dessert—I don’t want to feel bad hanging out. Most neighborhood spots are places I go with friends; we want to sit, catch up or just hang out and chat. And we know there’s not that 90-minute timeframe.
If I’m going to sit for awhile, I want to be comfortable. Or even if I’m just waiting for my to-go food to be ready, I still want to be comfortable. Part of that is comfortable chairs and appropriate lighting. But the biggest part is the noise factor. Believe it or not, blaring music is not inviting. Most of my favorite spots have their acoustics figured out. I don’t have to scream across the table or worry that the pounding bass will result in a headache when I leave.