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Too much of a good thing

I'm not sure whether it's just a slow news day, or just a commentary on our industry, but I was moved to write about the less than stellar food available on most restaurant menus. Mind you, I don't mean less than palatable, or even less than good. I mean less than stellar. The bar has been raised, folks. I, along with diners everywhere, expect something memorable and inspiring from today's kitchens.

For example, I was trying to decide where to take my wife for a Friday night date. I knew I wanted to go downtown so that we could stroll through the bookstore and window shop after dinner. But beyond that I was stuck. There are several good restaurants, and three that came to mind immediately, all of which have similar menus. But which to choose?

Then I remembered Angry Prawns...a signature dish that has never been dropped from a frequently changing menu at one of the restaurants. It is a fantastic item...spicy, unique, flavorful, and reasonable. It sealed the deal.

The growing number of accredited culinary programs, the unbelievable food products available from manufacturers, and stiff competition for every kind of concept in every marketplace has made finding a good meal a fairly easy task. Again, a good, but often uninspiring. Yawn.... What I'm looking for are more dishes like Angry Prawns that create both anticipation and satisfaction.

So at the world headquarters of Bill Main & Associates, we tried an experiment. Using location, average check size, and type of food as our criteria, we "picked a place to eat." What we discovered was that within each set of criteria three restaurants nearly always came to mind, and the winner was someplace with one menu item that stood out.

For example, for Mexican food, it was a choice between Ricardo's, La Hacienda, and Tres Hombres. La Hacienda's secret recipe dressing made it the stand-alone winner. A signature dessert was actually the tie breaker between the three steakhouses on our list. And the fresh soups at one bistro made it the choice for casual lunches.

What signature item or items on your menu truly set you apart from others in your competitive set? Have you really thought about who your competitors are? Do you have a unique and stellar menu item? With your family, friends, and staff try the exercise we did as a group. Use our Top Picks Exercise form to keep the exercise on track and record your thoughts and favorite picks. You'll start to see some patterns emerge that define the kudos-worthy choices, and some opportunities to carve your niche. Plus, you'll have taken the work out of picking a restaurant the next time you decide to eat out.

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