If there’s anyone who knows good restaurants, it’s Big Food Bucket List host John Catucci. Not only does the foodie travel North America looking to sample all of the best fare for a living, but he’s passionate about eating well while at home, too. We caught up with Catucci to get his take on all things eating out, and to learn what he thinks makes an amazing restaurant experience. From the food and the service to everything in between, read on to learn what it takes to truly impress the Dining Out King.
According to John, one of the first things he looks for at any restaurant is the vibe. Is it welcoming and friendly? Bright and open? Does it have any kind of theme? And most importantly, does he get excited as soon as he walks in?
“It’s just what the vibe of the restaurant is,” John says. “You can feel the energy in the room. If you’re getting a too cool for school, cold shoulders feel? I don’t want to be there.”
Access to the Kitchen
It’s not mandatory, but one thing that’s guaranteed to get Catucci excited about dining at a restaurant is when he can see an open kitchen and begin imagining his own meal. “If you can already smell the food in the air, that’s one of my go-to signs,” he says. “When you walk in and can see the chefs cooking and you can smell the food in the air, that’s always a good sign for me.”
John says food matters, but one thing that tips the scales from a good to great dining out experience is the service. From the hosts and the servers to the general managers and the bartenders, he’s looking for a warm and welcoming vibe.
“When you feel like they’re genuinely happy to see you in their restaurant you know it’s going to be good,” he reveals. “It took a while for me to realize the importance of great service. I always felt it was important but working on our shows [You Gotta Eat Here! and Big Food Bucket List] I realized how a great meal can be ruined by bad service, and a mediocre meal can be saved by great service.”
A Separate Bar Area
John explains that he’s not always looking for a bar per se, (it doesn’t really make sense at a diner or brunch joint, for example), but when there is a bar he wants it to be equally welcoming as the rest of the eatery.
“I kind of like when there’s a bar where I can sit down and enjoy a meal or a nice cocktail, and have a conversation with the bartender or whoever is sitting down beside me,” he says. And what is Catucci’s drink of choice? A Negroni, please and thank you. “Not all Negronis are made the same, unfortunately,” he adds with a laugh. “Some places you’re just like, ‘Oh—you’re just trying to get me drunk!’”
Try your hand at these classic cocktail recipes from Ina Garten.
A Focused Menu
Giant menus may seem appealing at first glance (so many choices!) but when you think about it, that could mean the chefs are spreading themselves a little thin. When John dines out, he’s typically a fan of smaller menus for that very reason.
“Sometimes too much choice is just not a good thing,” he says. “You don’t necessarily want to go into a restaurant that has 16 styles of food on the menu. I want to know that they do something small, but they do it well.”
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Specials That Go Beyond
While a focused menu is a good thing in John’s books, his favourite thing to discover at a restaurant is what isn’t on the menu — the specials. “My favourite restaurants are when you go in and they’re like, ‘What are you feeling like?’ And they cater something to you specifically. You don’t always find those places but when you do, you know it’s something special. When they have something that’s not necessarily on the menu but they’re like, ‘Oh, we got the lobster in today. We don’t usually have it but you should get it.’ I’m like, ‘Ok! I’m going to get it.’”
All the Desserts
John doesn’t need ALL of the desserts, but he definitely pays attention to what kind of sweet treats are on the menu. In fact he’s one of those people who will look up the menu before he dines out, and plans his meal backward so that he can be sure to save some room for dessert.
“You gotta check out the dessert and go backward!” he says. “I want this apple pie, so how am I going to make this happen? Let’s get this for an appetizer, this for the main course, and then there’s always room for an apple pie!”
John doesn’t need a wacky themed restroom or a fancy place to wash his hands. But as someone who spends a lot of time eating out on the road, he definitely, definitely pays attention to how clean the restrooms are. And if they aren’t? Well, that could be enough to put him off his meal.
“It 100 per cent matters. I don’t know how to say it without sounding crass, but if they care about how it’s going out they’ll care about how it’s going in,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t want to gross people out. But if they care about the cleanliness of their bathroom then you know that goes through the entire restaurant. So many places that’s the last thought. And I feel like if they don’t care about that, they’re not going to care about their food.”
A Thoughtful Kids’ Menu
John has two kids, and when they were young he reveals he usually wound up ordering them something from the main menu because of the lack of creativity on most children-focused menus.
“Sometimes kids’ menus are great, but other times it’s like, just eat what we’re eating. When kids realize they’re eating what adults are eating there’s more of a respect for food and the process. We’ve always brought our kids out with us — that was always a big thing,” he says. “If there’s a kids menu and it has stuff that I would like to eat, great. But often it’s throwaway stuff. I want it to be edible.”
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It’s All About the Details
At the end of the day you can have a great chef, or you can have great service, or there can be a bar and a stellar kids’ menu. But the one thing that John says will always bolster a restaurant from a good dining experience into an amazing, have-to-recommend meal out? That would be the details. “All the little things add up,” he says. Pay attention to them, and this Dining Out King could count your place as one of his next favourite haunts, too.