Most people agree that the quality of the food and service are the most important ingredients in any dining experience. That’s a no-brainer.
Yet the intangibles also influence whether guests have an optimum experience or an ordinary — or even disappointing — one. Excessive noise and harsh lights can be just as disconcerting as an overdone steak or a limp salad.
When Ocean Prime debuted in Troy three years ago, guests complained that the background music was too loud. The restaurant quickly adjusted; now a decibel reader is used to make sure the music stays at the right level to be a backdrop to private conversations.
Sound quality is also crucial at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, Hour Detroit’s 2010 Restaurant of the Year. Musicians and diners share intimate quarters that recall the days of small jazz rooms. Entertainment and food share the spotlight, so live performers have to achieve detente with the fine dining that is a hallmark of the Grosse Pointe Farms spot. It goes both ways: Diners keep conversations at a reasonable level while the musicians perform.
Attention to detail at Iridescence at the MotorCity Casino Hotel — Hour Detroit’s 2011 Restaurant of the Year — ranges from the quality of the table appointments, like the handsome silver-edged glass chargers on the gray linen-covered tables, to the wardrobe of the servers. The new Joe Muer Seafood in downtown Detroit dresses waiters in creamy white dinner jackets with red bow ties, offering a hint of the original restaurant. Tan stewards’ jackets worn by service staff at the Capital Grille in Troy are also a nice touch.
Light level is another make-it-or-break-it detail. When lights are turned up too high, a room becomes uncomfortable. It’s just as bad when eyes strain to read the menu.
One of Detroit’s past gems, the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars, put seven-watt bulbs in its chandeliers and wall sconces, creating the memorable atmosphere fondly recalled by those who dined there — just enough light but not too much.
A flattering light level is also a hallmark at present-day spots such as Dearborn’s charming Bistro 222 and Troy’s Tre Monti — it enhances the feeling of dining in a European country house.
Cliff Bell’s golden light bouncing off burnished old wood helps make the Art Deco spot one of the most appealing in downtown Detroit. Another apt touch: the menu is printed with the original typefaces and a drawing of a vintage couple on the dance floor. It has the effect of making diners feel they’ve slipped back to the 1930s.
Café Cortina is another place that monitors the illumination to insure the comfort of its guests. And because Café Cortina is the mother-son enterprise of Rina and Adrian Tonon, the personal attention of owners comes into play as well. Most servers at the Farmington Hills restaurant are long-term employees who feel they’ve become members of the family. “They take pride in what they do,” says Adrian. “They create genuine warmth.” That’s a detail that’s hard to fake.
An especially thoughtful touch at Sterling’s Bistro in Sterling Heights is the option of being able to order wine not just by the glass, but in a variety of portion sizes. Diners may opt for three, six, or nine ounces of wine.
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse outposts in Livonia and Birmingham offer their impressive cellar of 100 wines in a variety of portions too, including flights of three wines in two-ounce servings. Small things, maybe, but they add up, making the restaurants stand out from the crowd.
Within the pages of this guide, you’ll find a wealth of information that will lead to satisfying dining experiences — especially if you happen to have an eye for those telling details.