My brief: explain to the group what a professional looks for in a restaurant's front-of-the-house operation.
The simplest answer is that if there were a formula for it, every restaurant would be a success. And that's not the case at all. And there are successful restaurants of every description — hard to see one formula there.
For me, in the end, it's the cooking. Not the concept, or the inspiration, or the menu. The cooking. I'll put up with a lot of inconvenience and discomfort for good food.
At every price point, I look for food that surprises and satisfies, and is good value for money. I find it all over the place: the boffo Philly steak sandwich at Cori's Doghouse; meats from Corner Pub on Smokin' Monday; fried oysters at Wild Hare; Lazzaroli's pasta; the $3 banh mi from Viet Noodle House. Hot hen from Fleet Street, duck burger at Table 3, duck confit at Firefly Grill.
Notice that one of these is a particularly upscale joint. I get much pickier as the price point rises, and quite honestly, I'm disappointed more often than not.
With my $25 and up entree, I want more goodies; coat check, comfy banquettes, tables roomy enough to hold all the dishes, a thoughtful wine list, draft-free seating, enough light for reading the menu, good service, vegetarian selections that aren't just an after-thought, daily specials that really are special, fabulous ladies room, decent parking.
But in the end, the cooking clinches it for me. Tough parking, drafty tables, zero vegetarian options, loud music, even neglectful service can be endured for the sake of good cooking.
What about you? What do you think makes a good restaurant experience?