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Familiarity Breeds Content

By Michael Ballon

Rarely has anyone written as well about restaurants, and what they can mean to us, as Frank Bruni did, the former NY Times restaurant critic, in an article recently published in The Times. To my knowledge, Mr. Bruni has never dined at Castle Street Caféeacute;, yet I felt like he was describing the Caféeacute;, and the spirit behind it with unusual accuracy. Titled "Familiarity Breeds Content," Bruni sings the praises of those restaurants which keep on drawing him back. "What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship."

He characterizes his former life as a restaurant critic as "a paid philanderer" as being exhausting, and constantly on the prowl for the latest trendy place. Recalling his earlier life in Rome and the Cafes he liked to eat in there, Bruni writes "The servers and owners there would exult when I walked through the door, because they understood how to make me happy and they could have a conversation with me different from the ones they had with newcomers, a conversation built on shared history and reciprocal trust, a dialogue between honest-to-goodness friends. I wasn't special. But I was special to them."

Of course during the summer and foliage seasons many area restaurants are busy serving tourists and out of town visitors, but the plain truth is that restaurants rely on regular customers. I often joke with regulars that I don't need a doctor's note to excuse an absence, as customers start to explain that illness or out of town weddings were the reason we haven't seen them recently. We have one elderly gentleman who always comes early to dine every week on Mondays, and when he didn't appear at his normal appointed time, we called his house just to make sure he was all right. That's when you know you are a regular.

I spend most of my time in the kitchen rather than the dining room, and so I rely on my host staff and bartenders to know not just the preferences of my regular customers, and what they like to drink, but to know their parents and children's names. Diners can be amazingly territorial about where they like to sit, and when you are a regular, you are more likely to have your seating request honored. When you are a regular, the bartender starts to make your favorite drink before you even sit down. And yes, some steaks are better than others, and when you are a regular, you're more likely to get one of those

Just as importantly, Bruni writes, the affection customers feel for a restaurant changes the nature of the relationship. As one of his favorite NYC restaurateurs observes, "It has such a huge impact on the morale of the staff, to see people falling in love with what you're doing. The diner who comes back again and again is a validation, a vindication"

As he aptly observes, dining out can be a stressful experience. What's the best item on the menu? Is it better to sit in one room rather than another? Where is it likely to be quietest? Will the kitchen honor my special request to add or delete and ingredient from a dish? Will I be able to make a last minute reservation on a busy night? When you are a regular, all these questions and issues are addressed easily.

One way a restaurant can cultivate regulars is to have a fairly priced wine list. Customers aren't stupid, and they have some idea what wine costs. No one wants to feel like they are being taken advantage of by unjustifiably high prices on a wine list. Price the bottles fairly, and diners will come back again and again, knowing they are getting good value for their money.

And then of course there are people's favorite dishes. A huge number of diners know exactly what they want to eat before they get here, without looking at the menu. Solace and familiarity are what many people look for when they go out to eat. They have memories of garlicky steamed mussels, grilled Cornish Game Hen, or thinly sliced Calves Liver with caramelized onions, and other dishes they never make at home. There will always be new culinary trends- be it foams, gels, or fusion cuisines, and there are those who like culinary surprises. But there will also always be place for those familiar dishes we know and love, exactly because we know and are comforted by them, served by a familiar waiter in a favorite place, as in the following recipe for Grilled Cornish Game Hen

Grilled Cornish Game Hen - Serves 2

2 Cornish Game hens

juice and zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, finely ground.

1 Trim off the ends of the wing joints, and reserve for making stock.

2. To remove the backbone, insert a small boning knife into the cavity

of the bird, and separate the thigh joint from the backbone on each side of the bird's spine. The entire backbone should come out in one piece.

Flatten the bird with the palm of your hand, to make grilling easier...

3. Combine the zest and juice of 1 lemon with the oil, garlic, and ground fennel seed, and marinate the hen for at least a few hours or overnight.

4. Remove the hens from the marinade, and grill for about 10-12 minutes on each side, until done. Serve hot.

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Castle Street Cafe, 10 Castle Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230 413.528.5244

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