A 10/10 Dining Experience

I love food. It’s something I’m incredibly passionate about and absorbs a lot of my mind share. I wake up and think about what’s for breakfast… after I have breakfast, I’m thinking about what’s for lunch. After lunch, you guessed it, I’ve got dinner on my mind. It’s not a burden; it’s a joy. Every meal is a treat in its own way.

Years ago, whenever I was asked for restaurant recommendations, I found myself drawing a blank in the moment, or defaulting to the most recent places I’d eaten. So I started to track restaurants in a sheet and rate my first experience there as a way to quickly build a reference guide and better serve others with recommendations. You can access my Calgary list Here. I only recently started one for Toronto so it’s a little lacklustre, but I’ve included it here as well. The ratings are totally subjective and lack a formal framework; however, you’ll clearly notice one thing: there isn’t a single 10/10 rating. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed some amazing meals. But even my best dining experiences have had opportunity for improvement. That’s not a Calgary or Toronto specific phenomenon; I can’t remember finishing a meal, including at three Michelin star restaurants, and thinking “that was 10/10”… until two weekends ago.

Two weekends ago I went to Prince Edward County with family and on Saturday night, we ate at Darlings. It was a 10/10 experience. This got me thinking, what conditions are necessary to have a 10/10 dining experience? On reflection, I believe it’s excellence across a combination of these factors: (a) atmosphere, (b) food, (c) company, and (d) service. I’ve added some commentary below on what stood out in this regard.

  1. Atmosphere. Atmosphere is a combination of ambience and setting. What vibe does the restaurant give off? Is it good-noisy or bad-noisy? Is the dishware a nice compliment or an awkward setting? At Darlings, the setting was unique and ‘cool’ – it’s situated in what feels like an old house, in a residential neighborhood. The lighting is dim and the music was great; it was loud, but good-loud. There were only four tables and bar seating, which created an intimate and “special” atmosphere. The atmosphere was complimentary to and matched the menu, which was served family style.
  2. Food. Food is a combination of taste, quality, and consistency. What stood out about Darlings, is that I loved every single dish. Even at very high-end restaurants, I find there’s nearly always at least one or two dishes which are “pretty good”, but not great. To try more than 5 dishes and love every single one is a rare treat, and for a restaurant, a tall feat.
  3. Company. It’s impossible to have a 10/10 dining experience if you don’t really enjoy the company you’re with. Fortunately, this one is (almost) always in your (the diner’s) control!
  4. Service. Fantastic service dramatically enhances the overall dining experience. A server who is assertive, knowledgeable, attentive but not overbearing, and has a positive attitude will elevate your meal. A little hipster sass is ok, to a point. We had all this and more at Darlings, including a strong Manager who pitched in when needed. Post-COVID, there’s clearly been a general degradation in Service levels, which only highlights how important it is to the overall dining experience.

Two considerations I’ve excluded are price/value and consistency of experience among diners. I believe assessing a dining experience should be largely independent of the price to allow for broad comparability, albeit with some calibration (e.g., I’m assessing Sunday morning Dim Sum differently than a Michelin star restaurant, even though both can be excellent or poor dining experiences). And while ideally the entire group feels similarly about a dining experience, it’s ultimately a personal perspective.

I also haven’t addressed the quality of the drinks menu. While certainly a component of the overall meal, I personally haven’t found the quality of the drinks menu to be as influential to the dining experience as the other factors listed above (i.e., if I’m having a shit dining experience, a great cocktail probably won’t change that; if I’m having an incredible experience, a limited wine list is unlikely to change that). It also allows for better comparability across meal types (i.e., breakfast/brunch, lunch, and dinner).

I welcome any feedback or input on this framework. Also, I’m always on the hunt for great dining experiences and welcome any Toronto or Calgary recommendations.

*I felt compelled to write about Darlings… back to regular content next week.