Enjoying Great Restaurants & Hotels in Wonderful Cities | Summer 2013 Rambling

A rambling about why and how we expand our frame of reference
by Dennis Quaintance, CEO, CDO (Chief Design Officer)
(Also see our Fall 2013 Newsletter)

Tough work… but somebody’s got to do it!

Our frame of reference trips are on my mind because in January, Leigh Hesling, the Chef at Print Works Bistro and Green Valley Grill, and Jay Pierce, the Chef for both Lucky 32 Southern Kitchens, joined Nancy and me in London for a marathon of dining and hotel visits. We find London to be a great place to focus on the European culinary roots of both Green Valley Grill and Print Works Bistro. Clearly, we would have gotten to experience even more authentically Spanish food in Spain or Greek food in Greece, but we didn’t have two months or that kind of budget.

If the primary focus of your day job, as mine is, is to “cause delight” for the folks who choose to visit restaurants and hotels for which you have responsibility, it makes sense that you’d seek to broaden your frame of reference. Doing so allows you to bring what people respond favorably to in other cities back to the communities you serve. I see this as a key ingredient to delivering what our guests deserve. Our idea is to contextualize what we learn when we travel; then adapt the recipes, design concepts and service standards from our trips to the tastes and sensibilities of the guests we serve here in the Piedmont. As a testimonial, in the 24 years since we started QW, we’ve brought home thousands of ideas from our travels. Sometimes I’ll get in a zone, and if anyone is willing to listen, I can rattle off the inspiration for almost every aspect of our places—from a piece of furniture to a menu item.

Note: Not all of the frame of reference inspiration comes from Nancy and me. We get it from all around when our friends and colleagues share their experiences. Don Rives heaped it on and taught me its value. Bradshaw Orrell, who helps with all things design oriented, visited London after us to experience many of the same places we did so that we can have a common frame of reference.

Here is a quick list of just a few examples of where we’ve found inspiration:

  • The red cantilever awnings at the O.Henry: the Plaza Athénée in NY (and Paris)
  • The nine-light 7’4” square windows at the Proximity: a pre-war eight-story warehouse in South Chicago
  • A hotel front desk that doesn’t go to the floor, like at the Proximity: The Mondrian in Beverly Hills 
  • Using the word “bespoke” rather than “custom-designed and/or made”:
    – We noticed this word being used in NY and Boston, but in the UK it has spread its wings beyond haberdashery.
    – Since events and catering at our hotels are always custom-designed, we refer to them as Bespoke Events.
    – Starting soon, beyond the custom-made Kew Double Ewe™ wines (sounds like QW, too silly?) that we serve at some of our catered events, we’ll have five delightful varietals that will be called “QW Bespoke” that will feature whimsical label sketches by Chip Holton, QW’s Artist-in-Residence.
  • French fries so good they make your eyes roll back in your head: Bread Line in Washington, DC
  • The center allée like we used at Print Works: Annabel’s, Berkley Square, London
  • Huge windows in some of the guest room bathing rooms: Opus Hotel, Vancouver, BC
  • Food pickup window assembly: South City Kitchen, Atlanta
  • Restaurant service that’s authentic and professional, yet not self-important: Il Latini, Florence (not the one in South Carolina)

Don’t get me started—this list could go on and on! BTW: We don’t go for copying. We go for experiencing something and using it as inspiration.

Here are a few of the techniques, methods and mindsets that we employ to get the most out of our visits to hotels and restaurants (BTW: I often employ these mindsets when I visit QW places.):

  • Don’t try to notice things. Instead, notice what you notice. Respond to what you respond to. Just be a guest. Have fun. Relax. If you find your brow furrowed and your eyes squinted attempting to notice every detail, you’ll miss what typical guests notice. If something catches your eye or palate, zero in on it. Make a note or take a photo, then move on; revert to being a guest.
  • Be careful with your expectations. Don’t have many. Drop those you have when you arrive. Stay in the moment, enjoy it. Avoid thinking things like, “Shucks, this place isn’t as great as I’d thought. I wish we’d gone to the other place we considered.” I liken this to romance: It seems that if a person has too specific of an idea about what is happening and too precise of an expectation, the opportunity for spontaneity, joy and delight often is missed. There ain’t much bad romance, just varying degrees of good! And there isn’t much bad expansion of your frame of reference. Why not go for optimal?
  • Endeavor to be “in the moment.” There are lots of methods for doing this, so use whatever works for you. The important thing is to plug into your technique any time you notice yourself NOT being in the moment. (To me, this “in the moment” notion is one of the most valuable things in life if a person wants to experience being a human being rather than a human doing. Like Ram Dass taught us years ago, “Be Here Now.”)
  • The best way to expand your frame of reference is to travel alone or with one other person of whom you don’t have expectations or vice versa (two is more fun!). The idea is to give your “soft eyes” of attention to what is happening: the flavors, textures, aromas, transactions and—very important—sights without being distracted by your companions. Employ your “unfamiliar” eyes. It seems that when you see something for the first time, you notice things that you might not notice otherwise. For reasons that I think Malcolm Gladwell summed up well in his book Blink, we tend not to notice things with which we are familiar. We call this mindset using our “Oklahoma Eyes.” (Of the lower 48, Oklahoma is the state that I’ve been to the least, just one quick fully clothed streak through. Since I’ve seldom been there, I pretend like I’m in Oklahoma when I want to notice things—so that I’ll notice more without trying to notice more. Clear as mud? Works for me.)
  • Do your homework. Research is 12.5% of the fun and 25% of the benefit. The Internet makes it easy. For London, the Guardian’s reviews are particularly helpful.

Back to our January trip to London… Yes, we saw some snow and got soaked a few times, but on balance the weather was fine. The four of us walked from place to place, so the cool air was perfect. We reckon we averaged more than 10 miles of walking a day. We learned a ton… and just walking down the street can be a great education!

We dined, or had smaller bites, at more than 50 restaurants and visited at least another 70. We stayed in seven hotels and visited about 30 others. A bonus for us is that going on these sorts of trips all but assures that our stock in Weight Watchers will go up. Many think that the UK is still a culinary wasteland. It isn’t…but it probably was. London and many other places in the UK now have extraordinary restaurants serving a multitude of cuisines. There are a lot of reasons for this relatively new culinary competence. Whatever the reason, we find great places there to dine and stay. Most will be glad to know that Nancy and I escaped after two weeks without eating kidney pie once.

The following list includes some standouts. We recommend all of these places…and this isn’t a travel guide. We were looking for specific things with the restaurants and hotels we selected.

  • Zetter Townhouse, Clerkenwell: avant-garde cocktails and environs without that snooty thing, plus inventive accommodations.
  • Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell:
    – Tiny, competent, clean, Scandinavian minimalism without being cold.
    – Friendly and tasty food that isn’t self-important, yet they serve many things that are au courant.
    – Inspirational for general competence.
  • The Shoreditch House, Shoreditch: avant-garde cocktails with a hip bar vibe that’s still friendly.
  • St. John Bread, Spitalfields
    – The bacon butty sandwich for b’fast is to die for.
    – Their primary restaurant in Smithfield was also great; they serve a lot of offal, not my favorite stuff, but I avoided it and was satisfied with meat that wasn’t an organ and loved the baked-to-order madeleines.
  • The Wolseley, St. James: a room that knocks your socks off with food and St. James ambiance to match.
  • The River Café, Hammersmith: They do it all well!
  • The Harwood Arms, Fulham: 
    – A Michelin-starred pub!
    – Our favorite lunch—cured trout and scotch eggs similar to theirs will show up on our menus.
  • The Boundary, Shoreditch
    – This is Sir Terrance Conran’s 2008 restoration of a late Victorian warehouse.
    – The rooms, restaurants and rooftop are fantastic.
    – We love it! I’d spend my entire word count budget on this place if I went on.
  • Ottolenghi, Notting Hill
    – Amazing light Mediterranean fare.
    – This is mostly takeout, with only one communal table and no wine service, heaven forbid (but their Islington spot is a proper restaurant).
  • Barrafina, Soho
    – This tiny, impeccably run tapas place is off the charts.
    – The Iberico ham will change your life and your bank balance.
    – Their motto: “Sourcing Not Saucing.”
  • José, Bermondsey
    – Another fantastic Spanish place. We loved it!
    – The meatballs, Patatas Bravas, lentils with chorizo and baby chicken were fantastic.
  • Le Cercle, Sloan Square, Chelsea
    – Small plates of southwestern French dishes.
    – Sort of a sleeper place with lots of lessons in flavor, presentation and hospitality.
  • The Wapping Project, Wapping Wall 
    – This is what you get when you put Australian Jules Wright, whom The Guardian calls “the clever and slightly scary theater director and curator,” into a fantastic 1890s industrial building and turn her loose. (This building was used to produce high-pressure water that was piped all around to run elevators and stages and such, including the elevators at Claridges.) Jules is amazing. As fate would have it, we struck up a conversation with her without knowing it was her and spent the better part of an hour chatting.
    – This is part restaurant and part art venue, but without any of that practical stuff like space planning or logistical studies. We watched a provocative film after our late lunch.
    – The food was fantastic, but the inspiration gained from Jules with regard to not accepting the conventions of traditional restaurant design was worth the airfare.

This really is the tip of the iceberg, but I think it demonstrates that these “frame of reference” jaunts are no joke. They’re fun and exhausting, but not a joke. As Bruce Mau says in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, “Take field trips, the band width is wider.” Indeed it is.