“If you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all.”
That edict was hammered into my psyche as a child. While it may earn me points with Emily Post, it’s made it exceedingly difficult for A2GastroBoy to provide frank critiques when presented with a less than stunning experience. And while that makes for a very pleasant blog, it’s fosters an unsavory internal conflict.
But fear not! Our hero has developed a strategy for presenting constructive critique in a manor intended to inspire growth. I may be frank, and at times the truth may sting, but believe me when I say, I want to help you, not hurt you.
In case you live under a rock, let me start by saying there’s a food revolution going on. The entire nation is in hot pursuit, elevating food to new heights of artistry, sport and pop culture.
Ann Arbor has always been a trend forward city, but 2011 has been excessively exciting time for local foodies. We’ve welcomed a host of new flavor...Frita Batido, Mark’s Carts, Mani Osteria, Wednesday Evening Farmer’s Market, Tilian Farms, Satchel’s BBQ, Biercamp. It’s been thrilling. For the city’s restaurant developers, however, 2011 hasn’t been without a few foul balls. And one specific example burns bright in my mind as a tragic underachievement: The Raven’s Club.
Hope sprang eternal in Sept. 2010 when Paula Gardner first reported that 207 S. Main St. would become Stella’s on Main Street. To the trained eye there were a few subtle curiosities, AKA warning signs, but the more compelling aspirational taunts gave reason to root for the local boy and reserve judgement.
By May 2011 anticipation was palpable. Progress at the site yielded a new name, a stylish sign and due to the covered windows, lots of curiosity. Within three days two separate local papers released updates of the new Raven’s Club. Local buzz for simultaneous openings of Mani and Mark’s Carts only added to the thrill. Anticipating Raven’s opening was a highlight in my May. Let me be clear, the anticipation was a highpoint. Reality was not.
WARNING: The compliments stop here. And before some pollyanna calls me a ‘hater’ let me remind readers that this is Main Street in Ann Arbor. Amateurs need not apply. While the following stand may not be riddled with pleasantries, it was written with constructive intent.
In today’s fashionable economy, where hardware stores carry lines of designer themed items as mundane as garden spikets, restaurants cannot not afford to skimp on decor. In that vein, the owners of Raven specifically claim to have delayed opening to “do it right.” “We wanted our opening to be solid and so we combed over every detail and took our time,” Paquin said. “It has been painful financially, but I think in the long run it will be appreciated.” Paints an expectation, huh?
The owners claim that they wanted customers to see what the building looked like 100 years ago. So why do you suppose they left the circa1980 utilitarian tile floor? I understand that the opening of Raven exceeded original budgets, and flooring is expensive, but really? This is such a critical design element.
The second issue that I can only assume to be financially constrained, was seating. I’ll excuse the cloth pattern as a matter of taste and say that Raven’s did install some impressive booths or banquettes. Their chairs however cannot be excused to taste. They clearly tried to save money and use the pub chairs inherited with the lease. Wether or not you agree with that choice, the real crime presents itself when you realize they supplemented those chairs with bargain basement black lacquer chairs clearly purchased from a restaurant supply company, not a furniture design group.
The flooring and chairs create a painfully mismatch of thematic look and feel. They are in blaring conflict of the ornate wood and iron bar and fixtures. Both issues can be fixed. A well planned winter recess could afford the owners the perfect opportunity to correct these oversights.
Barkeep vs. Mixologist
If the 1990s movie Swingers made Martinis and cocktails popular, the recent AMC series Madmen has now elevated spirits to Haute Couture. Restaurants in some parts of the country are starting to give their chief bartenders equal billing to Chefs and Sommeliers. If you’re going to bill yourself as “A modern day social club” that harkens back to prohibition, you’d better be damn sure to not only do your homework, but hire a bartender that warrants the attention.
My first visit was challenged from go. I struggled to get the beer maiden (bartender) to engage. I call her a beer maiden because her knowledge of bourbon was embarrassing. It wasn’t until another customer inquired about beers on tap that I realized she was actually fairly knowledgable, and somewhat passionate about beer - clearly a result of her other multiple jobs, tending bar at beer joints. Admirable, but ill suited for Raven.
Then I looked up. The wall is adorned with a gouache write-board advertising, “TRC Lemonade: Chef’s Lemonade served with vodka and garnished with lemon.” Really? REALLY? My daughter’s elementary school lunch menu deploys more eloquent and enticing pros.
I’m going to start with a little clue to the unenlightened, if the menu doesn’t list a chef, the restaurant doesn’t have one. Food is big business and today it’s easier than ever to go to a food show and pick-up seemingly impressive recipe cards from purveyors of entree components. Companies from Tyson to Sysco hire corporate chefs to help local restauranteurs hone their menus. That’s a welcome gift to family dining establishments that serve warm plates to blue hair and budget diners. It has no place on Main Street.
Now, I’m not saying that this is how Raven’s Club built their menu. What I am saying is that when you’re competing against Eve Arnoff, Brandon Johns, Thad Giles and Alex Young, you need to bring your A game. While this menu uses some well placed buzz words, it smacks of “Sysco Shiek.” Terms like, “Shellfish du Jour,” “Soup du Jour” and “Chocolate Decadence” are not only antiquated, they serve as loud sirens announcing “pedestrian faire.”
Now know this, I’ve only eaten one thing at Raven, but the experience was beyond sophomoric. My “medium rare” burger was served well done, and broken into two pieces. If you think I’m being harsh remember my preface, this is Main Street, not Arborland.
Menu Opportunity: In spite of these challenges, Raven’s club has made a commitment to local food and established a few advocates within the Washtenaw foodplain. I encourage the team to leverage these ties and re-examine their menu. Even if Raven’s decides that they’d rather be a bar, there’s plenty of room to drive revenue (and profit!) from a more thoughtful menu. Reduce choices. Do a few things well. And stop using the word Nicoise in a prohibition joint.
Here’s the final stand. Dining, or “pubbing,” is a more than subsistence. It’s an experience. It’s a respite from our busy lives. Shortfalls in ambiance or cuisine can be more than over compensated for by wowing the patron with hospitality. Sadly, once again I was given way too much ammunition for critique.
I was “greeted” by a seated hostess. I’m not a fan of chairs in the foyer, let alone a seated host. I casually walked past said host, without acknowledgement and sat at the bar. After my encounter with the beer maiden I was intrigued to see an owner approach the bar. I recognized his mug from photos in the press. Sadly, rather than work the room, the proprietor took a seat at the bar and began reading restaurant industry trade rags.
Now lest’s make a comparison. Around the same time another highly anticipated restaurant opened a few blocks down in the much maligned “mid town” blocks of Liberty. According to Mint.com I’ve now been to Mani seven times and I’ve spent the equivalent of two car payments. Clearly I’m a fan. On my last visit my dining partner noticed the owner. He was omnipresent, tending to tables, engaging with patrons and assisting the staff. It was familial. We gushed about his success. Could Raven’s Club have the same conviviality? Absolutely. That’s an easy an immediate ROI.
So there it is. my honest critique of the Raven's club. Agree? Disagree? Tell me so in the comments section.