I love it when one of my columns sparks a conversation about a similar-but-different idea. Consider my comment in last week’s review:
“What do I like so much about Con Huevos? As simply as I can explain it, it’s a happy place.”
That seems simple enough. It’s concise, but hardly a quote for the ages. But those few words prompted more response than just about anything else I’ve said recently. People wanted to tell me about their happy place eateries, and from there it went on to a philosophical follow-up: What is it, exactly, that makes a place happy, cozy, magical, gemütlich, hygge, and all the other warm notions of things bring us joy?
Let’s dig into this today, with a spoiler alert: There is no single one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Each of us defines it in our own way, and that’s all right.
One person’s happy place may be a simple, down-home, mom-and-pop eatery that makes you feel at home. In contrast, another’s comfort zone might be an elegant, white-tablecloth eatery that makes them feel pampered and cared for.
What’s your pleasure? It might be good, old-fashioned, down-home American fare like Mom used to make. But it might be good, old-fashioned, down-home fare from wherever Mom or Grandmom came from, whether you call her Abuelita or Bubbe or Nonna, Grandmère or Obasaan.
Or maybe the food that touches your heart comes from a place your ancestors never knew, yet that speaks to you in feelings as strongly as words. I’m like that for Indian, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Iranian, not to mention Italian and French. Really, just about any food that speaks of distant places and immigrant neighbors can ring that comfort bell for me.
So, if we enter our soul-touching cuisine as relationship information on Facebook, we might click “It’s Complicated.”
It’s no easier to zero in on exactly what it takes for a restaurant to impart this burst of joy. My friends on social media and in person weren’t shy about expressing their opinions. I engaged with a couple of hundred of them on Facebook and the HotBytes Forum, and I must have gotten something like 300 suggestions out of them. Whew!
Still, a few standard descriptions for an iconic happy place seem to recur.
- Atmosphere, ambience, feel, whatever synonym you want to use for it, has to rank high. A fancy eatery with a memorable chef and kitchen can garner critical raves and multiple stars; but if its atmosphere is chilly and the servers snooty, it won’t rate highly on the hygge meter.
- The personal touch matters. An owner or chef who takes time to walk around the room and greet diners can earn dividends with a warm, welcoming attitude. That smile has to be genuine, though. Nobody loves a faker.
- Service makes a difference. Friendly and attentive servers earn a strong positive response; so does firm knowledge of the menu and a clear sense that the diner’s needs are important.
- Value. Do I even have to tell you this? Fair prices, generous portions, and quality food leave the diner feeling content. Does this mean that only cheap eats can qualify? Not at all! I’ve found great value in meals that cost $150 for a couple, and I’ve walked away feeling cheated from a $20 tab.
Let’s consider a handful of favorite spots around town – favorites of mine, favorites of friends who joined the conversation – and see if we can’t illustrate this elusive goal with a few good examples.
The local hangout
My Facebook friend Ed H. nailed this one, saying, “The local mom-and-pop pizza neighborhood place is a good one. People grow up, have parties, first teenage dates, first cold beers, and after work happy hours. It’s the place everyone knows your name like the TV show. … You can go an be casual, have food and drink, and maybe have memories. Those are the real happy places. In sports terms it’s kinda like having a restaurant as your home team. How many places do you go in that you know all the cooks and servers?”
Hmm, that sounds about right! I love pizza, and it’s no coincidence that a significant share of my social-media responses named pizzerias. That’s more, there’s hardly a better way to start a debate than to ask friends to rank their three favorite local pizzerias. I might name MozzaPi, The Post or Pizza Lupo just to get the discussion started.
“The Bristol on Bardstown Road was the first nice, casual, affordable restaurant in my early adult years,” Corie N. observed on Facebook. “The first Fern Bar! And we still go there!”
I confess that I haven’t been back to the Bristol for quite a while. But when I remember the gang from The Louisville Times newsroom gathering there after work on Fridays and proudly claiming the front table in the window to share brews and green chile wontons, I realize that Corie is onto something.
Along similar lines, longtime Louisville destinations like Buck’s, Volare, Anoosh Bistro, Jack Fry’s, 211 Clover, Selena’s, The Pine Room, Brasserie Provence, La Chasse, Come Back Inn, El Mundo, and Irish Rover got multiple mentions, and I agree.
High-end steak houses have a special character that appeals to many people. It’s a combination of a serious carnivorous bill of fare that’s pricey but worth it, coupled with a sense of local tradition that adds layers of comfort. Pat’s Steakhouse got multiple mentions, as did Le Moo and, for a serious blowout, Jeff Ruby’s. “Superb service and excellent food,” my friend David C. said of Ruby’s. “We go there for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions.”
I could go on, and another day I probably will. At this point, though, I think we’re getting the idea: Just about any kind of eatery can comfort us. Doing things right brings faithful followers back.