Table Thoughts: Loyal Diners on What Makes a Restaurant Special

Longtime patrons relate their fondest memories of their favorite restaurants and tell us why they can't wait to go back

Table Thoughts: Loyal Diners on What Makes a Restaurant Special
Boulevard, a San Francisco destination owned by acclaimed chef Nancy Oakes, hopes to welcome diners back soon to make more memories. (Courtesy of Boulevard Restaurant)
May 21, 2020

Cooking at home and in virtual kitchen classes can be a fun diversion in these stay-at-home times but, as America's restaurant regulars will tell you, it's just not the same. When restaurants closed during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, many diners lost a favorite spot where the staff felt like family, the food and wine were always just right for the occasion, and decades of memories lingered—a home away from home.

We spoke to seven longtime patrons of beloved Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning dining destinations around the country. They shared some of their fondest restaurant memories, what makes these places unique and special, and how they are finding creative ways to send support and dollars to their friends in the food world.


More Table Thoughts: We also asked sommeliers about their restaurant reflections—and the first stops they plan to make after reopening.

And our editors shared some of their own all-time favorite dining experiences.


Knife and Fork Inn

Atlantic City, N.J.
Best of Award of Excellence

Loyal Patron: Grant Rawdin of Philadelphia, Penn.

When did you start dining at the Knife and Fork Inn, and what are some of your fondest memories?

When my parents took us there in the late 1960s, it was the place to go. It was a fancy place. My wife and I went [again]—this was about 10 years ago—and we were blown away.

I can remember the precise moment that I met [general manager and wine director] Ryan [Bray]. My wife and I had gone a couple of times, and I couldn't believe he had this special wine; it was a ’76 Ampeau Meursault. 1976, I couldn't believe it! I was blown away that it was on the menu. I asked to see the sommelier. So Ryan came over and we had a great conversation. We became fast friends and loyal patrons.

Grant Rawdin and his family at Knife and Fork Inn
Grant Rawdin (second from left) with his wife and kids at a favorite table at the Knife and Fork Inn (Courtesy of Grant Rawdin)

How are you supporting the restaurant during this time?

We've done takeout and that's been great. We all miss chef Jim [Huntzinger]. And then the wine list, God bless them, I think is 50 percent off. I always buy their wine, always. But the other thing, which is probably more important, is that all of these people you know—you can't call them servers because they really are friends—now during this time it’s important to just stay in contact. It's Facebook messages, it's texting. They have an [employee relief] fund for the staff, so it's contributing to the fund. It's emailing and forwarding things to each other, and trying to keep the humor up, and making sure that everyone is all right, because it's a really difficult time.


Berta’s Chateau

Wanaque, N.J.
Best of Award of Excellence

Loyal Patron: Dan Freifeld of Park City, Utah

How long have you been dining at Berta’s Chateau, and how are you supporting the restaurant while living so far away?

I grew up always going to the restaurant, knowing Santina and Pietro [Berta], and then, of course, [their grandson, current chef and owner] Peter [Bernstein]. My wife and I are a little bit older than Peter, but we do remember him when he was a baby. We knew his parents quite well. Peter is now in charge of running it. He's a fantastic chef, absolutely fantastic. He still serves some dishes that go back to his grandfather. It's been a wonderful continuity.

When Peter took over, his interest in wine grew and grew and grew. And Nancy, my wife, and I traveled with Peter and his wife, Sandy, many, many times to Italy and France and Portugal on wine-tasting trips. Well, our daughter lives right down the street from Peter, so we thought that one of the things we could do to help out was to increase our daughter’s supply of wine. So we ordered some wine and Peter had it delivered to her. He’s keeping her well-stocked.

Dan Freifeld and his family at Berta's Chateau
Nancy Freifeld (standing, left) and Dan Freifeld (right), with (seated, left to right) daughter-in-law Jane Harnick, son Adam Freifeld and daughter Tara Freifeld at Berta's Chateau (Courtesy of Dan Freifeld)

Boulevard

San Francisco
Best of Award of Excellence

Loyal Patron: Evelyn Kim of San Francisco

How long have you been dining at Boulevard?

I think I became a regular several years ago. When I moved law firms, a couple of law firms ago, they were in close proximity, and so I started going there initially out of convenience. But Boulevard, to me, is the gold standard of customer service, and they’re so focused on relationships, which is what I love. Boulevard is like my second office. Sometimes I feel like it’s my second home because I spend more waking hours at Boulevard than anywhere else, probably.

What’s one of your fondest memories at the restaurant?

I host a renewable-energy cocktail reception about once or twice a year. The most recent one I had was in November; I had it at Boulevard and it was a huge hit. At the end of the night, I remember sitting at the bar and I had a bottle—it was my first Montrachet actually; it was the Marc Colin Montrachet 2013. [Wine director] John [Lancaster] was there and I asked him to have a glass with me.

Have you been ordering meals through their pickup program?

This week is my first week [out of quarantine after contracting COVID-19], so I’ve been texting with [chef] Dana [Younkin] because by the time I realized I could do it, I was late on the order … and she actually said, “I gotcha! I held back an order thinking of you.” She knows what I’ve been going through, so it was so sweet of her. I’m really excited; I’ve been dying to go pick up some Boulevard takeout.


The Hitching Post II

Buellton, Calif.
Award of Excellence

Loyal Patrons: Richard and Thekla Sanford of Buellton, Calif., veteran winemakers who founded Sanford Winery and Alma Rosa

How long have you been dining at the Hitching Post II?

TS: We’ve been dining there since it opened, because we live about 5 or 6 miles from the restaurant. In 1986, there weren’t a lot of choices of places to eat in the [Santa Ynez] Valley. The Hitching Post opened and everyone was very excited.

RS: [Owner] Frank [Ostini] was very industrious, and he had a great feeling for the whole wine focus and elevated cuisine that was happening in our region. Also, I think it’s important to recognize [his wife], Jamie, who continues to give such great inspiration.

What’s one of your fondest memories at the restaurant?

TS: I had a birthday party in ’92; it was the night of the [presidential] election. I told Frank I wanted to do my birthday at the Hitching Post and wanted to use this backroom that they have off of the bar. He and I worked on the menu together and he came up with the most innovative, wonderful menu, with everything named after the people who were running for president. I had about 25 people and it was one of the best nights. I remember it just like it happened yesterday. We taught the bartender how to make this Mexican margarita with the Mexican lime squeezer that we gave him, and he was pumping out the margaritas like crazy that night. It was a very personal and wonderful time, but there were so many times.


Café l’Europe

Palm Beach, Fla.
Best of Award of Excellence

Loyal Patron: Robert Palombi of Boca Raton, Fla.

When did you first discover Café l’Europe?

My wife and I started going there in 2003, so we're talking at least 17 or 18 years ago now. The food is exquisite. I've probably had everything on the menu over the years. Their schnitzel Holstein is an old-school dish that's done with capers and anchovies and olives and things. And they put an egg on the top of that. That's old-school, and I'm not a young guy. But that's what they make for me.

They also have a spectacular wine selection. I love French wines. I'm a fan also of our wines here in this country, the Sonoma and Napa Valley wines. They've got a wine book that's got to be 100 pages. It's huge! No matter what you ask for, they have it.

Robert Palombi
Robert Palombi with his wife; they've been going to Café l’Europe for the better part of two decades. (Courtesy of Robert Palombi)

You must be looking forward to going back.

Here in Florida, they are talking about capacity restrictions. I just hope they open them up soon, because these people need to make a living; they're all hurting. They're not working. But I can tell you this: I'm waiting for the phone call.


The Village, Chicago, Ill.

Best of Award of Excellence

Loyal Patron: Rick McNees of Naperville, Ill.

What are some of your favorite memories at the Village?

[Wine director] Jared [Gelband] has hosted several special dinners that we’ve attended. Recently we attended the Sassicaia vertical tasting with the Sassicaia wine producer who was in town, and that was really fun and really special. When it’s 10 vintages of a label like that, it’s an extraordinary event, and those are few-and-far-between, once-in-a-lifetime events. One night we had our own special dinner, but some of the guys got a little bit out of control, ordered an ’88 Masseto and a ’90 Masseto, because [Gelband] had them. So we’ve had some fun with those things.

Because it is such an institution, some of those folks have been there for years, for decades. You go there and you know them really well. You’ve known them for a long time, you know their families, and it’s more poignant than just having a waitress or a server. You’re not only concerned for the institution but them as individuals in these times, and it’s hard.


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