Food or Scene?

So recently Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema slammed Mike Isabella’s
latest venture Bandolero, the Georgetown resto serving “updated” Mexican food. He dissed it not for its food, but for its ambiance. This, of course, sent the internets afire, especially since soon after Isabella, a ‘chef-testant’ on not one but two iterations of the TV show “Top Chef” and Sietsema started exchanging zingers and ‘explanations’ of their differences on Twitter.

It’s been a tweet skirmish worthy of a reality show catfight.

Sietsema said the place was way too loud and the decor too dark. He compared it to the Addams Family dining room and dubbed it “grimmest restaurant to open in years in Washington.” While he did give props to the food, what everyone’s gonna remember is how he slammed the place by saying that he’s glad the dessert was bad because he wouldn’t want “to stick around Bandolero any longer than necessary.” When confronted by Mike Isabella on Twitter, Tom has this to say.

I gotta say. That’s a big “But” and I cannot lie.

Sure people head out to certain places for the “scene and be seen” aspect. However, if a chef felt the need to 50/50 their priority between food/scene, then that’s a chef who’s lost his/her way.

How many times have we been told, “It’s all about the food?” Sure the ambiance and the setting completes the whole experience, but the soul of a restaurant is in its food.

One of the best chickens I’ve ever had was in bum f**k nowhere Yucatan Mexico, where some dude with no shirt cooked that bird out of a make shift oil can grill. Dust was everywhere, it was hot and humid, and frankly I didn’t see many chickens running around. You know what? It was one of the best damn things I’ve eaten. I imagine that’s how a real bandolero probably ate back in the day.

Ambience? We don’t need no stinkin ambience!

Nowadays with the economy and popularity of food trucks, people know that paying for ambiance and decor is a luxury, not a requirement. The bottom line is that people are paying to eat good food. Wanna pay for a good show? Go to Cirque du Soleil, grab some popcorn and afterwards call it one of the best dinners you’ve ever had.

When I ate at Bandolero, they had recently opened. It was the middle of this miserably hot summer and their AC was barely working and the place was packed. It was uncomfortable at first. After a few icy cocktails we managed to shrugged it off and decided hey, given the name and the idea of the place, why not just go with it? Especially I doubt a place named after “thieves and outlaws” should be a quiet and air conditioned den of deliciousness that only takes Amex black. (Well, maybe in D.C.)

So…dark? Sure! Boisterous? Why not?!

This isn’t a place where you should feel the need to be prim and proper, hush over your amuse bouche and talk quietly about how the smokiness from the mezcal lingers in your mouth. This is where you down pitchers of margaritas, scoop queso fundido with chips, and fight over the last suckling pig tacos!

Yummy tostadas from Bandolero. Suckling pig tacos gone before pictures could be taken. Yes it was kinda dark.

As a journalist and RESTAURANT reviewer, Sietsema has to provide his readers with the full experience of Bandolero, food and all. Keep in mind, he’s not just writing for the food people who’ll drive an hour out of the way just to eat tacos. His readership ranges from the no reservation generation, to the early birds, to the date night couples. He’s gotta cover all bases. His focus isn’t solely on the food. (Evident by his tweet)

However, it is totally understandable why Mike Isabella was (seemingly) a bit perturbed by Sietsema.

Which brings us back to the question. What’s more important to a restaurant? Food or scene?

(If you answered scene then please hit BLOCK on this blog.)

(No, seriously.)

(The rest of you get over to Bandolero. Down some tequila and then slam your glass down on the table. Suck down some suckling pig tacos with loud slurping sounds. You’re here for the food. As well you should be.)

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6 responses to “Food or Scene?

    • Yeah. But think back on that night. What I remember is the how tasty the dishes were, not that I had to raise my voice to order!

  1. Food first, absolutely. B-b-b-but? I have to say, if you’ve created a restaurant where there is a “scene,” you should at least make sure that the setting doesn’t distract from the food. I was eating at an Italian place a few months back where the food is fabulous and very rustic, but the decor is super slick and kind of overdone. I kept thinking, what an odd choice, and that distracted me! Still, I will say all of that is secondary to the food itself. And Bandolero’s ambiance, as described, seems to fit its name and all that. Anyway, interesting post!

    • I hear yea. It would be weird if French Laundry turned out to be a night club that served amazing food. Point well taken. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I haven’t made it over to Bandolero yet but the response I get when I ask folks about it (pre-Siestema-Isabella confrontation) is interesting – the food is usually the second thing they mention, after the ambiance. I’ve heard about the broken air conditioning from the early days. I’ve heard about the noise. I’ve also heard that the cocktails are great and the food good. But it seems that the level of comfort (or sometimes the lack there of) is what first resonates with folks. Perhaps because when diners are uncomfortable they focus more on that then the food they’re eating. Or it could have been that it just wasn’t their type of restaurant. I’ll still be heading over to check it out but I’ve been surprised by the consistency in responses I’ve received when asking friends what they think. Hands down, it’s about the food. But the packaging definitely counts for something.

  3. Interesting. I guess there’s something to be said for “first impressions.” When people walk in they first “eat” with their other senses before tasting the food. As a cook I always believe what’ll keep people coming back is the food. However, I guess nowadays (especially in Georgetown and from a Top Chef) they demand both. Yeah let me know what you think after you go! Thanks for commenting!

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