5 qualities that make a restaurant a home away from home

AKA the stuff that turns you into a regular.

Home, for many of us, is somewhere other than our permanent address. It’s where we have our regular dining experience after a long day, or a celebratory occasion, or just when we’re hungry for that comfortingthing we never get sick of.

Call it a foundation restaurant or a go-to spot – on Seinfeld it was Tom’s Restaurant, on Cheers it was… well, you know. Some call it a “third space.” It's the place that’s definitely not your workplace, not your home, but a home away from home, as no other place can be. (Here are 5 Twin Cities suggestions.)

A home-base restaurant is as important as your actual home. When the glow of the refrigerator light, a carton of worthless baking soda, and that kimchee experiment are the icebox's only contents, the home restaurant awaits. When not even the cat seems to want your company tonight, your neighborhood local always will.

Not all eateries can be the place, and not all of them have to. Here are five qualities a restaurant needs to make a regular out of you.

Value - Good food, fair price

The regular spot is not for experimentation.

Liquid nitrogen, charcuterie on a fishing hook, and sushi nudes have no place here. (Not that there’s anything wrong with them.) But a go-to place must have identifiable cooking, in a generous portion, at a fair price, every time.

Chocolate cake, a turkey club, and spaghetti and meatballs are in the culinary canon here. Portion size matters. If you’ve ordered that turkey club, you don’t want it some little joke sandwich or some novelty item to arrive.

This has to be a portion that fits your expectations – especially if you order it every time you come in – for a value price. Not necessarily cheap, but fair. Everybody likes to see a big plate of what they’ve ordered, arriving fast, hot and fresh, in an amount you’d dish up for yourself if you were hungry at home. Think "food baby."

Service - Friendly people who treat you right

If a friend unexpectedly stopped by your house, would you let them get past the threshold without welcoming them? Of course you wouldn’t.

Get thee to your regular spot where you can expect the same.

A warm and genuine welcome is the first and most important imperative of a regular’s place. They always seem happy to see you. If it’s not genuine, they sure make a hell of a performance out of it.

A beverage refill comes before you have to ask for it. (This includes the occasional top-off on a glass of wine, thank you very much.) A manager won’t hesitate to run back for another basket of bread – even though he’s in a suit – and the servers know you like ice in your wine. Hey, no judgement.

The personal touches say: “This place is all about you,” rather than the all-too-common opposite found in many modern restaurants.

A regular's place operates with this in mind: the client means business. When the client keeps coming back, business is good.

Your visit is not about the owner. It’s about you.

Comfort - Nothing fancy, but a fresh coat of paint is in the repertoire

Walk into your regular place, and there is probably a wooden high chair within eyeshot in case a kid needs to fling crackers around. There might be a jukebox. Paper napkins are fine here. Bread baskets with butter and tall icy glasses of water appear out of nowhere.

Well-worn, broken-in fixtures are cool, but cleanliness doesn’t suffer. The soap pumps are full, and you'll always find something to dry your hands (and your bum) in the restrooms.

Consistency - Everything remains the same, with something new from time to time

Your regular spot doesn’t yank the pancakes off your plate like a trick tablecloth.

The BLAT with bacon and avocado is always there, no matter what. The toast is never burnt at the edges. There is always precisely enough mayo and nothing called “chipotle aioli” in place of it.

This is a place of sustenance, not surprises. However, a well-thought-out special is always welcome. Not the special that is clearly trying to make use of the overabundance of last week’s chicken breast, but the special that makes you feel, you know, special.

Dependability - This phrase: "Let me see what I can do"

Ever since you were three years old, the word “no” has been a downer. Astute hospitality pros know they’re in the “yes” business. Your regular spot is a place of affirmation. Ask for dessert first, and the answer should be “of course.”

The customer is not always right. You can’t go barreling into an establishment and start asking for any old thing. If you do, it makes you a jerk. But reasonable requests ought to be met without instantaneous reluctance.

Ask for a scoop of chocolate instead of vanilla, and the answer should at the very least be, “Let me see what I can do.”

Find a place that provides what you want, and hey! Look at that. Here comes a regular.

Mecca Bos is a Twin Cities-based food writer. She has an upcoming podcast called Snax Everywhere. Find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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