Even though the restaurant industry has lost thousands of places in the past two years, new ones are still opening all the time. And if you eat out regularly, it’s likely that one of your friends—or at least someone you know—is about to open a new place.
I personally know at least six people who have launched or will launch new restaurants and food shops in the next few months. Some of them are brand new to running their own places; others have years of experience in the restaurant world.
Recently, I was invited to a soft opening for Bar Sukeban, an izakaya owned by Jacqueline Blanchard that officially opens on July 12. She’s best known in New Orleans and Nashville as co-owner of the Coutelier knife and kitchen gear stores, and worked as a restaurant chef in Louisiana and in California.
I’ve known Blanchard since 2017, and I took it as a compliment that she wanted me to try her food before her doors officially opened. If you’re in that situation, there are definitely ways you can help the nervous owner and evaluate your experience in the most constructive way possible.
A soft opening takes place days or weeks before a restaurant has officially set its hours, prices, and menu. In the most traditional form of a soft opening, owners and staff invite people they know personally. These days, word spreads so fast about previews that outsiders have been known to crash soft openings, or at least try to do so.
If you get an invite, it isn’t just a courtesy. You can assume that they definitely want you there. Friendly customers are much preferred to skeptics. The owner also may have set aside a certain amount of perishable ingredients to use on these nights, and if they don’t serve them, they have to throw them out, which adds more cost on top of their launch expense.
Be patient. They’re working out the bugs. Restaurants are training new staff, establishing a workplace culture, maneuvering around an unfamiliar dining room layout and kitchen, even ramping up new technology. No longer are staff automatically hovering with notepads. At Bar Sukeban, we snapped a QR code and picked out our dishes on the Toast ordering system; sometimes it took a few moments to load.
Restaurants are a constantly evolving business and nothing evolves faster than a place that’s getting its sea legs. Here’s your chance to see it grow. If you’d prefer the silky smooth service you expect from the place you’ve been eating all these years, go there instead.
Dishes and menus live in a chef’s brain for months, even years before a place opens. They may have made dozens of trial versions, but their vision might not hit your taste buds in a perfect way.
If you sense that the owner or the server is open to feedback, provide it in a kind way. At Bar Sukeban, guests can choose from a series of caviar add-ons, ranging from $10 to $60. I ordered the $10 trout roe and requested that it be served on a bowl of rice. It needed one more flavor note, so I asked Blanchard if she had the Suehiro ponzu sauce that she sells in her store (I’m on my second bottle at home). She zapped the dish with it, and voila! My combination was complete.
An early invitation sometimes carries the assumption that your meal will be free. But the new restaurant you’re sitting in might have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even $1 million, to open. With inflation and supply chain issues, the owner has probably spent more than they originally budgeted.
At this stage, you should not expect to be comped, and you should tip generously on whatever the restaurant charges. These are the first gratuities the staff is getting and restaurants are desperate to keep good hires. Conversely, if it is a free event, see if there’s a tip jar or some way to take care of the servers.
During my dinner at Bar Sukeban, a guest next to me looked at the menu and said, “What is shiso?” The staffer opposite her opened a container and showed them a shiso leaf, which is minty Japanese basil. Likewise, if you don’t understand a preparation or an ingredient, ask for an explanation.
New cooking techniques and flavors are evolving all the time. Chefs are finding inspiration in other cuisines that they are borrowing for their dishes. No one is expected to know every style of cooking. A freshly opened restaurant can be your opportunity to learn.
We all know about cursed corners—those storefronts that constantly rotate new businesses in and out as places fail to catch on. If the new place is in one of those spots, the owner probably knows it, but they hope they’ll be the ones who make that address a success. In many cities, high rents mean an owner has to take the place that they can best afford, and it might not be in a neighborhood that’s on your regular route, as newspaper delivery people say.
If you aren’t familiar with the location, scout it out before your arrival. Figure out the best public transportation, scope out a parking place or a parking lot nearby. The last thing an owner wants to hear is, “I had the wort time finding it” or “Why did you put it here?”
Some new places get plenty of media attention, especially if a high-profile chef or a familiar name is involved. In New Orleans, people are already posting their excitement about Michael Gulotta’s upcoming restaurant, Tana, even though it isn’t scheduled to open until next winter.
When Barry Sorkin opened Smoque BBQ in Chicago in 2006, it took about three weeks for word of mouth to spread. Now, it will probably take three minutes, once diners get a taste of the steakhouse he and his partners plan to open later this year. For newbies, however, social media buzz is crucially important.
Most restaurants generously repost the best looking pictures and warmest compliments, which will put your impressions in front of their audience. Many owners remember a particularly nice social media writeup and will thank you for it when the dust settles.
Remember: this is a person (or group of people) trying to achieve an ambitious goal, someone you either know personally or who has ties to the community. How would you feel if someone came to your house and sent out a group chat reading, “That dinner was terrible”? Negative word of mouth at the beginning can cause a restaurant to fail with lightening speed.
Obviously, you have every right to your opinion, but if something truly went wrong, it’s better to tell the restaurant privately, by text or email, rather than blast a negative review. Most owners will be grateful to hear it in time to fix it before the haters do their work.