Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dining Ambiance: whats it worth?

I've often said that in regard to restaurant dining, food and service were important; ambiance didn't matter. I'd now modify that opinion to say that food and service were most important, and atmosphere also counts, but coming in at third place.

I'll illustrate this with two examples, although the the restaurants have almost nothing in common.

I recently had breakfast with the Men's Group at the Hostería de San Felipe in Pátzcuaro.

San Felipe comedor

This is a "Categoría Especial" hotel, and the grounds and dining room reflect a lot of thought and care in design. For the first time in my memory, a U-shaped table layout enabled the group to converse more easily. The linens and table coverings were attractive. The dining room itself, although a bit dark, was warm and comfortable. It looks like a nice place to have dinner. The service was a little confused, but not unredeemable. The food, in my opinion, was passable but nothing distinguished.

Two thirds of the guests received orange juice, the other third did not. I requested it and it arrived promptly. It was fine.

The coffee was weak but just drinkable. The first bread that arrived was packaged toast slices, jam and real butter. Later, baskets of sliced teleras arrived.

I ordered what was billed as Costilla de Res con Chilaquiles. It turned out to be a really tough but tasty carne asada with some pretty good chilaquiles. Eating the carne asada was a workout. (I accepted the carne asada instead of the advertised costilla, because in these group breakfast situations, it's usually best to take what comes —if it is, indeed, your order. Otherwise you may wait a long time.)

The bill, averaged out among us was $75 MXP, including tip. That's a bit higher than average for the group breakfasts, which range from $40 upwards to $80.

My conclusion is that this was a case of paying for an upscale setting but not getting good value for our pesos in food and service.

Yesterday Susan and I went with our neighbor Larry R. to Mariscos La Güera Campestre, at kilometer 44.5 on the Pátzcuaro-Morelia highway. Susan and I had been there once before. (And of course, we've lost count of how many times we've eaten at the matriz, or main restaurant, on Av. Federico Tena in Pátzcuaro.

The new restaurant is very spacious, unlike the cozy series of rooms at the old place. There's even a separate outside dining location across the parking area. Where in the old place I get a feeling of warmth, the size of the new leaves me a bit uncomfortable.
True, it's an unfinished but functional space. It's a big barn hangar of a dining room.
I realize that it's a work in progress. In fact, workmen were adding metal panels to the roof when we entered and sat down. Some of the seating is on "Lifetime" folding chairs, others are inexpensive plastic Corona or Coke chairs. They are reasonably comfortable.

Now, the food we've had on two occasions is fine, the service congenial and reasonably efficient. On this visit, Larry and I both ordered Mojarra al Mojo de Ajo, a great deal at $42 MXP. It includes salad, rice, French bread and all the plain tostadas you want with bottled salsa. (One of the quirks of La Güera is that they don't normally provide any salsa cruda or verde, but they do have a wide variety of salsa in bottles.)

The mojarra was generous in size, the meat moist and flavorsome, the garlic in large, golden brown pieces, the rice well prepared and tasty, and nicely presented on the usual backdrop of fresh cucumber, tomato, orange, shredded carrots and lettuce with a few rings of purple onion.

Susan said her Caldo de Mariscos was very good, with a good stock, and all the seafood was fine, except for the vastly overcooked section of crab. (Not that crab is not even on the menu.)

The bill for the three of us, for one coctel de camarones mediano, one caldo de mariscos chico, two mojarras al mojo, five limonadas came to $268, plus tip. I'd say that's an excellent value.

Given a choice of Hostería de San Felipe with its warm and cozy atmosphere, or the big, oversized "hangar" of a seafood restaurant on the highway, I'd definitely opt for La Güera. But of course, I'm a known devotee of La Güera. And, at least for now, if choosing the old La Güera or the Campestre, I'd take the old.