It's simply this: Is the restaurant driven by the front of its house or the back of it?
The dining room or the kitchen? The front staff and room, or the chef and his/her culinary vision? In three decades of restaurant criticism I’ve observed that a restaurant is almost always dominated by one or the other. And you can usually tell right off which it is.
It’s not that front-of-house restaurants have bad food and back-of-house restaurants have bad service—it’s more a matter of what they choose to prioritize. Front-of-house restaurants, often launched by front-of-house professionals, prioritize the welcome, the booze, the comfort of the room. Perhaps they are trying to lure regulars by learning names, by working the room, by going the extra mile in service. Think a place like Cassis in West Seattle, whose classic French food can be up and down but whose welcome is as consistently authentic and warming as any you’ll find in this city—thank you owner and frontman extraordinaire, Jef Fike.
Other front-of-house restaurants feature rooms drenched in ambiance, like the uber-romantic Serafina, or crafted as stage-sets, like the James Weimann-Deming Maclise partnerships Bastille, Stoneburner, Rhein Haus, Poquito’s, and MacLeod’s. The newest high-profile exemplar of the front-of-house restaurant is Tallulah’s, the swanky Linda Derschang spot on north Capitol Hill where people clearly want to gather, judging by the crowds I consistently spy both indoors and out. Tallulah’s food ranges from lackluster to perfectly fine—which isn’t this much of a draw. No, the crowds descend on Tallulah’s for its stylish sense of place and its buoyant welcome.
Back-of-house restaurants are better represented right now, for they’re the ones on the ascendancy in this age of food connoisseurship. Into this category fall restaurants whose dining rooms might tend toward the chaotic, but whose food can be thoughtful and lovely: Places like Wandering Goose or Volunteer Park Café or Bourbon and Bones. Or restaurants whose food comes out at the pleasure of the kitchen instead of the convenience of the diner: Places like Joule or the Whale Wins. Or restaurants so aware of their rarefied culinary status, their servers can radiate aloofness instead of welcome: Places like Bar Sajor or Westward.