A very decisive 50% of respondents found the food to be the most memorable aspect of their best restaurant experience. I’m not too surprised by this outcome. Great service is something that is elusive and hidden, such that if things go as planned you don’t bother to give the service much of a thought. "Atmosphere" is broad term which got the least amount of votes. When I created the poll, I was thinking atmosphere in terms of both the restaurant's ambiance as well as the company with whom you were dining. Perhaps I should have separated those concepts, but I’m not sure it would have mattered. Clearly, food is the decisive factor to a great restaurant experience.
My personal vote went to "great service." I say this because of, for example, the service we got at Everest restaurant in Chicago a few years ago. Great service is not defined by the fact Lucy-in-pigtails didn’t charge you for all 6 Bud Lights you ordered and cut you an extra large slice of pie. Everest was a once in a life time experience for me, at least so far. The food was good, but being a chef I know that if you look hard enough you will find good food on any menu, and if not, I can cook for myself. What put this experience over the top was the quality of each staff member as well as the sheer number of them. There was someone in the lobby to get us on the elevator, someone to lead us off the elevator to the restaurant, a host who took jackets and seated us at our table. There was a different person who each poured water, took the food order, delivered martinis, took the wine order, opened and poured wine, re-folded your napkin if you got up and brought new flatware. Each course was a circus of plating table-side with the essence and craftsmanship that smacks you in the face. Broths and sauces, garnishes and plates whirled around my head like a fairytale or a daydream, all landing flat on the table in front of me, arranged like a picture, appropriately aligned with not one stray drop on me, the table, the floor; nothing was out of place or inappropriate.
"Perfect food" did win the poll, and if not for my experience at Everest I would have voted for food as well. I think it’s no surprise that people go to a restaurant with the expectations that the food be very good. Perfect is elusive and rare, but that is what makes it so special. For me, as a chef, I'm not embarrassed to say that some of the best food I’ve tasted has been food I’ve cooked myself, and some wasn't even food in a restaurant. I made a Christmas Cassoulet two years ago that was maybe the best meal I’ve ever had. This is the exception; it seems most people cook at home for survival, not satisfaction. This is good for me, because people come to the restaurant, where I can make every attempt to cook a memorable meal for them with Perfect Food