A few months back, I wrote a piece in which I lamented the closing of two of my favorite Lexington restaurants — Enoteca on Jefferson and the Julep Cup on Woodland Avenue. Shortly after, I received a lengthy email from the owner of a current in vogue eatery, in which he attempted to educate me on why they had closed.
He stated that they had ceased to be “relevant.” While I found this something of an arrogant proclamation at the time, in recent weeks, I have started to wonder just what is it that makes a restaurant relevant. It’s something worth pondering as the local restaurant scene here continues to expand, and survival of the fittest will undoubtedly prevail.
So, what factors constitute relevance? Is it the menu, which in the case of some chefs, seems more designed to please their vanity than their patrons’ palates? Is it the service — often the culinary equivalent of a lawyer leading the witness — “is everything tasting wonderful tonight?” Is it the ambiance — for example, music, which increasingly is being played at the decibel level of a rock concert rather than as a soothing backdrop for conversation?
I know that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to a pleasurable restaurant experience, but surely there is some common denominator. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, it would be that for a restaurant to remain relevant, it must above all else, make its customers feel valued and not just for the size of the bill they run up.
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The single greatest practitioner of the “make them feel special” philosophy that I’ve ever encountered was the late Ella Brennan who, for nearly half-a-century presided over Commander’s Palace Restaurant in New Orleans’ Garden District. Whether you were John Wayne or John Q. Public, Ella treated everyone the same — like a superstar.
Lexington is lucky to have its own throwback to the days of great restaurateurs in Wayne Masterman, owner of Portofino Restaurant. It’s the rare occasion when the affable Masterman isn’t at the restaurant overseeing all that goes into ensuring a pleasant dining experience.
I’m a fairly regular patron at Portofino, and on a recent evening I again had a chance to experience why this has been one of Lexington’s most reliable dining venues for the past 19 years.
Let’s start with the menu. At Portofino, you won’t find avant garde dishes such as octopus tacos or snail ice cream (thank British chef Heston Blumenthal for this one). What you will find is Italian cuisine using — whenever possible — fresh, local ingredients.
I had the shrimp scampi ($33) and my dining companion ordered the ravioli della casa ($24), a dish of house made cheese and basil ravioli served with a choice of marinara or garlic sage butter and topped with crispy fried leeks.
Paired with a garden salad ($5 for a small, $9 for a large) or a cup of Tuscan bean soup ($4), either dish makes for a satisfying option.
I’m also a fan of the pimento cheese ravioli appetizer ($11) and the classic lasagna with seasoned ricotta cheese and either marinara or Bolognese sauce ($19).
You’re also likely to find the perfect wine to complement your meal as Portofino’s excellent wine list was honored by The Wine Spectator Magazine as one of Lexington’s best in 2018.
That brings us to service. If Jay, our server for the evening is any indication, then Portofino gets top marks in this category as well. He was knowledgeable, helpful and attentive without being overly folksy or intrusive, and never once did he attempt to influence us by asking if everything was tasting wonderful.
Then there’s ambiance. There is no doubt that Portofino is a lovely space downtown with its multi-level dining and courtyard, which Masterman says is modeled after the ones he’s seen in Italy.
But what I appreciate the most is the noise level, or should I say, lack of it. Subdued background music allows you to carry on a conversation without resorting to shouting or lip-reading.
However, it’s Masterman himself who is the X Factor — the genial host who works the room every night, greeting each guest personally — often pulling up a chair and sitting down to chat for a bit. He knows where his customers prefer to sit, what they might enjoy from the evening’s list of specials and often, whether they like their martinis shaken or stirred.
And it’s this commitment to the total dining experience that makes a restaurant relevant.
If You Go:
Where: 249 E. Main Street
Hours: 5– 10 p.m., Sunday – Thursday; 5- 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Payment: Cash and major credit cards.
Other: Ample, free parking.