Wine, Cocktails and the Expectations Game
Yet expectations, well considered or otherwise, seem absolutely critical to our perception of an aesthetic experience. Wine is a perfect example. We are far more likely to have our expectations exceeded by low priced wine. We have been, and not for unfounded reason, trained to believe a $7 wine will give us a mediocre (or less) experience. Yet, the $5 to $9 wines of today are so much better than when most of our price/quality expectations were born that these expectations are regularly exceeded.
Restaurants are similar in this regard and I was confronted with a truly exceeding experience this past weekend when my beautiful wife and I found ourselves in a typical strip mall in Novato, California where a Costco was located. After having stocked up on three pounds of peanut butter and a lifetime supply of pistashio nuts, we saw a little eatery in the same strip mall. Being hungry, we decided to run in for a bite.
Southern Pacific Roadhouse looks like a strip mall restaurant. Plus, it's in a strip mall. Our expectation? Simple faux barbecue fare, fried food and a selection of beer. I ordered a diet coke upon sitting down.
When the docile diet coke was delivered, Kathy and I looked at each other. The diet coke was chilled with the some of the most beautiful, well formed, dense, ice cubes I've ever seen. This was unusual. These were the kind of cubes you encounter in places where cocktails are taken extraordinarily seriously. You need a very special machine to create them.
Then I looked at the menu. The selection of food found its way into the "comfortable" class and that made me very happy. But on the back of the menu was a selection of cocktails. Most startling was the list of SEVEN different types of Manhattans made with seven different types of whiskeys and seven different types of amaro along with common and house made bitters. In addition, there were four different types of "punches". Not the college frat party kind of punches some of us may have concocted in our youth with Vodka and any mixer we could find poured into a plastic bowl. These were authentic punches.
To confirm the suspicion that I'd found something special in a very unspecial looking place, I asked for the wine list. The first few pages of the Southern Pacific Smokehouse's list were dedicated to spirits. NUMEROUS spirits. VERY GOOD spirits. The wine list, while short, was extraordinarily well chosen with wines produced by small, artisan wineries of primarily domestic origin and they were VERY well priced.
The pulled pork my Kathy order was outstanding. The Pizza I ordered was heavy handed. Still, my expectations were well exceeded. I called over the manager, Nick, and started to inquire just what the hell was going on at this strip mall joint? Nick was very happy we noticed the ice cubes and perked up when he started to talk about the cocktail program he had put together. Turns out Nick had done stints at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and high end dining spots in Vegas before taking a partnership in a strip mall restaurant in Novato, California.
After finishing lunch, Nick invited us to the bar, where we sampled a variety of punches, a couple Manhattans, a perfectly mixed Corpse Reviver #2 as well as some housemade bitters.
It's hard to set aside expectations. They are ingrained. The longer you live the more you rely upon them, consciously or unconsciously. It takes a special attitude to brush them aside on purpose.
In the wine world, and other worlds, reputations are built on either exceeding expectations or meeting them. In wagering, fortunes are built by properly predicting when expectations will be exceeded. In the restaurant world, unmet expectations will doom an establishment…quickly. There is something very brilliant about placing a world class cocktail program in a strip mall across from Costco and Target. There is likely something of a similar brilliant turn when a winery underprices an outstanding wine. You don't see a whole lot of that these days that isn't also discounting.