All mediocre restaurants are alike. Each great restaurant is great in its own way.
This echo of Tolstoy’s famous quote (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) came to me as I thought about Table 128, and why I’m naming it dsm magazine’s Restaurant of the Year. Indeed, the uniqueness of this venue—how it’s great in its own way—kept coming to mind.
Mediocre restaurants have a certain turnkey feel: An ambitious chef starts with great concepts, ace mixologists design captivating drink recipes, front-of-the-house staffers get initial training to effect the restaurant’s vision.
But too often, the day-to-day execution of the place gets left in the hands of those who can’t quite pull it off. The food falters because the top chef rarely cooks day to day. A bartender goes rogue, thinking he has a better way to make the drink than the precise instructions passed on by the pro in charge. (It generally doesn’t work out that way.)
And often, the front of the house feels less like a team working together with the common goal of making each patron’s visit the best it can be and more like unsupervised self-contractors
engaged to sell you food from the kitchen for the requisite 20 percent gratuity.
And then there’s Table 128. Lynn and Sarah Pritchard’s Clive restaurant started off on a high note, earning praise from local restaurant reviewers (including me). Since then, they haven’t looked back.
More recently, as this issue of dsm magazine was making its way through the production process, I was happy to learn that the Pritchards had been named the Iowa Restaurant Association’s “Restaurateurs of the Year” for 2015. The association praised Table 128 for exemplifying “everything an upscale casual independent restaurant should be.”
That’s exactly what I had been thinking when I sat down to write this article.
Let’s start, as we generally do, with the cocktails. There’s never a rogue moment here; expert mixologist Blake Brown’s seductive, one-of-a-kind cocktails always deliver—because he’s nearly always behind the bar. It’s no surprise that he’s developed a loyal following.
“We have a number of people who order the night’s feature cocktail without even knowing what it is, because they trust Blake,” Sarah Pritchard says.
Alongside Brown is Amanda Schreiber, formerly the cocktail designer at Crème Cupcake, who came in second place in the 2014 Iowa’s Top Mixologist competition.
I, too, trust the cocktail team without reservation, and I’m equally trusting of the kitchen. In fact, nearly every time I visit Table 128, I request the “chef’s choice,” letting chef Lynn Pritchard choose what he’s most passionate about at that particular moment.
Through this strategy, Pritchard turned me on to elk, a meat that in his hands brought all the tenderness of filet mignon, but with the bold richness of lamb or duck breast. Another night, he sent out guinea fowl, topped with a layer of byaldi (a ratatouille-like specialty from Spain) and wrapped in caul fat for added lusciousness. The result: a succulent bird with a subtly insistent wild flavor. Months later, I’m still dreaming about the accompanying potato purée, which had more in common with a silky sauce than a whipped starch, rimmed by a deeply flavored brown guinea fowl stock.
To ensure that this venue was consistent enough to merit dsm’s Restaurant of the Year status, I made another visit just before writing this review. A burrata cheese and homegrown tomato toastie—complete with this amazing thing called tomato powder—delighted with a dashing late-summer appeal. A grilled rack of lamb with cauliflower and fava beans soared, and a pork feature, too, fired on all cylinders.
I left thinking, this kitchen isn’t merely consistent—it gets better every time I visit.
About the service, let me offer a little situational insight: Not long ago, I asked a prominent local restaurateur what he looked for when hiring a server.
“Honestly,” he said, “I just want someone well groomed who will show up.”
Clearly, Sarah Pritchard, who runs the front of the house, has higher standards.
“While experience plays a part, I think Lynn and I would both say that we hire based on personality over any other quality,” she says.
She adds that they conduct ongoing training on the menu, share articles and videos to keep employees engaged, and have paid to send staff members to New York and elsewhere for inspiration.
The result is a certain style of server: They’re professional, poised and thoroughly knowledgeable, yet never uptight about it. Above all, they seem devoted to the overall vision of the Pritchards, and to their role in the crafting of a great dining experience.
I also vote this staff least likely to say, “Are you still workin’ on that?” when they really mean, “Shall I clear your plates?”
While some restaurants achieve greatness by hitting on a formula and pretty much sticking to it (801 Chophouse comes to mind), Table 128’s excellence derives from the Prichards’ desire to continually evolve.
About her wine program, Sarah says, “I get bored drinking the same thing, so I’m constantly trying to find something I’ve never had before.” She also re-energized the restaurant’s decor less than two years after it opened.
In the kitchen, Lynn Pritchard follows suit, never content to find a few greatest hits and keep playing them night after night. “We’re not satisfied with what we did yesterday,” he says. “We want today to be better.”