I have a friend who loves food, knows plenty about it and has discerning, no-nonsense taste.
One day, he called me up and mentioned a restaurant in his neighborhood, sounding a bit bewildered.
"The food is really good, but I don't know how they stay in business," he told me. "Will you take a look at it?"
He was referring to Erawan Thai Restaurant, which does indeed have good food at very good prices.
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The spicy eggplant dish, for instance, is deep, dark and robust with complexity. The spicy catfish entree showcases the spectrum of exotic and familiar seasonings and precision cooking that make Thai dishes so easy to like and so healthy to enjoy. The tom-kha, a soup featuring coconut milk and lemon grass, is both hearty and refined right to the last drop from one very large bowl.
When it comes down to winning in the restaurant game, it's not always enough to nail down two of the three essential ingredients for success.
Three? Yes, there's a third major component that determines if a restaurant will become a hit, a mere survivor or go out of business. It's complicated to get right, not so easy to understand and it pretty much delineates the crucial difference between a good meal and a good dining experience.
This third element centers on how customers are made to feel. Do they feel happy? Appreciated? Welcome? Is the restaurant fun? Inspiring? Lively?
We're taking a look at Erawan this week not because I want to satisfy my friend's curiosity but because this restaurant is a textbook example of that missing piece of the puzzle.
After five years in business and countless nights of a near-empty dining room, Erawan is missing an opportunity not only to survive as a neighborhood eatery but thrive as a destination for reliably good – and sometimes very good – Thai cuisine.
We ate at Erawan four times and covered all corners of the vast menu. We never had a bad meal. But we also never had a good experience.
Laughs? Memorable moments? Crickets.
The restaurant was almost always empty. Twice, we were the only folks in the place. The other two occasions, one other table was occupied. Once, when I went in for takeout, there was a man dining by himself – alone in the entire restaurant.
If you covet privacy, this is your venue.
Erawan is neither an overlooked gem nor an underappreciated treasure. Erawan is empty because it isn't doing all the little things – and a few big things – to fill those seats.
It deserves a second chance – if it acts swiftly and surely. Getting there will require revamping the menu and decor, and figuring out how to connect with customers with more energy and charisma while maintaining the sincerity that already exists.
And Erawan needs to tell its story – loudly and often.
Website? What website? The restaurant lists its website on its takeout menu, but the site isn't active. The Internet is how many of us under age 90 preview menus and check the hours.
Speaking of hours, that same menu says, "Open 7 days a week." But in Erawan's world, that doesn't include Tuesdays – when it's actually closed.
OK, so websites are cumbersome and costly. Facebook is a breeze for businesses. Hot Italian, for instance, uses Facebook to promote all kinds of creative and compelling events to win new customers to the pizzeria and keep loyal ones loyal. It has 7,683 "likes" on Facebook. The Golden Bear has 3,400 likes. Erawan has five. That's not even going through the motions.
In the digital age, you've got to bang the drum any way possible. Erawan has good food and good prices. That's news people want to know. Why isn't it doing everything possible to get that message across?
Erawan's décor is pleasant enough – if you're creating a generic Thai restaurant for a movie set. But here, there is nothing special or personal about the interior and nothing that connects this restaurant and this cuisine with this neighborhood. Thus, it feels impersonal, out of touch.
Take a place like de Vere's Irish Pub in midtown, which could very easily be decked out in any number of Irish clichés. Instead, it uses real family photos on the walls. It's an Irish pub whose décor states that it has deep roots in Sacramento.
Erawan's menu also is too generic. It needs personality, not some run-of-the-mill list of Thai cooking that we have seen throughout California. Take your best dishes, showcase them on the menu and tell people why they need to try them.
Now I understand my friend's concern about this place. I, too, like the food and don't want to see Erawan flounder or fail. I can still taste the lively herbs and spices in the drunken noodles. We're already fans of the spicy tofu appetizer – so light and crisp and skillfully seasoned.
The calamari salad is a winner. So is the understated papaya salad. When we got the bills, we always were impressed by how affordable the food was.
But until Erawan figures out that third component and decides to make the experience more fun and compelling and less burdensome and bland, we'll settle for takeout orders.
We won't be pining away for a return visit to the dining room until Erawan tells us why we should.