Food & Wine staffers share the little gestures that made them fall in love with a restaurant and feel like they'd found home.
Highlands Bar & Grill
Credit: Cary Norton

With our March home-themed issue on newsstands, it feels like an especially good time to talk about spaces—restaurants and bars, in particular—that make us feel comfortable, cared for, and welcome. Spaces that feel like home.

In this issue of Food & Wine, Food Editor Josh Miller shares tips from Pardis Stitt, co-owner of Highlands Bar & Grill and three other Birmingham, Alabama, restaurants, for how to build a perfect hospitality experience. She says: "We want to be a refuge from whatever's going on outdoors. If we can ease any anxiety as soon as guests arrive with eye contact and a smile, we all win. I want them to feel acknowledged and looked after from the moment they walk in."

I often dine out with my fiancé, who has both dairy and shellfish allergies. It's so disappointing when a restaurant we've both been looking forward to makes those restrictions feel like a huge burden––in those cases, we typically spend our meal dissecting dishes to make sure it's all safe to eat, which, as you can imagine, kills the mood for both of us. That said, SRV in Boston took his restrictions and turned it into the most amazing off-menu cauliflower ravioli ever, and, most importantly: they didn't make us feel horrible about it! Folks, if your kitchen can take an allergy in stride, I promise you'll have a really grateful table.

Inspired by Josh's conversation with Pardis, I asked F&W staffers to share a hospitality experience that made them feel at home.

Bye, anxiety

My husband and I were out for a date night at Highlands Bar & Grill, in Birmingham, AL. We're not organized enough to make reservations months in advance—even for our anniversary dinner, which is what this was—but were happy to wait for a seat at the bar. Waiting at most bars makes me anxious. Will the bartender see me? (I'm short.) Will they hear me? (I hate to shout). Will I get a seat? (The free-for-all scrum at most bars means anything can happen). But the Highlands staff all quietly let us know they knew we were waiting, making good eye contact—and making sure we had an excellent drink to nurse as we passed the time.

As another couple began to show signs of getting ready to leave, a bartender gave us a little nod to signal we should get ready. But then, as they were leaving, another guest rushed into the bar area, started talking to one of the departing diners, and smoothly slid onto one of their seats as they left. "We're friends," she told me, seeing my shocked expression, and plopped her handbag onto the other seat, put her head down, and started to read the menu. As I was struggling to formulate a response, one of the bartenders smoothly interceded, using a Jedi-like, friendly but firm tone, politely asking the woman to give us the seats, which she did. It might seem like a small thing, but it saved that evening—and saved me from having to enter a disagreement with a stranger (which makes me feel even more anxious than waiting at the bar) and made feel incredibly seen and taken care of. To this day, the bar is my favorite place to be at that restaurant. — Karen Shimizu, Executive Editor

Shift drinks

At the sushi bar at 15 East, the chef places pieces of nigiri right on the wooden counter in front of you, but the waitstaff still do their part to make you feel welcomed. One waiter noticed that I used my left hand to hold my chopsticks, and wordlessly shifted my chopstick rest, water, and wine glasses to my left side. It was an affirming gesture that any lefty would appreciate. — Adina Steiman, Deputy Digital Editor

Good taco, thanks

Going home to California always means eating plenty of tacos, but on one memorable trip home, to attend to a family member going in for surgery, they were all I ate. In those small moments away from the waiting room, I walked approximately half a block from the hospital entrance to Punta Cabras, as much for the warmth and friendliness of the small taco shop as for their food. I would tuck into a bench in the corner and let myself be distracted by a lazy susan of hot salsas and the crunch of a raw cauliflower tostada loud enough to drown out my worries. Punta Cabras was a home away from the hospital, and for that, I will be ever grateful. — Kelsey Youngman, Associate Food Editor

Hotel me about it

I recently visited Madre in Greenpoint, which has some of the makings of a restaurant that makes me feel a little uncomfortable and schlubby—dim lights, beautiful people, sleek design. Yet catching up with a good friend, while nibbling on honey nut agnolotti and octopus and a ribeye cap that made me see stars, I felt warm and taken care of, never pressured to hurry. I hadn't suspected to find my new go-to neighborhood restaurant in a boutique hotel that wasn't actually my neighborhood, but there I was. — Maria Yagoda, Digital Restaurant Editor

Ice cream for calm

I'm weirdly nonchalant about my own surgical procedures, but if my husband is going under anesthesia, I internally morph into a trembling rabbit. A few years back, he was having knee surgery and was going to be out for a few hours in the middle of the day, and I could not bear the incessant chirpings of the waiting room TV. I walked over to Momofuku Ssäm Bar nearby, took a seat at the bar, and ordered bread, butter, and a plate of all of the hams (they have a crap-ton of hams). The server wasn't especially warm, but it was fine. I wasn't in a chatty mood anyhow. But when he drew the empty ham plate away, he immediately replaced it with a dish of ice cream. I hadn't ordered it, and maybe that's just what they do for everyone, but dammit, I suddenly needed that ice cream so desperately and powerfully, and shoveled it down onto the burning panic lump of panic that had been lodged in my body for the past few hours until it soothed enough for me to feel human. I choked out a thank you. Left a hefty tip. Have never, ever forgotten. — Kat Kinsman, Senior Editor