What really makes a great restaurant?

For those of us that work in higher end restaurants, we are continually approached by patrons that laud accolades and approval at our efforts and the Chef’s dishes. But what really makes our food so good that someone is willing to pay thirty dollars for some chicken, a starch, and a side vegetable with some sauce? Why are people paying twelve dollars for a salad that they could be making on their own for a fraction of that cost? The things that make restaurant food beyond that of the home cooks are experience, innovation, balance, and a lot of cream.
The experience that we as cooks have of continuously coming in, mowing through ingredients, prepping out items for ease makes cooking less intimidating than many of my friends claim it to be. If your job is a constant immersion into these ingredients to the point where you know what they will taste like, what they look like when they are subpar, and what their best preparations would be, then trips to the grocery really are not that difficult, and a meal preparation becomes a half hour task instead of a two-hour fiasco.
Good restaurants usually have a supply of innovation to boot. One of the restaurants I have worked at met five separate times for one menu change, allowing all of the cooks the chance to put forward their opinion on which dishes they wanted to put out to customers. I had never thought there could be so many classic spins on dishes like stroganoff, turkey manhattan, chef’s salads. The combination of one ingredient with another that few people had ever thought to do, along with the successful creation of a dish around these ingredients allows restaurants to continually impress the mind along with the tastebuds.
Balance. What does balance have to do with anything? By balance, I simply mean achieving huge levels of salt, fat, and glutamate. By allowing us, the people in restaurants. to cook for you, the consumer, we are allowed to put whatever it is we want in the food (under strict food service laws mind you) to make the meal delicious. Does that mean adding large amounts of salt and fat to the dish? Absolutely. These are compounds that your body has evolved to crave, and the pleasure you find in eating that food is, on some level, the achievement of that craving. In a sense, people surrender themselves to the food at restaurants when they come in, because they are trusting us to reward their senses, and that is what we are doing.
In all honesty though, it is freshness of ingredients that makes all the difference in many of the foods served by fine dining establishments. Fresh salad greens, with their deep, dark green color, smack of flavor compounds that have yet to be lost to the degrading march of time. Fish, freshly caught and served, still taste of the ocean, with no trace of that “fishy” taste. Local fruits picked at the height of ripeness, destroy any chance of ever enjoying their supermarket counterparts.
If you want to eat as well as you do at the restaurant, buy local ingredients at their seasonal peaks whenever possible. Try creating some crazy new dishes, practicing a few times. Work your butt off every night after you come home, making a meal as quickly and cleanly as you can. There is no reason you do not have to eat well at home. And also, add some salt. Trust me.