I was invited some time ago to dine at “churrascaria” by an associate. I put the term in quotes because it is often mis-applied, or at the very least misunderstood. So let me begin with a clarification for those who have heard two related, but distinct, restaurant terms muddled in the past…
Churrascaria – a “churrasqueira” is a style of BBQ grill used in the preparation of food (typically meats and other proteins) in South America… particularly in southern Brazil, which has a vibrant and venerable ranching culture. A churrascaria is an eatery that caters to serving this style of meat. In high-tone establishments of this nature, such as Fogo de Chão, the service is often performed by wait staff who dress in an homage to the “gaucho” rancher folk of southern Brasil. That service, in an of itself however, is not requiste for an eatery to be a churrascaria. See below…
Rodízio – when “gaucho” waiters proceed about an establishment offering meat (typically presented and served by means of swords) this is “rodízio” style dining. Typically offered in an all-you-can eat fashion (many rodízio establishments utilize small cards with red and green opposing sides so that diners can indicate if they are ready for an additional helping) this is often what most consumers are thinking about when someone suggests dining at a “churrascaria.”
So, in a nutshell… churrascaria is a style of food preparation, rodízio is a style of food service.
And, of course, some establishments (particularly outside of South America) are often both. In the United States in particular, it’s sometimes difficult to find a “Brazilian grill” (a.k.a. churrascaria) that is not a sit-down affair serviced by gauchos. It is possible, however. For a more economical evening, many patrons like to enjoy churrascaria food prepared and offered up cafeteria-style. The Picanha Brazilian Grill in Philadelphia is such an establishment… where patrons order and are served at a walk-up counter and they pay by the pound. (A philly.com article by a food reviewer still managed to confuse the terms there, with the author referencing the smell of “rodízio” meat being prepared on skewers. If said meat were not merely cooked on but were also served on those same skewers, table-side, then that would be a rodízio. But that’s not the case at the Picanha Grill in the northeast region of the City of Brotherly Love.)
Fogo de Chão is both. They cook Brazilian BBQ-grilled meats over a traditional field setup as would have been common in the pastures down south (“fogo de chão” literally means “fire on the floor”) … making them a churrascaria. And then they serve this food by means of gaucho-style waiters who zip about offering said meat via the very same swords … making them also a rodízio establishment.
Fogo is not the only place out there that serves churrascaria meat in rodízio style. But, I submit, they happen to be the best. Thus we return to the above anecdote… wherein I was invited to a “churrascaria” by an associate. I presumed (since we were in a big city) that it might have been Fogo de Chão, but I didn’t get my hopes 100% up. I was right to be cautious. We were slated to dine at Chima.
Chima is a fine enough place, but it is also an exemplar of the very typical problem in the restaurant world wherein establishments attempting to compete with Fogo de Chão miss the mark, often badly. Pretenders to the crown, as it were, make the incorrect assumption that all Fogo patrons are seeking is south american meat served on swords. After all, isn’t that what I was going on and on about above? Well, yes and no.
Fogo de Chão is a churrascaria. Fogo de Chão brings the food around rodízio-style. But, and here’s the real kicker, Fogo de Chão is also a high-tone establishment with super stellar service. You literally get a 4 or higher Zagat-rated experience across the board. It is fine dining, not just a gimmick.
Allow me to relate some notes about our experience at Chima…
- We were not handed enough menus when they first sat us. Not like many folk are ordering odd one-off items at a rodízio, but come on… you know how many of us are present when you prepare to walk us to the table.
- The servers were constantly interrupting us. They would approach, see us in conversation, and immediately ask a question or prompt us for something. If you’re a waiter at a fine-dining establishment, let me clue you in: If you approach a table and no patrons look up at you, wait silently for a few seconds for them to stop talking. Even if the conversation doesn’t cease, often the person nearest to you will lean aside to see what you need. If no one acknowledges you after 5 to 10 seconds… walk away silently and return in a minute or two. It’s not hard.
- Almost every dish or side or salad choice was presented with an overly-complicated discussion that no one could possibly follow. If an establishment can’t convey what a dish or option is in one or two sentences, it doesn’t belong on a menu.
- We actually didn’t opt for all-you-can eat service. It was lunch so we each ordered a basic dish. Our protiens were, we found out later, still going to be served on swords. A nice touch, but… after we had finished our salads, a pseduo-gaucho waiter brought one person’s entree meat (on a sword) and discovered there was nowhere to plate it. No clean dish was on the table. The waiter stood there frozen for a while (I can only hope he didn’t expect one of us to go back to the salad bar to get a clean plate) until something like a minute later he wandered off and found someone who could bring a plate.
- The table and chairs were wobbly. If you think a restaurant manager at a high-tone place doesn’t know exactly how comfortable the seating is, you’re mad. No care was taken here.
- There was a large “screen” in the middle of the restaurant, projecting various video clips. I am aghast that anyone felt that a bit of decor suited to a sports bar belonged in a sit-down white-tablecloth eatery.
- Waiters were constantly plating and clearing dishes from the wrong side of patrons. No rhyme or reason.
- One server tried to clear my friend’s espresso mug when he had left the table. The server looked at me quizzically when I stopped him, asking, “oh, are you not done with that?” I think he didn’t even understand the coffee wasn’t mine.
- Ordering additional coffee was an ordeal, with repeated requests necessary to convey that someone who already had enjoyed a coffee would somehow still want an additional coffee.
- In the end, because of various expense accounts across the whole assembled group, we asked to split the bill. Now, some very high-tone places do not like this… but here at Chima it was an ordeal just to explain to the waitstaff what we wanted to do.