J. Paul’z was one of those reviews that I had a hunch about when I first heard the name, saw the restaurant, and saw the menu. To me, it seemed forced, cheesy, even. They were showing me Spain and Morocco, but giving me cream cheese sushi and fried cheese.
Why did it seem cheesy (apart from the cheese)? I guess the short answer is that everything about it seemed like a hodgepodge of planned, almost unnatural dining concepts born not out of a particular place (even Charleston), but out of what someone imagined that someone else might think of as cool or trendy. That sentiment was reflected in the name, the decor (almost Epcot-like in its attempt to capture something between Spain, Morocco, and Japan), and the items on the menu (sushi and tapas, as if the thought was, “sushi and tapas are both popular right now, so if we throw in both we’ll be twice as trendy”).
To be fair, even though J. Paul’z calls their chef the “executive chef,” the place really isn’t about the food. Even the gracious owner, when I talked to him on the phone after I had dined there, told me that they were first and foremost a bar. And I imagine that as a business (which is really mostly what J. Paul’z is, after all) the caliber and feel of the food is just fine for most of the customers. Still, I had to talk about something, right? As reviewer, unless I frequent the place, it’s hard to get a strong sense of a bar scene. Plus, bar scenes are changing all the time and it’s tough to pin that down anyway. So I was stuck on the food and the concept.
In the end, it came down to this for me: in my experience, and I readily admit this is the experience and opinion of only one person (a person who does not own a successful restaurant, by the way), whenever a restaurant has a really strongly marketed concept, or gives off a vibe that it’s offering a whole lot of very particular, usually trendy-feeling things to its customers, there are two self-reinforcing problems that go along with that:
Problem No. 1: Highly conceptualized and stylized restaurants are usually focusing more on the concept itself than on the food.
Problem No. 2: The more they communicate that concept with their marketing materials, their menu, their website, decor, signs in the restaurant or whatever, the more they increase the diner’s expectations.
Go to Problem No. 1.