Sunday, August 21, 2011

On Restaurants

There is a fairly new restaurant on the huge lake not too far from where we live. It has an unusual name that attracted me although I knew nothing else about it other than it existed. Having come into an unexpected bit of money I wanted to take my wife and a friend there but was told to google it first. I did, and horrors, it turned out to be a “Family” restaurant. What a disappointment! I have learned to avoid family restaurants like the plague. Family restaurants cater to children. I rather like children in general but I do not enjoy trying to eat while surrounded by the non-domesticated little creatures that cry, run about, throw food, and in general disrupt what should otherwise be a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

This experience has led me to reflect on restaurants in general. As you might well imagine, by eighty years of age I have experienced all kinds of restaurants around much of the world. I will restrict my (unsolicited and perhaps unwanted) comments here only to restaurants in the U.S. First, one thing you should always avoid are restaurants with cute names (I violated this rule above) like “The Mangy Moose,” “Mugsie’s,” “The Rusty Moose,” “Bigfoot Pub and Eatery,” “Frankie Doodles,” “Shenanigans,” “Annie Fannie’s,” and such. Actually some of these particular restaurants may be quite good, but in general places with cute names are not. They try to attract you by the names rather than by the food they serve. There was a restaurant named “Dewey, Cheetum, and Howe,” that was not too bad, but it was at best a borderline exception to this rule.

You should also avoid restaurants that cling to cliff tops with a view of the ocean, lake, river, or waterfall, or offer some other exceptional attraction. Restaurants on the top floors of buildings that offer views are in this category as well, such places attract customers by their views or whatever and the food often suffers. The same thing is usually true for restaurants that boast of their celebrity customers , as if you are not yourself a celebrity you will likely get the table by the door or behind a post and the food will likewise tend to be not the best. Also to be studiously avoided are floating restaurants or those that revolve.

Chain restaurants are also best avoided because their food is often pre-prepared and merely heated in the microwave or oven, is standardized and usually unimaginative. The chefs are not truly chefs but simply those trained to serve these already prepared meals. There may be exceptions to this rule but you cannot depend on it. The food in places like Olive Garden, Chili’s, Red Lobster, Appleby’s, and others of this ilk may be a cut above that served in lesser chains like Arby’s, Burger King, MacDonald’s, and others of that class, and while the food is edible is certainly not outstanding or a gourmet treat. Of course the real fast food places like MacDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, must be avoided at all costs (never, ever eat hamburger at them). The only places worse are those that offer “All you can eat ,” whether it’s catfish, shrimp, fried chicken, or anything else. All you can eat places make a mockery of food and raise gluttony to unprecedented heights. Pancake restaurants should always be avoided, no exceptions.

Chinese restaurants, with rare exceptions need also to be avoided. I have long suspected there is a gigantic central Chinese kitchen somewhere centrally located that regularly ships Chinese food to thousands of Chinese restaurants around the country. You will note the menus in Chinese restaurants are remarkably similar wherever found. Japanese restaurants are usually a bit better than run-of-the-mill Chinese ones because the demands on the chef are greater, ingredients must be fresher, and usually require personal attention for presentation and preparation, as in sushi, for example. Even so there are some not very good Japanese restaurants around, usually, I think, because they get too large, stereotypical, and require shortcuts in preparation.

I have also found, although with limited experience, that restaurants in Casinos should seriously be avoided. You might think that because casinos make so much money from the simpletons who apparently like giving their money away they would be able to afford really fine restaurants with the finest chefs and the best food available, but they don’t. I think this may be because they really cater only to those who have lost most of their money and cannot afford to eat well, or those in such a hurry to continue losing they cannot waste time by eating. Restaurants owned by famous athletes are also questionable, especially if the walls are covered with pictures and statistics, because the food is not generally the most important feature. Fortunately, these are usually steak houses and it is inordinately difficult to ruin a steak (but it certainly can be done).

I suspect that in general the best chance to get a decent meal is found in French, Italian, Spanish, and Basque restaurants, sometimes even in German ones. I think this is because these particular cuisines have long-standing reputations and even the least of them attempt to live up to their reputations. This is not to say there cannot be pretty bad examples, but your chances are better than with other cuisines. Unless advised in advance you should in general avoid English, Australian, Indian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern restaurants, although in each of these cases there can be rare exceptions. The trouble is, you never know until it is too late.

If you follow this advice you will, of course, probably starve. You will at least find it difficult to eat. You may have already noticed that on long road trips, especially on freeways, it is virtually impossible to find any kind of palatable food. If you want truly delicious and authentic food you must always look for exceptions. Restaurants that have been in existence for a hundred years or more are almost a sure thing. Small, privately owned and operated restaurants, ethnic and otherwise, can be marvelous if the owners are serious about their offerings, but unfortunately these kinds of places don’t last very long because of the more commercialized and usually cheaper competitors, and often because the finest fresh foods they require are not available. They are also not easy to find as they either cannot or do not advertise. It is possible to find incredible examples of almost any cuisine if it is small, privately owned and operated, uses fresh local ingredients, and has a serious cook or chef. Such places do not exist along freeways. You might sometimes be pleasantly surprised even by places with signs that read simply, “EAT,” “FOOD,” “CAFÉ” or “DINER,” but you must be wary. The moral of this stupid blog, if there is one, is you are far better off eating at home, and when traveling, take your own food.

Sham Harga had run a succesful eatery for many years by always smiling, never extending credit, and realizing that most of his customers wanted meals properly balanced between the four food groups: sugar, starch, grease, and burnt crunchy bits.

Terry Pratchett

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