"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bad Restaurants–And Why We Continue To Eat At Them

A young friend of mine and his French girlfriend were arguing about what to do when the food or service in a restaurant is bad. “Tell them”, the girlfriend said. “Complain.”

“Don’t disrupt the meal”, he replied.

The French are not only well-known for their cuisine, but for the professionalism of the service. No “My name is Bruce, and I’ll be your server”, or “How’s everything?”.  French waiters take care of business efficiently, respectfully, and knowledgeably; and French customers react in kind.  They are quick to let the restaurant know if something is not right – if the foie gras has been seared too much or undercooked; if the sole is not perfectly fresh; or if the tarte aux pommes is too sugary and without high flavor.

Foie gras


Waiter and customer respect an unwritten but universally-understood compact.  Diners demand good food and service; and waiters and chefs are contracted to provide it.

In America, however, that compact has been replaced with one much more congenial and informal.  Bruce, for whom waiting tables is only temporary and a financial means to a higher end – law school in his case - is not unlike the patrons he serves.  Especially in foodie cities like San Francisco, the compact between waiter and customer is social.  A confraternity of taste, expectation, and milieu exists between waiters and diners.

It is not Bruce’s fault if the food is below par, diners conclude, so there is no point in hammering him for something out of his control.  If his service is slipshod or indifferent, it’s because he’s been having a hard day or suffering under an overbearing boss. Lord knows, we all can sympathize with that.  So the kitchen never learns of the over-done and dry quiche, the stringy quail, or the tepid soup; and Bruce, who perhaps is indeed indifferent and careless, will never be called on the carpet. 

However there is another more important reason why American diners put up with intrusive or indifferent service and often sketchy or unremarkable food.  We don’t care that much.  We want to get out of the house, dine for friendship, camaraderie, and the cadre and excitement of an A-list restaurant.  Although American cuisine has made remarkable strides in the last generation, and regional and organic cooking is certainly comparable to the best in Europe; and although more and more Americans travel outside the country, we are still learning.  Mama’s pot roast, Southern covered dishes, comfort food, and backyard cookouts are still more a part of our cuisine than the dishes of Rene Redzepi or Wolfgang Puck.

Image result for images dishes rene redzepi


Restaurateurs know this, and dumb down their food. Why spend time and money on finesse and originality when American diners expect far less?  Ikura was a small, exclusive, and highly selective Japanese restaurant in Washington.  It was small and out-of-the-way, and unknown except to visiting Japanese diplomats and businessmen. When I first ate there the ten-course dinner was exceptional.  Each course was unique, innovative, yet classic.  All were conceived individually but also as part of the ensemble.  They followed each other in a progression of complementarity and distinction.

Image result for images sushi bar top NYC restaurant

                Sushi Yasuda www.nytimes.com

As more and more American diners discovered the restaurant, the owners realized that they could make a good show of Japanese tradition while cutting back on ingredients. Slowly but surely vegetables were substituted for the high-grade fish bought from a Japanese importer; and before long all that was left of the place were kimonos, watery sake, and a lot of cucumber.

Il Mare was an Italian restaurant on Dupont Circle, and when it opened it was as authentic as any place in Italy. The food was traditional and of extremely high quality. The ingredients had obviously been chosen carefully, and everything about the food’s preparation and presentation was classic.  The waiters were all Italian who were proud of their service and the food from the kitchen; and everything from Cynar to grappa was perfect.  It wasn’t long before Il Mare went the way of Ikura. When the owners realized that the American clientele was ignorant about sophisticated Italian cooking, the quality quickly deteriorated, and before long it was no different from supersized spaghetti places in Little Italy.

Image result for images 4 star restaurant tuscany

          Il Falconiere www.deliciousitaly.com

The pendulum is swinging, and American diners are becoming more demanding. California has more five-star quality restaurants than anywhere between the coasts combined and familiarity with American haute cuisine is growing at least in some parts of the country.  Nevertheless, there still is an imbalance among client expectations, the reputation of the chef and the kitchen, and price points.

A good example is High Oat Farm, an organic farm-restaurant located in the foothills of the Shenandoahs. It is a destination for diners from Washington, Virginia, and Western Maryland, and the quality of the food is excellent. All ingredients come from their on-site organic farm, and the chef was trained in California.  The desserts, however, lack in character, originality, and taste.  They are overly sweet and uninteresting but showy; and are so inferior to the main dishes on the menu that knowledgeable diners wonder, “What happened?”.

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The answer is a lack of coherence. Although chef, organic mission, and customer base were well-matched when it came to first and main courses; the integrity of the menu broke down at dessert time.  It proved too much of a challenge for the pastry chef to accommodate sweetness within the organic, locally-grown charter of the restaurant. The restaurant had successfully imitated Alice Waters and the New American fusion cuisine of California when it came to duck, lamb, quail, and sorrel; but couldn’t figure out how to make a good dessert.

While we were eating lunch, a family of Indians sat next to us.  They were first-time diners, and unused to the menu.  The father asked if beef stock were used in any of the dishes, and the daughter inquired about vegetarian options.

At a corner table was an even larger group which was clearly flummoxed by the accurate but, to the outsider, somewhat intimidating offerings. “What exactly is Cauliflower Hash?”, one diner asked.  The broccoli stems and bacon fat hollandaise ingredients were mysteries.

There is no doubt in my mind that High Oat Farm will go the way of Il Mare and Ikura.

Big Night is a hilarious movie made a few years ago about two Italian brothers who open a restaurant in New Jersey.  The chef, Primo, is a maestro, a genius. Each dish is prepared with brio, love, and talent.  Yet few people come for dinner, and those who do pick at Primo’s creations, ask for ‘real’ spaghetti-and-meatballs, and never come back.

Secondo, Primo’s brother, suggests to him that perhaps he should rethink the menu, lose the risotto, for example, a dish which requires time, patience and quality ingredients. Primo’s pride is wounded at the suggestion. “OK, Secondo”, he says. “I will make a very American dish. What do you call it? Oh yes, a Hotta Dog”.

Image result for images movie big night


Vineyard Haven, a restaurant in Napa Valley, was opened to foodie fanfare five years ago.  It had all the California trappings of organic ingredients, new cuisine innovation, and kitchen creativity; and despite the cachet, was very, very good.

When I visited last year, I was surprised at how far the quality had slipped.  In fact, although the prices were as high as they had ever been, it was evident that all corners had been cut to maximize profits. The restaurant had caught on with wine-tasters from the East, and although off the Silverado Trail, it had become so popular with visitors who were looking more for cadre and California than food quality that the owners could concede quality to bottom-line profits with hardly anyone noticing.

Trying new restaurants is a tricky business in America; for the unholy alliance of cachet, friendliness, and lack of consumer savvy will always militate against quality. There is always something wrong when nothing should be.

We recently ate at reputedly one of the best restaurants in the Washington area – one similar to High Oat Farm in horse country near Middleburg.  After we had ordered, the waiter brought the bread, secreted in a plain, long, wooden box for effect. As he delivered his spiel over the toasted muffins – organic, whole, locally-grown and ground wheat; farm-sourced blueberries and honey from the farm’s beehives – he failed to notice that the crusts had been burned black.  Presentation and theatre had won out once again over quality.  There was no excuse for it.

We go out less and less, and when we do, we eat only at our carefully-vetted restaurants where we are known and where the food and service are consistently good.  “You’re missing out on a lot of great restaurants in DC”, said a close friend. “Things have changed since you moved here.”  Yes, I thought, but maybe steak and covered dishes weren’t so bad after all.

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