since the food revolution began, americans just can’t get enough of inventive restaurants and inspired food. philadelphia in particular has become one of the foodie hot spots in the entire country, which i thought would be a good thing. turns out if you don’t go out to dinner that often, choosing a restaurant and snagging a reservation can be a second job.
i always start with a google search of “best restaurants” or “top 10 restaurants” and see what comes up. then i eliminate the ones with four, five or even six (!) dollar signs next to the name. (‘cuz really, i get that you’re a celebrity chef but do you have to be so greedy?)
true story: we were charged $50 for what was supposed to be spectacular pork from some kind of special pig at a mario batali restaurant and the plate came with what looked like 4 half slices of bacon, a dollop of potato and about three green beans. skip any and all of mario batali’s restaurants, not just because of that, but because the pasta is so salty you can’t even eat it. when you’re a noted italian chef, you’d better know how to make pasta properly.
then i start looking at the restaurants’ web sites, trying to gauge atmosphere, location and whether it looks like some place i want to spend a couple of hours in. restaurants have become incredibly loud with seating extremely close and people have horribly unappetizing table manners. next, i start looking at menus, comparing dishes and counting just how many kinds of organ meats they are trying to shove off on consumers. ratio of organ meats to actual eatable food on the menu determines greed factor and just how much you’re going to be overcharged for booze. (does anyone else think it’s reasonable to pay the same for a glass of wine as an entire bottle? or $14 for a cocktail?)
before the great recession when there still was such a thing as an expense account, steakhouses proliferated. each one had the same formula: choose a “salad” comprised of a mountain of dressing and a tablespoon full of lettuce, choose a flintstone size cut of meat, then choose the sides that you would almost certainly be taking home in a styrofoam container since each one came in a dish bigger than your head. one most pretentious steakhouse even had us choose the knife to use to cut our meat. i’m not making that up.
the restaurants that have emerged from the worst days of the great recession (in the early part of the recession was the time to get a reservation anywhere, anytime since places were begging for patrons) are following the new trend of “farm to table” or “local eating” or “if we list all the ingredients, including sometimes what we think is fancy salt and pepper, we can charge twice the price for 1/10th of the food we used to serve when we were a steakhouse”.
i guess farm to table also means garbage to table since there’s a plethora of organ meats on menus. my congratulations to anyone out there who enjoys such fare, but count me out. i blame survivor. candice bergen (who married a frenchman) observed that ‘the french don’t know the difference between what you’re supposed to eat and what you’re supposed to throw out.’ apparently, neither does most of the world. either that or the french are punishing us for getting better at the food thing. ladle on all the butter you want, but most organ meats still just taste like ass and you the chefs are in the back laughing. ask anthony bourdain.
my standard for ordering at a higher priced restaurant is to choose something i won’t make at home because after all, i’m paying for the chef’s spectacularness, though sometimes this is hard to do, since c and i make a lot of very good dishes at home. lately it seems that there’s always one sour note among the elements of each dish. i blame tv. this time it’s chopped.
what is the compulsion to take a nice, balanced dish like wild swordfish with braised tuscan kale and add cranberry beans boiled in pig stomach and topped with swordfish spleen crackling? or quinoa? what’s with all the quinoa? or cheeks. suddenly everything has cheeks and everyone wants you to pay a high price to eat them.
finally, i read reviews on the restaurants and this is where you have to be really careful. read the reviews from noted publications written by seasoned food critics, but you’d better be careful because half the time they’re bragging weirdest thing on the menu. i’m wagering it’s a joke between the restaurant and the critic. again, the chefs are laughing in the back.
check out the reviews on yelp, zagat or open table but be prepared to get your analytics on ‘cuz people are dopes. first, check the date of the review since the turnaround in the restaurant business is so high that just one year can change a restaurant completely. second, reject any reviews from someone named heather, buddy, krissy or jason. those people are just restaurant dumb, like complaining that there aren’t enough pasta dishes in a steak house or that the fois gras tasted like liver.
confused yet? i told you it was like a second job.
finally, it’s time to make a choice and make a reservation. i usually prefer to book online because i get an email that reminds me of what i booked, but i’ve recently found out that if you call the restaurant they often have a table when the online site said they didn’t. on the other hand, when you call to book they’ll often ask for a credit card to hold the reservation. some of them will even charge your credit card if you cancel the reservation within 48 hours of the date. blame this on the multi-bookers. you know who you are.
after all that work, the restaurant has a lot to live up to. i’m so familiar with the menu that i already know what i’m going to order then the waiter shows up and rattles off a list of chef specials and announces that the item i’ve been eyeing is not available tonight. this is part of the upsell game. it’s kind of like the extended warranties that the electronic stores sell you.
but usually the food is imaginative, perfectly prepared, inspired even and i’ve come to terms with the fact that i’m now paying a lot more than i planned for. that probably has something to do with the wine i’ve enjoyed.
and oh too soon the latest restaurant adventure has come to an end. no more anticipation, just the fond memory of a perfectly prepared, imaginative and inspired meal and the hope to one day recreate the meal at home. or scrape up enough extra coin to do it again.