by John Ryan
I suspect it's a national trend, but speaking for myself, I'm eating out more than ever before. and it bugs me because I'm a pretty good cook. But I've got a decent job, so it's easier to eat out after a frustrating day at work than cook something. I think it's a Starbucks thing. A few years ago we all made coffee at home. Now we're double parking in front of Starbucks and forking over three bucks for a no-foam, soy milk latte. Every day. That's roughly $750 a year that we didn't used to spend. It seems like a lot when I look at it that way, but three bucks doesn't seem so bad at 7:30 in the morning. Perhaps some economist will tell us that, on average, we all spend a certain percentage on daily pleasures—maybe it's cigarettes, maybe it's coffee, maybe it's bagels—but we never escape that magic percentage.
But back to eating out. My growing credit card bills are due to eating out.
Diners generally fall into three categories. First is the date category. Next is the celebration category—birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and so on. But an overlooked category is the day-to-day eaters. Somehow that's become us. Us day-to-day eaters don't want the whole nine yards—appetizers, entree, dessert, and after dinner drink. We just want something to eat so we can go home and watch TV. In the old days, if we really didn't want to cook, we'd have cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, or maybe a bowl of cereal. But these days even going out to eat can be a no-foam latte.
However, as I said, going out is starting to irritate me. Here's a partial list:
Waiters who don't acknowledge being late. I've been a chef, waiter, manager, bartender, dishwasher..., you name it. So I understand how as a server all the things that can happen to make a table wait. But after I wait and wait, I don't want the server to stroll up and act like everything is normal. I want a word of regret, some indication that this isn't the sort of service they like to provide. They don't have to grovel. It can be simple, "sorry to make you wait, we don't usually fill up so quickly...." Or whatever. Even if it isn't true, I want some indication that we've been waiting.
Leaving the fork. Listen restaurants, let's agree. If I leave a fork on a plate I don't want the fork. I want a clean fork. On the other hand, if I put my fork down by my other silverware, it's okay to leave it behind.
Upgraded cocktails. I'm not sure how to deal with this. When I order a martini, and discover at the end of the meal that I had a Bombay Saffire martini that cost nine bucks, I feel like I've been cheated. I suppose the adult thing to do would be to tell the server that I didn't order a top shelf cocktail and ask them to adjust the bill. But too often I pay the bill and leave with a bad taste in my mouth.
Surprise-priced specials. Right along with up-graded cocktails are specials that are priced well beyond the rest of the menu. When I see that the entrees are between $11.95 and 18.95, then I expect specials to fall between, say, $15 and maybe $21. But when I find out at the end of the meal that the sea bass special was $27.95, again, I leave with a bad taste in my mouth.
Servers who think they are the entertainment. Servers who introduce themselves used to bug me. I loved the New Yorker cartoon that showed a customer saying to his waiter, "Hi, I'm Bob and I'm going to be your customer tonight." Anymore, I don't mind servers introducing themselves. I simply forget their name immediately. But I still don't like servers who think I want to know what they really do, or want to hear their jokes, or listen to their insightful views on anything.
Feeling guilty about having drinks and appetizers. This is a late afternoon thing. Sometimes it's nice at 4:30 or 5 to stop in somewhere for a glass of wine and an appetizer. I'm up-front about it when I ask for a table. But more often than not, the server is visibly irritated that I'm not ordering Bombay martinis and the overpriced sea bass special.
Dirty silverware/glassware. Is there any excuse?
Being asked if everything is okay. Mr. Waiter, Miss Waitress, here's my feeling: you don't have to ask. If I want you, you'll know it. I won't be eating and I'll be looking around. But if I'm happily putting away the chow, everything is okay. Whatever you do, don't wait till I take the first bite to ask me a question. and don't ask if everything is okay when I'm practically done eating. Simply be where I can catch your eyes during the first minute or so after I get my food.
Busboys who want my plate. The way some busboys try to get my plate, I sometimes think the kitchen is short of plates. Easy does it. When I push my plate away, then take it. But when I've stopped eating for a microsecond, don't assume I'm done.
Grossly oversized portions. I remember reviewing a restaurant a few years ago that bragged about serving a pound of pasta for each portion. I couldn't believe my ears. Was it the cooked pasta that weighed a pound? No, it was a pound of dry pasta that was cooked and piled on each customer's plate. (Keep in mind that most cookbooks use about 4 ounces per person.) of course, this pasta emporium sent everybody home with a doggie bucket. The owner even told me that many regulars looked at the meal as dinner and 2 or three lunches.
Okay, that's a novel twist on take-out. But things are getting out of hand. Appetizers could feed a family of four. Salads are huge. Steaks are gigantic. I swear, the sea bass I got the other day was a pound of fish. Come on. A good value is one thing, but this has gotten way out of hand.
I suspect that these supersized portions are really customer bribes. The deal is that the food may not be terrific, but the portions are huge. The service might not be great, but the portions are huge. and after the sticker shock of the bill...Hey, it may be expensive, but the portions are huge.
Is anybody going to listen? I doubt it. But the truth is that I'm suffering from restaurant fatigue. I can tell. I'm not usually given to whining about forks. Fortunately, the cure is simple. The cure is to eat at home. Right now I need recipes that are easy. Once I'm better I might get back to making osso buco, but right now I need recipes like Chipotle Portabella Burritos. I need mushrooms and flour tortillas. Then, provided I have a can of chipotle chilies, dinner is very, very fast. and I save $30 or $40.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page modified October 2001
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