Sunday, July 29, 2007

I Hate Chain Restaurants!

If there was ever an insidious disease eating away at the core of our rich American food heritage, it would have the name Restaurantitis Generica. Bland "everyman" food with no sense of history or cultural placement, just a hodge-podge of oversweetened, dumbed-down plonk. Bland, generic, sterilized decor with an atmosphere more akin to a hospital ward than an eating establishment. Hokey-costumed waitstaff with bright buttons and dull wits.

The worst offenders in my book are:

T. K. Tripps: Home of the ten-dollar hamburger - cheese and flavour extra, thankyewverymuch! Overpriced, mediocre food, but their pride and joy is their atmosphere! If I wanted atmosphere, I'd take a walk through the woods just after a late-spring rain. The penultimate snobbery hangout for yuppies in the 90's, this blank wall of nothingness charges way too much and delivers so very little.

Applebees: Big on pretense, small on results. They try to give the appearance of an upscale eatery but somehow the rich, savory delight of a true family restaurant got lost in the mail. Instead of a happy, enjoyable dining experience, you get fake smiles hiding behind a wall of glittering buttons as if it they were the gansta bling of the food industry. For some reason the less-intelligent of the Human species gathers here every day to celebrate birthdays, because every conversation I attempt to have with my friends and family in this place is interrupted by tone-deaf staff screaming some insipidly annoying version of Happy Birthday.

Ruby Tuesday's: Nothing sets this place apart except for the dim lighting and even dimmer staff. Except maybe the completely unimaginative menu. The layout of the place is horrendous, a special violator of common sense design. (See below)

Outback: I am so fucking sick of the fake Aw-straaahl-yan accent! I know REAL Australians, and every last one of them hates this place too. And for good reason. The food is extraordinarily ordinary, and the decor so stereotyped and fake it is an insult to the real denizens of the "Fatal Shores." If a Soul Food chain tried to duplicate this they'd plaster tap-dancing blackface stepin' fetchits all over the wall and the resulting furor would shut them down in less than a week.

Rock-Ola: Elvis is dead. I know this because if he were alive, he'd personally kick the asses of every single owner of this noisome franchise. Trying so hard so evoke a "rock-n-roll" feel, they somehow managed to excise all of the roots of rock-n-roll and instead leave you with a combination of pasty white crooners with pot-addled Woodstock rejects. The place is so noisy, I'm surprised they manage to stay open without violating local noise ordinances. Casual conversation is impossible here. If I wanted to shout at my friends over the top of generic pop music, I'd get tickets to a Hanson concert.

The [Insert City Nickname Here In Vain Attempt To Appear Local] Chop House: The ultimate yuppie hangout from the overpretensious 90's. The place to see and be seen. But not for eating. Portions designed to keep starving Africans starving, decor straight out of smoke-filled boardrooms, and waitstaff specially trained to be snottier than the French. Try showing up here while on business travel by yourself sometime. "Table for one, please." [Snotty look] "Only one, m'seur?" "No, stupid, I brought all of my imaginary friends."

Longhorn Steaks: A recent addition to my list, thanks to waitresses clad in Texas garb but spluttering Jersey accents whilst smacking gum. What. The. Fuck. So there's one open in a nearby town, now. I took the Gnu Herd there, thinking maybe things had changed. Nope. Completely empty place and they can't seat us right away. Something about having to find an open table. Guess they needed a map. Worst of all, we ask for non-smoking and we get a table in the no-man's land near the smoking bar while the real tables in the rarified "non-cancerous" altitudes remained empty. So I asked to be re-seated. You'd have though I'd just asked if I could set fire to the place. A huge dramatic production ensued between one empty-headed blonde and another to try to determine if such a thing as another empty table existed anywhere in the known universe. Remember, the place was nearly empty. We left in disgust.

Cracker Barrel: Remember the old commercial where a guy eating out of a jar of Peanut Butter runs smack into a girl wolfing down a Hershey bar? The result was Reese's magic. No such magic is apparent in this bastard lovechild of a wannabe country store and a greasy spoon truckstop cafe. You'll find these places popping up like poisonous fungi along the highway, just follow the ever-present columns of smoke from the misplaced Wal-Martians wandering the aisles in the gift shop right up front. This will really turn your stomach: a few years ago, the local TV station tested the tea they serve here and found that it contained more fecal coliform bacteria that a water sample from the wastewater plant. 'Nuff said.

Each entry above illustrates perfectly the underlying design flaw present in every last one of these miserable joints. First, from the parking lot to the hostess is the first hazard to overcome: The Outside Chimney Line. Scores of smokers puffing away, some two-fisting it for chrissakes! - as if the mere thought of a nicotine-free dinner was itself fatal.

Having made it past Cancer Cloud City, we arrive in the portico of misery: The perky yet dim-witted hostess who for some reason needs Air-Traffic-Controller grade technology to keep track of the tables. And yet, a mere peek behind the Wizard's Curtain reveals scores of glittering tables ready for the huddled mass of patrons anxiously awaiting reprieve from the billowing smoke emanating from the Chain-Smoking Gang outside as well as the eye-watering bar directly in front of them. It's like a cancerous Scylla and Charybdis.

The smoking section itself constitutes a gauntlet that patrons must run through to get to the supposedly clear-aired non-smoking sections. One must endure the impenetrable wall of putrid carcinogenic smog that will stick to your clothes more permanently that a Sharpie in the hands of a four-year-old. Even after you arrive at your seat, the concept of air circulation completely escapes both the architects as well as the operators of these places: a mere waist-high partition separates the living from the dying.

Smoke, of course, knows no bounds. We always manage to get placed right on the border between breathable air and smog, a virtual no-man's land where the food, if it originally had flavour, now tastes like asphalt. And invariably there's some idiot smoker hanging his or her cigarette over the wall in our faces. I have actually tossed my water over the fuming hedge separating me from such imbeciles, thinking the carpet was on fire or something.

If the designers of these places had any sense whatsoever, they'd either make the entire restaurant smoke-free or place the Death Ward in the very back near the garbage bins. I'm not one to go around advocating laws and such to govern personal behaviour, but given the complete lack of forethought in civil engineering coupled with the fact that one person's "Low Tar Taste of Adventure" is forcibly shared with others who find the putrid smell disgusting, perhaps we need a little governance to rein in the nasty effects of certain personal habits. At least until those who insist on killing themselves learn better how to keep it to themselves.

One such place which has taken a lead in creating a true family-friendly atmosphere is Red Robin. I'd been to one out on the Left Coast, and was delighted to find two nearby the office. And a third one is opening soon right down the road from my home. Red Robin is 100% non-smoking. [Raucous applause from the still-growing lungs of children everywhere!] The food is fairly good, too. Nothing like a local mom-and-pop place, but at least it doesn't taste like pine tar. It is not overbearingly noisy; they actually have a working volume control on the muzak! The waitstaff are competent, unobtrusive, and to get a better feel for how far they will go to serve you, I call upon The Taco Prophet to share his experience dining there with his family.

Unfortunately, no franchise chain can ever replace the local eateries with long histories of local food traditions. Soul Food rich with wholesome goodness from the heart of the South, pier-facing fish houses on both coasts brimming with Neptune's bounty, steak houses in the Heartland where each steak is grilled to personal order over hot coals - and you occasionally taste a bit of real mesquite or hickory wood that popped out of the coals just to remind you how real men cook steaks! - or the exotic flavours of the Far East, brought to the New World from home far, far away. These places are disappearing fast, as the new generation fails to carry forward the venerable traditions of old. It doesn't help either that the local repositories of both food traditions and the histories of those who gathered in droves to partake thereof are being driven out by the invasive Kudzu of commercialized blandness.


The Taco Prophet said...

Outback: Full disclosure, wifezilla waits tables there. I enjoy their steaks quite a bit, but the Australian theme gets a little tiresome. I will say this for them... they do customer service like few others. I never knew this before wifezilla worked there, because I'm a pretty fucking easygoing restaurant-goer. I'm perfectly happy to pick the much-hated croutons out of my salad rather than complicate my order. Now that she's been working there a year or two, though, I know how far they'll go for a customer, and that's damn near anywhere. She's returned from a shift with stories including:

- Drunk college chicks who came in wanting a drink that some other restaurant serves, which they could only identify by color. The wait staff called said restaurant, found out what the drink was, got the recipe, and served it even though it isn't on their menu.

- Drunk old man who showed up at near closing and wanted scrambled eggs and sausage. So they ran out to the grocery store across the street, bought the ingredients, and scrambled it all up for him.

- Innumerable kids who see the "Speckled Dog" ice cream dessert on the menu and decide they want a hot dog for dinner (not on the menu). They hit the same grocery store and cook up the hot dogs, rather than have the kid not get what they want.

Granted, these may be unique to her own particular branch, but I've been most impressed. I've known plenty of people who worked in restaurants... wifezilla's one of the few I've known who continues to want to eat where she's seen the food prepared.

Red Robin: Ah, you've said the magic words. The foods pretty decent... not the best burger I've ever had, but close enough, and well worth the somewhat inflated price. I'll go there in a heartbeat. But they really knock me out with their service.

I took the family there for our weekly lunch a few months ago. My son needed to go to the bathroom, and so I took him. I returned to find that my daughter had drunk too much milk while we were gone, and the results could only be described as a blast radius.

There was milk and stomach acid everywhere.

My daughter was crying, much of the food was unfit for consumption, and my wife was mortified.

We nabbed a waitress and asked for some stuff to clean up the mess. A few minutes later, one of the waiters (not ours) was mopping things up, despite my protests that he wasn't paid nearly enough to deal with such fallout, and should allow me to take care of it.

While I was arguing with him over whether he should subject himself to such milky horrors, our waiter showed up with one of the tshirts the place sells, telling us that he'd talked to the manager, and since it was a cold day and my daughter's clothes were soaked with... well, you know... that they thought she needed some dry clothes, on the house.

Then the manager showed up and started collecting all of our meals, and told us he'd have some more sent out to us. We assured him that only my daughter's food was really wrecked, and we'd gladly pay for the replacement, since it wasn't their fault she'd yacked. He wouldn't have it, and replaced every bit of it on their dime.

Great service there. Way above and beyond. I go back every chance I get now (which is less often than I'd prefer... wifezilla is still quite embarrassed), and steer others there as often as I can.

Chris said...

Down here it's pretty difficult to find a restaurant (aside from a pub) which actually allows smoking inside. In fact, during the summer I quite like going to McDonald's because they keep the air conditioning set to "We don't have a refrigerator here, we ARE one". And the air is always clean.

McDonald's is just getting plain weird down here now. You can buy real bottled juices, muffins, yoghurts, salads, subway-style sandwiches, pasta, and yes - even apples. Actual, full, unadulterated apples.

However, the service you get differs wildly from restaurant to restaurant, and that's a fact for every chain I know down here. The Subway near my house is run by a legend. The one near my uni is run by an asshole. It's like a completely different restaurant, just with the same menu.

E. S. Collins said...

First I will applaud both the use of the word noisome, which is one of my favorites, and the solid gold Scylla and Charybdis reference. My day just had some suck removed from it.

Now then, I don't think I've ever been to a Red Robin and I don't remember ever seeing one. Is this the kind of thing I should make some sort of road trip for?

I go to the chain joints in a pinch (that pinch mostly being "It's late and everything else is closed" or whoever I'm with likes this or that place but I don't think I ever seek them out. The best thing about Outback is the bread. Loves me some bread.

Also if you have a Dave and Busters near you, avoid it. My nephew wanted a birthday trip there and I got mild food poisoning. FUN!

Bluejeangirl said...

My husband and I talk about this all the time. We want an honest to goodness diner here. A real live greasy spoon where you can see Alice telling Mel to "Kiss my grits!"

I moved here from rural western New York where all you really had were local joints run by the parents of friends. Loved it and miss it terribly.

We do happen to have Char Grill here though which definitely delivers on taste if you ask me.

I'm thinking that the Grand Dame of our office has said they have some eateries out Chapel Hill way that are definitely not chains, but then again, who lives there anyway? :)

mmeehan81 said...

Great post!! Chain restaurants are awful. I just shelled out $20 for a terrible meal at Texas Roadhouse. They are all overpriced for bad food. What a rip-off. I have no plans to go back there or to any other chain restaurant, except maybe the Waffle House.

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