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.