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I Am In A (Local) Restaurant Rut

We had another crappy meal last night. And I chose the word "crappy" carefully. My wife has told me that using the words that came out of my mouth during the dinner would not be appropriate. Lest you think that I am a curmudgeon whose only joy is in criticizing others, I would have happily ignored the 25-minute wait before a waiter showed up at the table. My wife is an excellent dinner companion, and we were enjoying ourselves. But a glass of wine might have been nice, or even a menu? The service issues just got worse from there. When I finally got up to complain to the greeter ( I hesitate to call him a maitre'd), our waiter happened to be chatting with him, and he promptly (the fastest thing he did all night) chastised me for not speaking with him directly! I then looked him in the eye and told him that my wife's side of crispy French fries was cold and soggy, and my "medium-rare" pork tenderloin was well-done, dry and inedible. When he finally arrived at the table with a fresh (not really -- they were warmer than the first batch but not crispy at all) batch of fries, he looked down at my uneaten pork and said, "I guess we can't please you at all tonight." Charming!  He did recover slightly  by  bringing  the dessert in a reasonable amount of time, and he even threw in a taste of their signature chocolate mousse. To be fair, he did improve his service once he realized that I was really, really irritated. And he took the pork and the fries off of the bill. Fortunately for him, my wife is a sweet and gentle soul who believes that all waiters are starving students who deserve a good tip, no matter how badly they screw up.

Oh, the rest of the food? Great crab cakes, an excellent crab bisque, a thoroughly mediocre Caesar Salad, and a flourless chocolate cake that was edible. The sad (for me) part is that the place was full. Who are my fellow suburbanites who can't tell the difference between good service and truly awful service? And why do they think that this quality of food is worth paying for? I have ranted before about this problem, and it won't get any better until my fellow diners decide that eating at home is more desirable than being treated shabbily, and being served a bad meal in a local restaurant.

16 Responses to “I Am In A (Local) Restaurant Rut”

  1. Unfortunately, you live in New Jersey which explains the sorry state of dining.

  2. Remember, this is my blog. I get to say what I want, but my commenters are not. If you don’t have anything productive to say about the state of dining in the suburbs, I suggest you stick to pigs-in-a-blanket and chitlins and fried rice, or whatever you folks eat in Alabama.

  3. All joking aside, unless you’re in NYC, LA, SF or Las Vegas, your chances of eating an extraordinary meal are remote. There are of course some exceptions including the few great chefs who decided to hide in the country and cook at a B&B.

  4. First of all, I am not talking about extraordinary meals. I want excellent cooking and professional service. I do not expect, nor would I want to pay for, meals of the quality that one would expect in places like Per Se, or La Folie, or Charlie Trotter’s. Secondly, you are simply incorrect. There are many excellent reataurants outside of the major cities. The problem is that they are not part of a trend, and in fact are bucking the trend. Please see my post, and the comments from the more well-travelled readers, that discusses this issue

  5. Finding good restaurants anywhere, including New York City, requires a significant amount of legwork and research. You have to know where to go, and websites like chow.com or egullet.com help separate the good from the bad from the ugly.That being said, there are an amazing amount of fabulous restaurants in NJ, especially in Northern NJ. If you want fantastic Korean or Japanese, you head over to Fort Lee or Edgewater. If you want something trendy, you could head over to Montclair. You can find amazing Kosher restaurants in Teaneck. There are restaurants in New Jersey whose quality surpasses their Manhattan peers. You just need to know where to go.This is not to excuse crappy NJ restaurants, of which there are many. But there are just as many, if not more, crappy restaurants in NYC.I think Alabama Worley is just being a troll by claiming that you can only eat an extraordinary meal in the city. It might have been true 20 years ago, but it isn’t true anymore.

  6. Well Ubu Walker, my theory of leaving the great food world was confirmed when I ate at the Little Inn at Washington. Thoroughly mediocre but praised by everyone. Why? Because they were far enough away from great food that they forgot basic standards. Like cheese should not smell like ammonia. So you understand, as far as I’m concerned, the best restaurant in the country, in my opinion, is not in a city but in Yountville, California. But French Laundry is an anomaly. No sentient foodie would argue with that.

  7. The sheer number of restaurants in cities suggests that there are more good restaurants in cities. And if you look at the numerical ratings in Zagat, there is obvious inflation in the suburbs, which suggests  less discerning reviewers. Perhaps because the choices are restricted. The difference, for me, between eating in the suburbs where I live, and the cities which I visit is that when I eat away from home I will spend time researching the restaurants I am interested in. But I have no choice in my little town. I either eat what is offered, or cook for myself. Are there excellent restaurants outside of the cities? Of course! I have eaten many good meals in small towns. There just aren’t as many, and they are spread out. So the chance that the typical suburb will have one is remote.

  8. I believe the name is “The Inn At Little Washington.” I had a stunningly bad meal in New York City several years ago, at a restaurant that was quite highly rated. Therefore, one cannot get a good meal in any city in America. Using one restaurant to illustrate your point is a bit risky. That being said, I believe that the typical suburban restaurant that is in the “fine food” category faces less of a challenge than its counterpart in the city. Let’s face it, if you have a crappy meal in New York, and you strike the restaurant from your list, the next time you go out your options have been reduced by .01%. If you have a crappy meal in my town, your options have been reduced by 20%

  9. Alabama, part of the joy of being a foodie is finding the little gems that exist amongst the mediocrity out there. As far as your experience with cheese, overripe cheese usually smells like ammonia, and should be avoided, since it has probably spoiled. However, a slight ammonia smell is supposedly ok, and some cheeses, like mold-ripened cheese, often has an ammonia smell. I think the problem you experienced had less to do with the quality of the restaurant, than your underdeveloped palate. 😛

  10. About 5 years ago I rented a car and drove 40 miles outside of D.C. just to eat at the Little Inn. I was intrigued by this small, unknown (to me) restaurant that kept appearing at the top of the “best in the U.S.” lists. I researched it as best I could and then took the plunge. Big mistake. Mediocre and very expensive. I could have had the same meal for a fraction of the price at numerous restaurants in NYC and probably even a few in Teaneck! When in D.C. I now take a cab to Oceannaire and order the Arctic Char.

  11. Of course there are exceptions but it is a rare treat to find a fine restaurant in the suburbs. I agree with iamnotachef when he suggests that the standards of fine dining in the suburbs are below those in the city. There are many reasons for this; city restaurants cater to both tourists and locals, there is far more competition, the price of failure is higher, etc. Incidentally, I have an extremely discerning palate, particularly when it comes to selecting cheese. You are correct young man, a faint smell of ammonia is acceptable. Faint, not overwhelming. I only used The Inn at Little Washington as an example, not a case study. I’ve had bad meals in Nebraska, Wyoming, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, in many of the suburbs of NY and San Francisco, New Orleans, Florida (maybe i should have used Florida as a prime example of mediocrity) where I have eaten scores of meals and was happily surprised once by an exceptionally fresh piece of fish. I am sorry I forgot to include Chicago in the list of cities with great choices of restaurants.

  12. I had arctic char for the first time at a restaurant in Georgetown. It was called Mendocino Grill, and the food was great, but the wine list was so overpriced that I stuck to martinis with dinner. That is not a bad thing, and in fact I have done it since, with excellent results.As for your point? I don’t know what it is. There are many grossly overpriced and over-hyped restaurants in America. The trick is to avoid them, and eat in the wonderful, undiscovered ones that give real gustatory pleasure at a reasonable price. As for Teaneck? There is an excellent steakhouse called Regina’s there that I would choose over most city steakhouses. I discussed it in a recent post about crappy wine lists and good beer. Obviously it isn’t perfect; they don’t have Martinelli pinot noirs for $40. Let’s face it, there are very few good restaurants that are off the beaten path. One of my shriller commenters has been touting The French Laundry. But it is in Napa Valley! The heart of wine country (at least the tourist wine country) should have superb restaurants to match the wines.

  13. My point? I thought it was so obvious that I didn’t need to articulate it for you: in some cases the hype is deserved (Per Se) and in some cases it is not (Inn at Little Washington); and I just possibly saved you from throwing away $350 on a mediocre meal. Piercing the veil of the hype from a distance can be very difficult and even the best laid plans and all that. Hopefully, you can see that the point is now moot.

  14. Rest assured corporal, I will never eat at The Inn At Little Washington, and I had no plans to do so, even before your observation. I am toying with Per Se, but in reality I will probably go to Picholine, twice, before Per Se, once. I am immediately suspicious of any restaurant that receives the acclaim that Per Se does. It may very well deserve it, but it had better be damned good! Read FXcuisine for a particularly amusing skewering of an icon.

  15. I’ve never been, but have close friends who have, but I can only assume that the experience of the Inn at Little Washington is not simply about the food that you’ll poop out in 24 hours. Some people appreciate the ancillary, and others don’t.Regina’s in Teaneck: wet-aged steak. They try hard, bless their souls, but my taste leans toward dry-aged steak, and you just won’t get that at Regina’s. As far as the rest of the discussion goes, aside from the Regina’s Steakhouse comment, whatever iamnotachef says is fine with me. Unless he starts in on Esty Street again, at which I had yet another wonderful meal the other night…perhaps while you were having a not-wonderful meal elsewhere. 😉

  16. I agree that the other aspects of a restaurant can improve the experience, but the food has to be great for me to spend $600 on a meal. No matter how nice the flowers, if the food isn’t fantastic, I’m going to be irritated. If this were a perfect world, Regina’s would be serving dry-aged porterhouse, and would have a wine list that doesn’t make me laugh. I’ll take what I can get sometimes, and it is a very nice restaurant. Certainly better than that incredibly overrated River Palm! Tommy , I feel like I’m in a Bartles & James commercial . Thank you for your support!

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