Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Explain something to me

Megan grew up in NYC, and visiting chain restaurants is an exotic form of slumming for her, an adventure. Suburbia is a fascinating, foreign land where strange people practice bizarre customs, a place Megan knows primarily through television.
So how the fuck does she feel qualified to pontificate on the nature of the suburban restaurant scene? What is she even talking about?

chain restaurants aren't bad. They just aren't good, either.

Chain food reduces the volatility of your dining experience. You rarely have a really great meal, a memorable meal, at a chain. (Your date throwing up his Shrimp Fra Diavolo does not count.) But you also rarely have a really bad one. People have forgotten about all the really bad restaurant food there used to be--and still is, in places that don't have the density or income to support chain restaurants. People look at the rich individually owned markets of the few big cities that have them, and the great family owned places in their own area, and conclude that chain restaurants must be dragging America's food tastes down.
You're right, I have forgotten it, because I never fucking ate it. What the fuck is she even talking about? In Megan's mind the masses ate gruel until Chili's came along? The restaurants I grew up with upstate have largely closed because families don't go to them anymore, instead they stay at the mall and go to a chain. The restaurants I grew up with were way the fuck better than chain restaurants, because they served professionally made food prepared with good ingredients, not mass produced pre frozen entrees that are microwaved before being served. Yes, my family could afford to go to decent places, but it's not like I was putting on a blazer to sit to eat.
But before chain restaurants the restaurant industry wasn't subject to the marketplace, or so it seems Megan believes, so chains are a godsend in her mind.
The chains are putting a floor on quality; any family owned restaurant that cannot provide at least as good food and service as a chain has gone out of business. The average family owned restaurant is probably better than a similar chain, but that doesn't mean that if the chains went away, we'd have better food. We'd have a lot of soggy pasta and awful hotel buffets--remember those, small town America? Not an improvement.
No, I don't remember them. Not at restaurants. Because shitty restaurants close, and you forget them, unless you're Megan and had a bad experience while visiting the grandparents one year, or are stupid enough to eat hotel buffet food at the Holiday Inn in Bumblefuck.
I can't keep snarking. I don't know why, but it really pisses me off for Megan to suggest that food in the non-urban US was inedible until Outback started selling burnt, flavorless burgers. It's the worst kind of snobbery, because it presumes the unwashed masses were just too dumb not to frequent bad restaurants until chains opened up, and that cuisine only exists in an urban context. There were more options than McDonald's and HoJo's before the chains came, Megan. Maybe if you had the slightest idea what you were talking about you'd know that, snob.


Clever Pseudonym said...

That, and there's an assumption there about people's motives for dining out. Sometimes I don't go out for great food. I do it to relax, spend time with friends and spare myself the hassle of dishes and cleaning up. The Olive Garden gets that done. Sure, it's not that authentic or gourmet, but it's definitely edible. Besides, a few weeks ago, I went to one of those independent, super-hip, supposedly gourmet restaurants that didn't have a bottle of wine for less than a hundred bucks. I wound up paying $30 for a plate of pasta that really wasn't all that much better than what I would get for $8.00 at the Olive Garden. And they didn't even have unlimited salad and breaksticks!

M. Bouffant said...

The restaurants I grew up with upstate have largely closed because families don't go to them anymore, instead they stay at the mall and go to a chain.

And it's much more likely that the restaurants Megan refers to as not reaching the bottom floor of quality (or whatever she said) can't afford to get into the mall in the first place, if they wanted to. There's your "free" market for you.

Matt P said...

In Megan's mind the masses ate gruel until Chili's came along?

Not gruel, grease. And not the good kind of grease you get with delicious pizza and burgers, but a slime of melted Crisco slicked through every dish.

I hate to say it, but the comments you quote here jibe with my experiences growing up in a rural area surrounded by small towns. The food at the locally-owneds generally sucked hard. Maybe the local joints you grew up with made good food from fresh ingredients, but those from my childhood served up deep-fried frozen chicken cutlets and overcooked veg from a can. When the chains finally started coming in, their food genuinely seemed like a revelation.

The chains didn't inspire a "floor of quality", though. On trips back to my family, I see that most of the crappy mom-and-pops have survived, and are as terrible as ever. Oddly, they aren't noticeably cheaper than the chains, but they do appeal to the proudly anti-elitist element.