As a cultural observer I think it my duty to comment on the restaurant industry and how much of it has gone off the rails. After all, going out to dinner has always been a pleasurable and available source of entertainment. Though it has evolved into a different experience in the last fifty years, it still offers a couple of hours of relaxation, dining and social lubrication.
I guess we need to agree on the definition of relaxation first. Because my most recent 'dining' experiences have been atrocious. Maybe I have a different perspective than the 24 - 44 year-olds I assume most restaurant chains are pursuing. Maybe I am living in the past. But I still find it hard to understand how the marketing geniuses at some of America's largest restaurant organizations can mess up such a simple pleasure.
For decades I have enjoyed the 'go out to dinner and a movie' evening immensely. That, however is different than a dining experience. Even better, in my mind, is the late dinner dining experience with my wife and maybe another couple. By that I mean, arriving at the restaurant at 7PM and staying until 10. This involves some cocktails, some hors d'oeuvres and then a slow-dining main dish, followed by desert and a snifter of brandy.
That experience is what I call dining. In 2019 it will probably cost me at least $100 per person. Because you aren't going to get that kind of meal, that kind of tempo at a chain restaurant. It will only come from a branded, local chef-driven establishment. Sure there are high-end chains like Morton's that offer great food, great wine and attentive service too. But they are also guilty of what I call Menu Pandering. They want to offer something for everybody, so the menu is too complicated and bifurcated. When the waiter approaches to take our orders, I feel like I am in line at the auto repair shop. The service order technician is holding a clipboard checklist, asking me what is wrong with my car. He then goes down the list, repeating the assembly of my diner, just to make sure he has everything correct. Whew, I feel like I just went through a driver license renewal test at the DMV! A minute later, I probably won't remember what I ordered!
For me, I would prefer a one page list of Today's Chef's Choice Dinner Plates. One beef, one chicken, one pasta, one seafood, and one casserole specialty. Each entry is something special the Chef made up just for tonight. Each comes with the Chef's selection of complimentary side dishes, and a choice of soup or salad. That's it! I point at the one I want and return to the conversation the waiter interrupted.
I like surprises when it comes to great food. I want something I can't make at home, otherwise I don't need to get dressed up and drive across town to get fed. Over the years I have discovered which Chef's culinary tastes suit my palate. I become loyal to them, and them to me. I have had more than one occasion when I was particularly unhappy with a dish. Maybe it was cold or undercooked. I tell my waiter and without hesitation my meal is immediately replaced. The establishment has skin in my game, just as I do in theirs.
Recently I went to a well-known Australian steakhouse chain that had just opened a new location near me. I was kind of excited to see what they were up to, because the brand has grown exponentially in the past decade.
What a disappointment! The motif was nearly identical to a dozen other Millennial-oriented, Asian-Feng Shui Mid-American Modern interiors. A big room divided only by short railings. Soft indirect lighting reflected by dark woods and black moldings and window frames. High ceilings with industrial looking hanging lamps make reading the complicated, four-page menus nearly impossible without cell phone flashlights. The menu is a six-ring circus of main entries which must be completed by adding side dishes. The copy is printed in a 8 point font in grey ink. Unbelievably stupid!
The truth is I know what is going on. Many chains are pandering to the Millenial compunction to demand hundreds of choices about everything! Even when you order water, the waiter has a list of types he has to explain. It is all part of the Digital Revolution, the ability to access millions of gigabits of whatever at any given second. So now we have to be buried in data everytime we ask for help.
I don't want to think that hard when I am going out to diner.
Beyond that major complaint, I was also uncomfortable the whole time. My wooden chair was no better than a bus stop bench. The sound system was blaring unintelligible, and overwhelming music. I wondered, are they making it so loud to force us all to yell at each other across the table just to give us, and those next to us, some privacy? Because without the blanket of noise enveloping the room, it would be impossible to have any privacy because there are no dividers among the table and chairs. I assume that design principle is simply to allow for more tables and chairs, so the opportunity to turn them more often is increased exponentially.
I'll take overstuffed, leather booths anyday!
Then after we finished our mostly mediocre food (served on some hybrid plastic tableware) the waiter placed a computer monitor on our table and said we could check ourselves out...WTF? I don't care about their convenience, I want to be waited on! Let them do the math, ring up the sale and give me a receipt. I am not going to do their job!
This steakhouse is virtually identical to the cowboy themed steakhouse experience I had just last month. The only difference was the theme. But I have visited enough of these now to recognize the homogenization of the chain restaurant marketing direction. One I have no affinity for.
I guess this attitude of "serve yourself by technology' has seeped into all aspects of our lives, at fast food and hotel lobbies, at the bank, even at the post office. But I refuse to accept such a disrespectful approach to my dining experience. I will just have to look for one of a vanishing breed of restaurateurs, because far too many have subscribed to a new format, The Death of Dining.