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. Going out to dinner has always been a pleasurable and available source of entertainment. When done properly 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.
The dining experience in my mind is a comfortable and quiet evening with my wife and maybe another couple. By that I mean, arriving at the restaurant at 7 p.m. and staying until 10. This involves some cocktails, some hors d’oeuvres and then a main dish, followed by desert and a snifter of brandy.
That is what I call dining. Apparently it will only come from a branded, local chef-driven establishment. Even high-end chains like Morton’s are guilty of what I call Menu Pandering. They want to offer something for everybody, so the menu is too complicated and bifurcated. Waiters act like service writers at the auto repair shop: they go down the list, repeating the assembly order for my meal. A minute later, I probably won’t remember what I ordered!
For me, I would prefer a one page list of Today’s Dinner Offerings. Each entry would be something special the Chef made up just for tonight. Each entry would come with the Chef’s selection of complimentary side dishes, and a choice of soup or salad. 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 Chefs suit my palate. I am loyal to them, and them to me. We both have skin in the game!
Recently I went to a well-known Australian steakhouse chain that had just opened a new location near me. The motif was nearly identical to a dozen other Millennial-oriented, Asian-Feng Shui-Mid-American-Modern interiors. A big room divided only by hand rails, hard wood tables and chairs. The black painted high ceilings with industrial looking hanging lamps made 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 choosing from dozens of side dishes. It is printed in an 8 point font in grey ink. We spent the first half hour deciphering and cross referencing everything so we could accurately repeat our needs to the server.
I know what is going on. Many chains are pandering to the Millennial compunction to demand hundreds of choices about everything! When you order water, the waiter pulls out a list of options. Please, spare me the data overload! I don’t want to work that hard!
Then after we finished our mostly mediocre food, served on some hybrid plastic tableware, the server placed a mini-computer monitor on our table and said we could check ourselves out.
I found the whole thing insulting.
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 a vanishing breed of restaurateurs, because otherwise I will just stay home and indulge in my own Do-It-Yourself Dinner Experience.
Rick Elkin is a cultural and media observer, author and columnist. His most recent book, Trump’s Reckoning: Bulldozing Progressivism, Rebuilding Americanism, is available through most online book sellers. He resides in Escondido, California. You can follow him at RickElkin.com or on Twitter @Rick_Elkin