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July 24, 2011

Serious Reservations

Dog bowl 
By Elaine Viets

I have serious reservations about cooking. That’s why I eat out whenever I can. Fortunately, Don is no fan of home-cooked meals, either.  At least not when they’re cooked by me.

We’ve eaten some fabulous restaurant food, and some concoctions that taste like Alpo on a plate. Over the years, we’ve learned – usually the hard way – how spot  third-rate restaurants.

Here are nine warning signs.

(1) A big menu doesn’t mean the chef is creative.            

It means an 18-year-old kid is shoving food into a microwave.

(2) Beware of places that put the staff in funny costumesLederhosen.

Unless you’re hiking in the Black Forest, you shouldn’t see young men in lederhosen. Avoid restaurants that make the servers wear them. Underneath that gemutlich costume is an embarrassed server who would give his night’s tips to wear normal clothes to work. Ditto for the waitress in the dirndl.

It’s cruel to make the staff dress like hillbillies or English serving wenches. Worse, the restaurant is probably making the staff pay for their humiliation. They may have to buy those silly outfits.

(3) Music duels.

Two kinds of music hit another sour note in a third-rate restaurant. When you hear sweet strings on the restaurant’s piped-in music and hard rock coming form the radio in the kitchen, nobody’s in charge.

(4) Watch out for places that calls themselves "downhome" or brag about their "country cooking."

If country cooking is spelled with Ks, head for the hills. That country-fried coating can be an excuse for cheap food and sloppy service.

You can trust almost any restaurant that calls itself a cafe if it’s more than twenty years old. EAT is another good sign.

                                        Ma and pa kettle

(5) The French Connection.

Unless the owner’s name is Claudette or Pierre, soup du jour should be the only French phrase on the menu. Fractured French usually translates as mediocre food with outrageous prices.

Restaurants that call French fries pommes frites are always pretentious.

(6) For swingers only.

Beware of restaurants that prop open the swinging doors between the kitchen and the dining room, treating diners to views of dirty dishes and sweating staff. They don’t care any more.

(7) Disaster relief.

Any restaurant can have an occasional disaster. The kitchen may lose your order. Chef Your chicken may be overcooked. It happens.

NOTE: If the place has several police cars with dancing light bars, avoid it.

But the good restaurants buy you a drink or a free dessert to make up for their mistakes. Any place that just hands you an apology isn’t sorry – it’s downright pathetic.

(8) Managers are not ornamental.

At good restaurants, managers help out during a rush. They get your check, pour coffee or clear a table.

When you see overworked servers darting about while the manager stands around doing nothing, watch out. The manager is too good to work. The place is run just like your office.

Would you want to eat there?

Travel tip: One sure-fire way to find good food in a small town.

Look for the restaurant with one or more cop cars in the lot. If local law enforcement eats there, the food is usually tasty and inexpensive. This is also a safe place for women travelers to dine without getting hassled.

 

 

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Comments

Elaine, a friend from Georgia told me many years ago that one should always say yes to little roadside cafes that have neon signs saying 'Eat here.' I've tried to live by that when possible.

I try also to examine whether a restaurant offering food from a particular nation has a lot of diners from that nation . . . that tends to predict that the food will actually be somewhat authentic, and maybe delicious.

Good tips, Elaine!

I am currently wary of restaurants that claim to offer anything with the word 'Fusion' in the food description. I mean, the chefs on Bravo might be able to conjure up a Latin/Thai combination, but that doesn't mean the guy in your neighborhood can do it.

We have had great luck at local restaurants that are farm to table or participate in local farming efforts like "Grow Pittsburgh". They get the best fresh local stuff first.

All of this is true and correct, but I'd like to add one: the best barbecue in the world is found in the roadside stalls or stands in Louisiana. Without question.

9. If you have despised a chain or franchise every previous time you've been at one of their restaurants, you will probably despise it this time. For me, the Cracker Barrel fits this description. Why I think I will be able to find a breakfast meal there that I like is a mystery to me, since I've never been able to. OTOH, my traveling companions want to go there for the lollipops that last two states' drive.

I may be driving to Florida next week for a family visit, so this Cracker Barrel thing is likely to come up again.

10. Any restaurant that can manage to screw up a simple meal like breakfast needs to close, pronto.

All good tips, Elaine! Thanks for doing all the research for us. (insert very big grin here)

We get off the interstates and look for a nondescript eatery with lots of pickups nosed in around the front door. And sorry, William, but the best barbecue in the world is located about a mile from Exit 319 on I-40. Josh, you might want to check it out (Stephenson's Barbecue at 11964 Hwy 50 North) for a real "Colleton County" experience if you're driving this way. You can drop the family off at Exit 312 if they want Cracker Barrel and double back.

Margaret - that would be the same Stephenson's Barbecue you mention in your books, right? Grand to know it is real! Now if only I were there!

Josh, can't you drop them off at Cracker Barrell and go into town to a diner?
Kathy, "fushion" restaurants tend to do horrible things with wasabe. Thanks for the reminder.

I used to look for trucks -- not only was the food good and reasonable, but in pre-GPS times, I could get good directions from fellow diners. Now I have to call ahead to make sure they don't use latex gloves (the list of safe restaurants is getting longer). I am actually eating more at home, and the veggies from the Terripin Farms CSA are making it an adventure.

** A little aside: I was talking with a friend about her difficult husband, and cited the old adage, "Men, can't live with them, and . . . " (can't live without them), but stopped as I realized I have lived single since 19** . . . well . . . quite a while. Then I remembered _Brave New World_ in which couples kept separate living spaces, and then I realized that you cleverly have Helen keeping her own space too. Having some separate space may be a very good idea -- which now reminds me of "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf
http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/

Josh, I did once stop at two restaurants when nieces and nephews had widely divergent preferences for lunch. (Aunts have leisure and tolerance for such "wastes of time"). The boys wanted Burger King and a play place, their sister and I wanted a lovely tea room.
On long trips, I tend to pack food and nibble a bit at each rest area, as I stretch my legs. At home, I have favorite restaurants, where I am sure of a warm greeting, and the absence of latex gloves.

Mary, that's the message of K T Oslin's song, Live Close By, Visit Often.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3P5VI3lMBsQ

You're a good aunt, Mary, to offer a choice. When I was growing up, adults did not give kids food choices.
Holly, glad to get an intro to know KT Olsin.

Judi, it is!

Love the song!!

I have occasionally played the "I'm the adult, I'll decide" card when the young'uns were unreasonable (like the time they thought they wanted McDonald's instead of Outback), and I do understand my parents, with five children, never letting the squabbling begin by just telling us what we'd be doing. . . aunts get to loosen the reins because we only have occasional responsibility.

My mother always told me--never order the "chef's surprise." You ain't gonna like the surprise.

Mom was right, Hank. I've had waiters tell me it's often a way to get rid of fish or meat teetering on the edge of freshness.
I've also heard you should never eat a restaurant called Mom's.

The chef Anthony Bourdain wrote a book called "Kitchen Confidential", chronicling his restaurant career. At the end of the book he talks about how to avoid getting a bad meal, and among the many ideas is that the best days to dine are Wednesdays and Thursdays. The food is freshest then.

He had a ton of suggestions and warnings, but since I listened to it in audiobook form I don't have a book to check now. One other thing I remember is that heavy sauces can mean that the food isn't quite fresh.

I'm just as happy to eat at home, except for once in awhile.

Mr. TypeKey seems to have eaten my first post. So it goes.

Never, ever eat in an empty buffet. Busy means continuously fresh food. All those people who are not there know something.

Also, check out chapter one of Never Eat Out on a Saturday Night. http://www.amazon.com/But-never-eat-Saturday-night/dp/0385182201

Sorry you had a bad encounter with Mr. T, Alan. And that's true of buffets.
Karen, the warning to stay off the sauce is right on.

William, you wouldn't have written it if you didn't mean it, but Louisiana is a long haul for me, so I'll have to make do with my local joint: http://www.babybluesvenice.com/#/home

However, it's expensive! I'm always shocked when I go in for 'just a plate of ribs'. Has that happened in LA and in Colleton County, too?

Margaret, I've just read two more of your Deborah Knott books in the past week: great stuff (not to mention all the food descriptions make me think more seriously about cooking than just grabbing a snack).

I have had some luck with restaurants bearing the owner's name such as "Jack" Kitchen" or "Paul's Diner" but it can be a culinary adventure.

Barbecue restaurants are fashionable now, Laraine. Take a look at the prices for Blue Smoke in Manhattan.
http://www.bluesmoke.com/blue/PDF/dinnerMenu.pdf
My grandma would faint dead away if she ever saw mac & cheese for $7.95.

I haven't wanted to go anywhere this much since that blog on the Florida Keys. Now I wish I could just pack up and head to Stephenson's Barbeque. Wouldn't even be disappointed if there were no Knotts singing and playing.

Margaret, you have to make a pilgramage for us all.

The south is way too far for me to go for barbeque, luckily I can go here:

http://www.memphisbluesbbq.com/meals.php?p=bc

I don't eat out much anymore between my budget and allergies, I am getting more creative at home!

Steppy and I try wor won ton soup wherever we go. So far the best we've had was in Bakersfield, CA.

Elaine: my grandmother would be spinning in her grave, too. If she saw the price of high-style mac 'n cheese, or the price of shoes . . . .

Best restaurant in our neighborhood,
"Jack's Hamburger!"

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