Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dining Out (of my Mind)

 Now that I’ve “retired” from the restaurant business, I feel a little conflicted in my feelings about the industry that was my bread and butter for 37 years.  The husband and I dine out more often now than we have in a decade.  For me, it’s still a kind of schizophrenic experience.  Sometimes, surrounded by the restaurant culture, I feel more at home than I do in my own kitchen.  But more often than not, something will happen to remind me of exactly WHY I don’t own a restaurant anymore, and I want to push away from the table and run away screaming.  There are so many things, new and old, to loathe about dining out in 21st century America.

First, there are the other customers.  Now that I am just a customer myself, it would be so nice if I could sit back and enjoy a meal without paying any attention to the other guests or the service issues going on around me.  But having operated my own eatery for five years, and having spent another thirty years in the business before that, monitoring dining room interactions is second nature to me.  I can’t not do it.  And when someone at the next table starts whining to a server about gluten-free this and dairy-free that, I want to turn around and slap them.  This is not a hospital!  If consuming one particle of the wrong thing is so dangerous for you, YOU deal with it!  Learn to cook and EAT AT HOME!  Grrr.

And while the adults are asking probing questions about the menu and the food, their children are running all over the restaurant, playing in the bathrooms, screaming, crying, and generally displaying their worst possible behavior.  People truly believe they can take their kids anywhere.  Which would be fine, really, if the kids were polite, well-mannered, or disciplined in any way.  Then again, the kind of people to whom that sort of thing would matter do not set their kids up to fail by dragging them to a place where there is nothing to do but sit still for an hour and “enjoy” a meal (at the ultimate expense of the “enjoyment” of everyone else in the place.)

It’s as if America is being bombarded by some kind of narcissism ray.  People just HAVE to drag some kind of helpless, dependent being in their wakes—a being whose ultimate comfort and support derives from merely being in the constant presence of their exalted selves.  If they don’t have a child to tow around, a DOG serves just as well.  After all, only monsters don’t love children and pets…everywhere, all the time.  No one would dare to insinuate that their living appendages are not particularly welcome in a crowded, busy eating establishment.  And woe be to the server or owner who tries.  Been there, done that…and that’s a large part of why I’m NOT doing it anymore.

Once I’ve steeled myself to ignore the other guests, I have to deal with current industry practices that I just…hate.  I’ve come to detest some of the buzz-words that have become popular in “foodie” circles over the past few years.  Like “fresh, local ingredients!”  What a crackpot concept!    Believe me, for half the year there is really no such thing, outside Florida and California.  The other six months, you may get fresh, you may even get local, but only if you operate either on the farm or in a large metro area, and only if you (and your customers) do not think twice about paying premium prices.

And then there’s “How is everything tasting?”  What’s that all about?  It’s obviously the now-accepted language used by staff to ascertain the satisfaction level of guests after the meal is delivered.  But I always get the feeling that I’m being limited in the feedback I’m allowed to give.  If a server asks, “How is everything?” I might be tempted to say my water glass is empty or the music is too loud.  But since I’ve only been asked my opinion of how the food tastes, by the time I’ve nodded my head and mumbled, “Fine, thank you!”  the waitperson has flitted away, my water glass is still empty and the music is still too loud. 

But, honestly, I try not to be too tough on the operators and employees.  I know, I K.N.O.W. how hard it is to do what they do, and exactly how over-worked and under-appreciated they are.  I tend to be effusive in my praise if something is really delicious or if a server is particularly on top of things.  In my heart of hearts, I’m rooting for these folks.  Because I’ve walked a few miles in their shoes, and I know just how fine a line there is between success and failure in this business.

Which brings me to the thing that will drive me nearly crazy enough to commit arson, or worse:  People who have no experience in the industry deciding on a lark that it would be great fun and easy pickin’s to open a restaurant. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Several restaurants in the area have closed their doors since the economy went tits up, and I find the remaining dining choices dismal and bland.  I would love it if someone would come out here with a vibrant new concept, but I also know how difficult-to-impossible that challenge would be.  So I read with interest a story in the local paper about a couple buying an old school building up the road apiece (kind of in the middle of nowhere…) and planning to turn it into a “restaurant and pub.”  At first I thought, “Hmmm….kind of a crappy location.  But a savvy operator with a really good concept might make a go of it…”

And then I got to the description of the prospective business owners.  A nice couple, about my age or a little older, who are “retired, but not ready to settle down.”  He was a music teacher.  She was a sculpture artist with a local puppet manufacturer.  Neither of them has one iota of experience running a restaurant.  His philosophy?  “It’s not as hard as it looks.”  Ho-hum…just something to keep us busy in our semi-retirement.  AUUGHHH! 

WTF??!?!?  Dude.  You have NO IDEA.  You are going to go under.  Quickly.  And with an attitude like that, you will deserve every drop of misfortune that can possibly pour on your head.  I might even be first in line with a slop bucket. 

What makes people believe that this industry, this thing with which I have conducted a love/hate relationship for almost forty years, that has at once provided a place for my slightly hyper-active, over-achieving self to find satisfaction, while at the same time wringing every drop of energy and creativity from my wasted body, is nothing but a walk in the park?  Something anyone in the world can just pick up and do, without having paid their dues or put in the years of apprenticeship it takes to have any kind of a clue what all is involved?  It makes me insanely furious when some old fart and his wife criminally disrespect the industry into which I poured so much of my soul and my life force by declaring, “It’s not as hard as it looks.”  

I may not actually light a fire in this guy’s basement on some cold dark night, but I could be cajoled into attending the bonfire if someone else does.

So, yeah.  I’m still a little schizophrenic about the whole restaurant thing… 

A little tidbit I thought appropriate to post as an addendum here:  Drove by our old restaurant space today, to see check on the seafood market/restaurant that took our place there.  Closed.  Little note on the door, "To our valued customers...(how many of those have I seen in the past few years...?)  I feel bad for them.  Really.  But still, somehow...vindicated.

1 comment:

  1. No it's not as hard as it looks. It's ten times harder than you can imagine.

    We hit a local Denny's about once a month when the hankering for a burger hits. they don't do "local" but they do shape the patties as they're grilled. That or McGrath's for something we're not likely to make ourselves. Fortunately, so far, the kids have been reasonably civilized and I haven't heard anyone ask for gluten free.

    I wonder sometimes if anyone even knows what gluten is. I mean you look at a package of corn tortillas and it's labeled gluten free. Well of ocurse it is, you twit, that's why they put flour in corn bread. And so on. As I merrily go downn the aisle humming "if they only had a brain."