Sunday, November 6, 2011

Spotting Bad Restaurants

Introduction

I fear for the one-off, family run restaurants in this era of Yelp, smartphones, and opentable.com. At the rate things are going, the most popular restaurants will be the ones with the best web presence. Given the cutthroat competition among restaurants, this could lead to the demise of some really great places. (I’m still mourning the loss of my dearly departed La Fiesta.)

You might think citizen reviews like you’ll find on Yelp are democratic and fair, but really they’re not. Why not? Because when I find some tiny hole-in-the-wall that’s great, I might not choose to Yelp about it because the next thing you know, it’s overrun. Our local breakfast place is swamped every morning after a certain rerun of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” airs. Meanwhile, I get friends visiting from out of town who, instead of asking me—a bona-fide local, and a food fanatic—where to eat, tell me where they want to go based on some website or TV show.

So when I’m in a foreign city looking for a restaurant, I put away my smartphone. (“Luke, you switched off your targeting computer. What’s wrong?” / “Nothing. I’m all right.”) If I can’t get a tip from a local, I’ll fly almost completely blind. I’ll even check out strip malls: oddly enough, I’ve found some real jewels in such unlikely places.

This strategy is of course highly risky. This blog post gives you some pointers for spotting a bad place right away based on a few powerful clues (what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin slicing”). Anthony Bourdain has written on this topic as well, but his book costs money and isn’t sitting right in front of you. And I promise to make this post as entertaining as possible, weaving in the case study of a truly revolting restaurant I was recently a victim of.

What’s in a name?

Probably the name of a restaurant doesn’t ultimately mean much. But there are a few ways to at least tell how authentic a place is, and what clientele it’s aiming toward. For example, “Thep Phanom” is an excellent restaurant, and I doubt the chef who started it really cared whether or not people would recognize the name of a Thai angel, nor whether or not they immediately recognized the restaurant as Thai. Meanwhile, “Thai-riffic” and “A Taste of Thai,” not to mention “Café de Paris,” are making damn sure everybody—i.e., tourists—know what kind of food it is.

Why do foodies seem to despise tourists so much? Actually, it’s not the tourists we mind, it’s the places that cater to them. I prefer to eat at places whose livelihood depends on repeat business. When you’re guaranteed a revolving door of undiscriminating one-time diners, you can focus on your profit margins and serve up whatever cheap rubbish increases those margins.

I recently went (unwillingly) to a place called Cozmic Café. The misspelling of Cosmic suggests that the owner is either sloppy or (more likely) wants to tell the world that he’s not afraid to “think different” and do things his own way. As soon as I saw that “z” I feared the worst. But I wouldn’t rule a place out based on its name alone, and I gamely went along with my wife’s unilateral decision to go there. I should have been worried when she didn’t tell me where we were headed. It was the dining equivalent of being approached from behind, having a sack pulled over my head, and being stuffed in the trunk of a car.

Watch out for gimmicks

There’s a very successful restaurant in San Francisco called “The Stinking Rose.” Normally, a restaurant that survives for decades in such a competitive market is bound to be good. But the one time I went there (dragged by guests from out of town) I really didn’t like it. You know why? Too much garlic. Well, duh! There’s a reason most restaurants don’t go through 3,000 pounds of garlic a month. But people go, because they read about it in “Sunset” or something, where it’s featured because hey, catchy name, interesting idea!

Fair-trade coffee, and related do-gooder notions, are also gimmicks. Why? Because with just about every single consumer product we buy, from the disposable plastic bottle to our new PC to the clothing on our backs, we are raping the earth and/or exploiting cheap sweat-shop overseas labor. Unless you’re eating at a farmhouse where every single item was raised within a one-mile radius, you’re part of the problem. When I go to a restaurant I want to have a good time, which means not being reminded of how guilty I should feel. Throwing me a bone—“nobody was slain over this coffee, and the corn that this poor cow ate, that made it overweight and miserable and arthritic and that changed the pH of its blood, was organic!”—makes me feel worse, not better.

I consider vegan restaurants a gimmick. Why? Well, first of all, they’re serving a niche market. A lot of normal restaurants, at least around here, have plenty of good vegetarian and vegan options on the menu. Lots of these offerings (e.g., a simple pasta with marinara sauce,) aren’t ostentatiously vegan. But vegan places often seem to like to make fake meat out of weird soy protein. Yuck. Regular restaurants don’t try this sleight of hand (how about a carrot made of duck fat?). What’s the point, when good basic food can be vegan? I think they’re just being flashy. When a place is strictly (or even mainly) vegan or vegetarian, it’s expecting repeat business from people who are rewarding it on its political or ideological beliefs, and/or people who are tired of shaking down waiters about whether the salad dressing has anchovy paste in it. This is all fine if you’re a vegan, but I’m not, and I want good food, period.

Cozmic Café isn’t strictly vegan or even vegetarian, but these offerings are prominent on its menu. Their sandwiches, for example, include The Very Veggie Wrap, The Vegetarian, Vegan BLT, Nut Burger, and Garden Burger. The menu didn’t grab me; in fact it repelled me. But my wife assured me this was a good place; she’d been there before. Word of mouth is important.

Safety in numbers?

Of course there is reason to believe that a popular place will be good. It’s not a completely reliable rule, though. Plenty of mediocre chains, such as Cheesecake Factory, PF Changs, and Macaroni Grill, are routinely packed. (I used to travel a lot to Columbus, Ohio and every restaurant I ever set foot in there was completely packed.) All the places in Fisherman’s Wharf seem to thrive. And I already mentioned how popular The Stinking Rose is. So lines aren’t everything.

However, if a place is dead, that’s really not a good sign. Not only does it mean the locals have abandoned it, but it means the food probably won’t be as fresh because there’s not enough turnover. Now, if you go into a place at an off hour, and there aren’t many customers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if you’re on the early side, you should see signs of activity in the back, like they’re at least expecting a good crowd. If even the kitchen is dead, and there’s a skeleton staff, something is up. Perhaps the place is on its last legs, or it’s a drug front.

There were two employees in Cozmic Café when my family went there, at around 5:30 on a Sunday evening. One person was working the counter, and there was one in the kitchen. There were no other customers. When I was trying to find items on the menu I could imagine my kids and me eating, another guy showed up. I let him go first. Big mistake. Every single thing he asked for they were out of. For five minutes straight they shot down everything. Finally he just asked for a smoothie and the cashier was like, “We’re out of bananas, but I could try to think of something else to thicken it with.” It was like the Monty Python cheese shop skit. That place wasn’t just empty, it expected to be empty.

Does décor matter?

Of course the matter of décor depends on who’s dining and what they value. I was shocked, around a decade ago, to discover that regular people, even some of my friends, don’t overmuch care about food. This doesn’t mean they don’t like dining out; they enjoy a good scene, a friendly wait staff; pleasant decorations. In the flip side, there’s a lot of great food to be enjoyed in nondescript settings. I don’t personally worry too much about décor, unless it’s a celebratory meal or a date or something. (Yes, I still date. But it’s always the same person.)

Really bad décor, though, can be a good warning sign. If the place isn’t clean, or the aesthetic choices made suggest that the person running the place is an amateur, or a whacko, you should pay close attention. Or, if the décor feels like a theme park, that could be your tip that the restaurant is owned by a giant conglomerate, which might mean the food will be engineered rather than crafted.

Cozmic Café is a fascinating case study. The space has so much potential; it’s a great old building with fixtures, a cool upstairs area, and best of all an actual cave that you can sit it. (It’s in Placerville, an old mining town.) A restaurateur who knows what he’s doing could do amazing things with it. But the Cozmic folks have hung really bad art everywhere. The paintings were evidently designed to be disturbing, which is fine in a gallery I suppose, but while we’re eating? This was classic amateur art, just a couple steps up from Napoleon Dynamite’s. Kind of a fantasy theme, the Hobbit faerie shtick, but taken in advanced, edgy, vaguely pornographic directions, with a little dash of menace, and also sci-fi elements like a space station here or there. I got the impression these “artists” or perhaps “artistes” were guys who tried to get jobs with Kincade but were turned down for lack of technical skill. This made them bitter so, without actually developing the technical skill they lacked, they lashed out with art that makes you go “ew.” It’s the kind of art, come to think of it, that’s daring you to admit that you’re thinking “ew,” though that would be admitting you’re unsophisticated and lack the intellectual equivalent of facial hair and tattoos.

Why bad art in restaurants matters is that it can indicate poor judgment on the part of the management. If they do their aspiring artist friends a favor by giving over their restaurant as a gallery, what does this mean about the cook staff? Could this “amateur night” mentality extend to the kitchen? Would they hire, say, a hapless pal who was fired from Denny’s for incompetence?

While I was laboring over the menu at the front of the Cozmic, my wife, kids, and mom were looking around the restaurant. My kids, who were really scared by the bad art, begged me not to go upstairs. This made me curious, plus I had to use the bathroom. (What about handicapped folks, Cozmic, or whatever you’re calling them? Where do they go?) I went upstairs and it was just more of the same bad art up there. Speaking of which, the bathroom—the one bathroom—was totally disgusting. The toilet was all backed up. I really had to pee, and while doing so I was ready to jump back away from the sudden puddle I might create if my pee actually overran the edge. It didn’t, but it was really close. Perhaps only surface tension carried the day. That toilet was almost as harrowing as the art.

Of course I should have left right then. But this is the kind of counter-service place where you pay in advance. Curses.

Does the staff seem professional?

It’s hard to predict how the service will be when you’re casing a restaurant, but if the person who greets you seems awkward or unprofessional, or if nobody greets you, that’s probably a decent indicator of how well the whole operation is run.

I’m not a fascist about service, and I’ll usually suffer through a bad meal rather than send something back. The last thing I want when I’m trying to enjoy myself is to have to complain, and then endure the awkwardness of watching my friends or family eat—or, worse, not eat—while I’m waiting for a replacement entrée or something. I don’t mind minor inconveniences like having to flag down the waiter or busboy for more water, but if too many things add up it can be a drag.

The counter person at Cozmic was friendly, but seemed a bit hapless. Given that she was 50% of the total staff there, I might have expected trouble. As it turned out, our dining experience was a laundry list of issues. Two entrees came out, then we waited ten minutes for the others. We were sharing food, but didn’t get any extra plates. Or napkins. Or flatware. Nor did we get any water. Each time one of us got up from the table to go ask for something, it took them forever to provide it. It was more like running errands than dining. My younger daughter seemed to get overwhelmed with the futility of it all, and tried to hide under the table. Cozmic Café’s methods, you could say, are unsound (to borrow from “Apocolypse Now”). “Are my methods unsound?” / “I don’t see any method at all, sir.”

Is it okay to abort?

I wish this were a simple “yes.” It’s no problem if you’ve peeked in and/or looked at a menu. But when you’ve ordered? When you’ve paid? When your party is seated? Or when somebody important in the party, such as a chief in your family, really grooves on the place, perhaps due to some strange fetish or from having luckily ordered the only good thing on the menu? It can be tricky.

But remember, this isn’t just like a bad movie or boring lecture. You are taking foodstuffs into your body! This is serious stuff! If the operation is run really poorly, you can be poisoned. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether or not I was technically poisoned at Cozmic Café. Here are the facts. After eating their lousy food, including most of my mom’s and my daughters’ (these are not finicky people but are perhaps wiser than I), I really didn’t feel so well. Each hour after the meal my flatulence increased, in quantity and heinousness, to the point where my wife had to go sleep in another room. That’s never happened before. (Frankly, I didn’t have that much sympathy for her, since she’d dragged me to that hellhole in the first place.) The next day, well into the afternoon, I was running to the bathroom with shocking frequency. I wasn’t throwing up, at least, but then I’ve got a pretty strong stomach. I’ve managed to eat some spoiled food in my day just by dousing it in hot sauce, and I used to scandalize my college roommates by routinely eating stuff they’d thrown away. I’m no prima donna, but Cozmic Café was a hard hit.

So, yeah, choose your restaurants carefully, and don’t be afraid to pull out if you’ve made a mistake!

dana albert blog

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