Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fiction - The Wheel


My assignment for my fiction class the other week was to go to a place that’s really familiar and try to see it with fresh eyes that illuminate it somehow as you translate it to the page. I had a hard time with this because I got sick. I worked from home all week, too achy and snotty to weather Bart and its crush of humanity, and barely left the house. Finally I found some inspiration from the chain reaction of memories that a familiar object can summon, and and came up with what follows, minus the graphics.

Remember, this is fiction. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead or anywhere in between, is purely coincidental, etc. A final point: there’s a way to show, all at once, thumbnails of the pictures in a blog post. Don’t do that. Scroll gradually down as you read. You’ll see why.

The Wheel

You go first. Nice, $500. But your head is not really in the game, so you’re having trouble deciding what letter to guess. If you really wanted to win you’d look up the statistical frequency of each letter of the alphabet. But you don’t feel like it. You need a consonant. You sit back and look around the room for inspiration. The heater duct sure stands out. It’s a monster, ten inches in diameter, unfinished aluminum, running exposed along the wall up near the ceiling. The old duct, a flat, narrow, compact thing, certainly looked better, but it was a bottleneck that prevented any warm air from reaching the bedrooms upstairs, so you had mold growing on the ceiling and walls every winter. For loads more money you could have enclosed this new duct somehow, but the furnace and ducting and asbestos abatement were pricey enough to begin with. But worth every penny—for the first time in this house, you have heat. Blessed, hallowed, heartwarming heat. You try H. Yes! There’s an H. You’ve got $500!

Your online opponent takes his turn and wins $450 with N.

You spin. It lands on $800. Sweet! Maybe you’ll try D as in Desk. Your desk is a real honey: over six feet wide, with locking drawers, and those extra pull-out shelf thingies for when rest of desk surface is hopelessly buried in paper, which it usually is, especially when you do the books and have a stunningly depressing pile of receipts. They don’t make desks this solid anymore. The drawers even have dovetail joints. You bought this desk like fifteen years ago for $80 from Uhuru Furniture in Oakland; it had looked completely awful, its shiny varnish all clouded and scratched. Seeing that surface, you couldn’t help but think of your neighbor’s garage door window, back in your hometown, which was similarly cloudy and scratched and, worse, had the word “MERRY” on it. One December your neighbors had painted “MERRY CHRISTMAS” across their garage door windows. “CHRISTMAS” came right off the good glass window. What they hadn’t realized was that the other window was cheap plastic and when they tried to remove “MERRY,” they just scored and scratched the plastic and the word wouldn’t come off. They didn’t feel like shelling out for a new window so year-round they had that scuffed-up “MERRY” eyesore. With this memory so distinctly etched in your brain, you almost didn’t buy the desk, did you? Too depressing. But your wife conjured up a loaner belt sander somehow and completely refinished the desk, using olive oil instead of varnish. It still looks great. What a find! What a desk! Dang it, no D. No $800.

Your opponent’s spin lands on $600, and he guesses R. Nope, no R!

You spin. D’oh, only $300. Your room feels claustrophobic because of all the junk piled in it, particularly the mound of ski gear. It’s normally kept in a big plastic tub, but somebody has borrowed the tub. Amazing how much stuff you have for skiing when you don’t even go that often. There have to be twice as many pairs of gloves and mittens than people in your family. What a waste. And there are your faithful old wool mittens that your ex-stepmother hand-knitted, still going strong like twenty years after she left your dad. Man, what a shame. How many women are there in this country who still know how to knit, and are frugal enough to bother doing it? She was like his soul-mate! Anyway, skiing is excessively expensive. Last time you went, didn’t you find a pair of perfectly decent ski pants stuffed into the restroom trash can? You were irritable because you were roasting in there, in all your ski gear, and had been hemorrhaging money all morning, and you figured some yuppie must have found some more flattering new ski pants in the ski shop, bought them on the spot, and just couldn't get rid of his old ones fast enough. I know how you feel. Aren’t a lot of these reckless spendthrifts the same people who are all “woe-is-me” when a bubble bursts and the job market crashes and they go broke? But now it’s time to focus. You need a consonant. M for mittens. Yes, there’s an M! Too bad you only got $300 for it.

Your opponent spins and hits BANKRUPT. Pwned!

Your computer printer suddenly winks at you with its multicolor display, as if reminding you to turn it off when not in use. What wakes it up from Sleep like that? How much power is drawn keeping it at the ready? Should you turn it off to save energy, or keep it on so your wife’s occasional print job from upstairs—that’s right, it’s an über-cool wireless printer!—doesn’t sputter and die? You should have known the low price of this printer was too good to be true—all those features, its gorgeous shiny finish, the crisp photo prints—but of course it’s a scam. The printer is a thirsty little bastard, isn’t it? It really goes through the ink, and only accepts real Canon cartridges, and you feel like you’ll go broke replacing them all the time. First time’s free, kid. P for Printer. D’oh! No P.

Your opponent spins and lands on “Lose A Turn.” You are inordinately pleased by this.

You decide to buy a vowel. There’s got to be an E, it’s the most common letter of the alphabet. Yep, there’s an E!

You’ve got to clear some more space on this desk, you must be going crazy. Now you’re looking at the SmileSafe KIDS emergency card you’ve found there. “What to do if your child is missing: 1) Call local law enforcement; 2) Show this image to authorities; 3) Call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. This image is accessible through June 2012.” Now, you might feel guilty if you throw this card away, in case you’re possibly reducing your child’s safety in some small way. But there are so many reasons just to chuck it. First of all, this card is obviously stupid. What are the odds you won’t have a recent photo of your kid to show the authorities? True, no photos exist of your own childhood, but that’s because film and developing cost money back then, whereas now you take dozens of pictures a day because it’s all free, if you don’t count the cost of your camera (face cracked but it still works), and that damn printer ink. And think about it: if somebody abducts your kid, you won’t be calling some hotline, you’ll be bringing in the cops, the FBI, the National Guard, and you’ll probably be confined to a padded cell. Then there’s the matter of your kid’s crappy school photo on the card. Why doesn’t the photographer take more than one picture, especially if the kid has deliberately ruined his first attempt? The school picture is a big enough rip-off when the photographer gets a good shot, don’t you think? It must be a tradition for kids, ruining their school pictures and thus wasting their parents’ money. You have to agree. At that age you were afraid of accidentally smiling and thus looking like a wuss; plus you were ashamed of your buck teeth. Same with your brothers, one of whom got the bright idea that if you keep your lips together and puff air into your upper lip, it’s impossible to accidentally smile. So you all looked like chipmunks in your school photos. A generation later, your daughter is no better. She has managed to obscure her upper lip entirely so it looks like she doesn’t have one. She told you—defiantly, almost proudly—that she refused to smile for the photo because you refused to pay $3 extra for a prettier backdrop. What a scam! On principle you refused. It costs those thieving bastards nothing extra to use a better backdrop; the admittedly ugly default grey-marble one was doubtless calculated to extort even the most stingy parent into forking over the additional $3. Well screw them, you said. You don’t negotiate with terrorists. B for Backdrop. Dang it! No B!

Your opponent spins and gets $5,000! Fortunately for you, his guess—L—is a bust.

You spin. $900! Life is good. Your computer monitor, a flat panel Samsung, is gorgeous. You almost can’t look at it, though, without thinking about its cost, especially under the circumstances. The old monitor had been perfectly good but you wrecked it, in the stupidest possible way. Before leaving on vacation, you hid the old monitor. You were afraid of burglaries. When you got back from vacation and while putting back the laptop and monitor you discovered a new port where you could plug speakers right into the monitor. How cool! Except that wasn’t what the port was for, it was for some stupid Soundbar thing (sold separately) and when you plugged your speakers into it, you fried you monitor. Pfffft. Your impulse was to punish yourself for your stupidity by going without an external monitor for some period of time, like serving a sentence, and for that very reason you decided to go the other direction and buy an even cooler monitor than the one you had so stupidly destroyed. Hence this kickass Samsung. Yes! There’s an S! you have $900 more! You’ve got $1,450!

Your opponent spins and lands on $800. He guesses T and he’s right.

He announces he’d like to solve the puzzle. Oh my god, it’s so obvious! Why didn’t you solve it when it was still your turn?

He wins, you lose. You get nothing. Of course, he didn’t actually get anything either. It’s just a game, after all.

dana albert blog

Monday, November 14, 2011

The British Faucet Conundrum


This post concerns the silly faucets, or “taps,” that predominate in the U.K. I will explore the possible reasons why such an inferior design persists, and what it says about British vs. American culture.

Double-taps everywhere

Consider this photo, from my UK vacation last summer:

I love the sign: “Now wash your hands.” In the U.S., of course, people (and especially customers) don’t like being told what to do, even if it’s something entirely reasonable. This is called Freedom. So the sign will say something like “Employees must wash hands” or, more likely, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work,” the implication being that if your shift is over, you can skip the hand washing. But there’s something else in the photo I want you to look at. It’s the sink. Pretty fancy, and with fancy taps. Two taps per sink. Now check out this photo, from the same trip:

Another fancy sink, but still the primitive two-tap design. This time a sign warns against scalding, which is a big risk when you try to wash your hands in such a sink. Look carefully at the round thingy at the back of the sink. I think there’s supposed to be a little chain with a rubber stopper attached there, so you can mix the hot and cold water in the basin. Since there isn’t, you have to move your hands back and forth between the taps, alternately parboiling and cooling them. And now, on to Exhibit C:

Look how short that tap is. It is impossible to run your hand under it without scraping it against the back of the sink. Is this because it’s a tiny little space-saving sink? No:

It’s a giant sink, actually. The tap is so short because, well … no reason. That’s just life. But wait, there’s more. Assuming this next sink had a stopper, would you dare mix water in its basin to try to clean your hands with?

Of course not. Now, we’ve all dealt with grody public restroom sinks (that one was in a $150 a night hotel in London). But at least in the US you can get warm water without involving the basin. Basic sanitation in the case of a grody British sink requires you to either wash your hands in cold only, or to scald/relieve/rinse/repeat.

Is this just because the sinks are really old? No, this next one looks like it’s from around the ‘70s when everything (including bathroom fixtures) became ugly:

All of the photos in this post are ones I snapped myself, of sinks I used during my summer vacation in London and Glasgow. During this trip I encountered exactly one sink offering the miracle of warm water out of a single tap. (I didn’t get a photo of it because I hadn’t yet thought up this blog post.)

Why double-taps?

In an attempt to answer this question I turned to the available literature, that being what I could easily find on the Internet. I found a number of interesting and amusing explanations for double-taps, not one of them satisfactory. Here are some highlights:

“With 2 taps on a basin, it is much better to wash and rinse off your face. With a single tap which is set in the middle of the basin, you can’t do that because you can bang your head on the tap if you tried to rinse off your face.”

Red tape. Older British homes often have storage tanks in their attics that feed water heaters. Under certain conditions, those tanks could be contaminated–for instance, by the intrusion of a rat–and tainted hot water that flows into a mixer-tap might get sucked into a cold-water pipe leading back to the public water supply, endangering the whole neighborhood. So regulations forbid mixing of hot and cold water streams inside a tap unless the tank meets strict standards or protective valves are installed.”

“Having the choice of either hot or cold for washing hands is an incentive to get it over and done with and not waste water.”

“Because we find 2 taps more aesthetically pleasing as well as being able to wash your hands and brush your teeth at the same time.”

“As far as double-taps go, it is the best way to deal with zombies.”

“I’m British and some houses in our street have an indoor toilet. Though we don’t speak to them as they think they are better than the rest of us.”

Now, I’m not going to comment on all of these, but I must refute the bit about banging your head. Consider Exhibit G:

If you look closely in the upper right corner you see the bottom edge of a drinking class—what the Brits call a “toothbrush holder”—and if I’d framed the photo a little differently you’d also see a glass shelf. I bashed my head into that shelf multiple times. The shelf was a real danger, as it was clear and at head level. But hitting your head on a tap? Please. (I mean, have you ever done it?)

As for washing your hands and brushing your teeth at the same time, I don’t see how this would be done, nor how double-taps would facilitate it. Perhaps it’s as facetious as the zombie explanation.

Which brings us to the “red tape” business. I’m not buying it—I mean, this isn’t the Dark Ages. How many homes and buildings still have the hot water tank up in the attic? And how hard would it be to rat-proof the tank? It’s not like you ever hear about the unregulated American water supply being fouled in this way. Besides, the UK regulation clearly does not apply anymore because there are single-tap warm water faucets to be found there.

USA #1 Let’s Roll … right?

Are we to conclude that, as evidenced by our single-tap (aka “mixer-tap”) faucets, the US is just better than the UK? Of course not. We fall short in so many ways. Most of our cities don’t have a decent subway, and the Bay Area one I use is way louder than that of London. Amtrak, though very cool, is a cruel joke compared to the train systems in the UK which are cheaper, quieter, more reliable, and have far greater reach. For retail purchases, America still hasn’t adopted the chip card (more secure than our old-fashioned magstripe cards). Meanwhile, our broadband Internet access is both slower and more expensive than what Europe and the UK have, even though we fricking invented the Internet.

Even around here, when you call a taxi, it can take forever to arrive, or it won’t come at all. Getting a cab in Glasgow was an amazing experience. I dialed the number, and a computer system read my caller-ID digits, looked up my address, and instantly announced that a cab would arrive in x minutes, or I could press 1 for more options. About a minute later the phone rang and the computer voice said, “Your cab is here.” (Actually it probably had some charmingly quaint name for “cab.” In fact, I seem to recall that the computer voice had a charming Scottish brogue.)

Evil faucet – American edition

Of course it would be irresponsible to discuss the inconvenient double-taps of the UK without admitting that we have some pretty awful faucets in the U.S. Consider our modern public restroom with all its little electric eyes for the faucet, the toilet, the paper towel dispenser, even liquid soap dispensers. These might be okay if they actually worked right, but so often they don’t. My hands, which aren’t exactly small, somehow miss the faucet sensor. Or the water comes on for a second and then cuts out, and I’m doing a little hand jive down there trying to get more. Or I’ll walk by the paper towel dispenser on the way to the urinal, and it’ll spew out unwanted paper. At the urinal, I’ll shift my position and it’ll flush while I’m still peeing. Worse yet is the toilet in the stall: once I’ve carefully arranged the little paper doughnut on the seat and then turned around to sit, it thinks I’ve left and flushes, taking my paper doughnut with it.

And what I just described is the Brave New World of automated restroom fixtures. What preceded these (and are still found in older restrooms) were really awful. Think of those spring-loaded restroom faucet handles, where the flow would stop if you let go. This meant you had to wash one hand while holding the faucet handle with the other. Washing just one hand was pretty much impossible—“one hand washes the other” being more than a figure of speech—plus you had to choose between cold and hot water unless your hand was big enough to span both handles.

When you stop to think about it, the public restroom sink reflects how the owner of the restroom views his society. In the UK, the assumption seems to be that the restroom user either a) enjoys the methodical process of mixing warm water in the basin to wash with; b) is okay washing with only cold water; or, c) doesn’t mind the scald-and-relieve cycle, being a stoic Brit with a talent for resignation. In the US, it is apparently assumed that the restroom user can’t be bothered to turn off the damn water, and would blithely walk away while it was still running, wasting untold gallons.

Consumer demand

Of course we Americans have never suffered spring-loaded faucet handles in our homes, and throughout my life I’ve enjoyed mixer-taps (with the one exception of a really cool old apartment in Rockridge, which also had radiators instead of forced-air heating). I’ve already replaced both of the older mixer-tap faucets in my house (with new mixer-taps): the kitchen one because it was a piece of crap, and the bathroom one because it wouldn’t stop dripping. I hired a plumber to fix the bathroom sink, and he told me that the thing was obsolete, and the $0.04 washer we needed was no longer available, and we had to get a whole new faucet assembly. Worse yet, our sink (which looked no more than ten or fifteen years old) was outmoded and wouldn’t accept the new faucet, so I had to replace it, too. By the end of the ordeal I was out over a grand.

Did I mind? No way, man, I’m an American consumer! This is what I do! As everybody knows, we Americans are well steeped in the tradition of keeping up with the Joneses (actually, surpassing them) by buying the latest and greatest of everything. Planned obsolescence is not only tolerable, it’s something we’re complicit in. Not only do we want that new thing, we want to be the first to have it. Think of the people who lined up to get the iPhone, and before that the people who lined up to buy Windows 95.

I don’t get the impression that the British are like this. Recall that double-tap explanation I quoted earlier: “I’m British and some houses in our street have an indoor toilet. Though we don’t speak to them as they think they are better than the rest of us.” Of course it’s a joke, but I think there’s something to it. Solidarity seems to still have a place in the UK, in contrast to the American spirit of outdoing your fellow man whenever possible.

Can we learn from the British?

Look, I’m not going to say we should all try to be British. A lot of their self-imposed consumer restraint is fricking lame—like not having a microwave oven or a dishwasher or a clothes dryer. I went for years without a dishwasher and it didn’t make me a better person. And of course for an American to special-order an English-style double-tap sink would be an absurd affectation. (Meanwhile, washing your hands with cold water, as the double-tap arrangement tends to involve, is non-hygienic according to this article and this one.)

But there’s something to be said for the Brits’ “don’t-gimmick-me” approach. I’ve seen some really pointless innovations in the US: the electric can opener; oval-shaped chainrings for bikes; the motorized necktie rack; and most recently the Rabbit instant wine bottle opener. Why do we need to open a bottle of wine in three seconds flat? If we’re in such a rush, why not go all the way and swap out the cork for a spigot? (Oh, wait, we’ve done that, too.) And as if the original Rabbit weren’t bad enough, we now have the electronic Rabbit with an illuminated LCD screen showing how many cork pulls are left before the battery is dead. God forbid we should have the thing conk out unexpectedly, and have to open a bottle using a hand-powered corkscrew.

But wait, you might say, why should I hold people’s stupid gadgets against them? Isn’t that their business? No, because once the consumer gets used to being overly coddled, he gives up the old ways, and the market follows his lead, depriving people like me of traditional products. Too often, aesthetics suffer for it, as mere utility trumps all. For example, the modern ketchup bottle: just look at it, compared to its vastly superior ancestor:

It’s almost as though the plastic bottle is designed to reflect the stout physique of the modern American. Instead of having to master the subtle air-bubble-sliding technique, the consumer can now force the ketchup out as fast as he wants to speed along his feeding frenzy. The squeeze bottle even makes a fitting flatulent sound as it spews. Revolting. And yet the plastic bottle has become so popular it is now the norm, and you can’t even find a proper glass bottle in the supermarket anymore. Until recently, I had to talk waitresses into selling them to me. But guess what? It turns out you can still get the traditional glass bottle of Heinz ketchup in the supermarket—but only in the UK.

dana albert blog

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Spotting Bad Restaurants


I fear for the one-off, family run restaurants in this era of Yelp, smartphones, and 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