As many of our readers know, I grew up in Queens. I lived with my Mom and my Aunt. I went to high school in Manhattan with a 40-75 minute commute, depending on delays, by subway. Basically nobody in our house got home in the evenings until 5pm and often times much later. We ate a lot of take-out and went out to restaurants on a regular basis. Given our schedules it was faster and easier than visiting the supermarket and then coming home and cooking dinner. The few weeknight meals that we actually cooked at home were usually broiled steak or chops with salad, or pasta with rock lobster sauce from a can. I used to love that Rock Lobster sauce. All of the ingredients were easily and quickly put together. These meals were usually made on nights when someone needed to go to the supermarket to pick up pet food. Making a special trip to the market for cooking ingredients only happened on the weekends when someone actually had time to spend in the kitchen.
At that time, our household was not the norm. It was the beginning of the age of divorced parents and many of my friends still had stay at home moms who cooked dinner every night. In elementary school in Forest Hills, a packed lunch from home was more common than my deli bag or Blimpie sandwich. Most kids thought that their Moms were great cooks and meals out were mostly weekend events or special occasions. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be that if the food at home was good, then there was no reason to go out for your meals. By high school though, we all picked up bagels, coffee, and egg sandwiches at the deli for breakfast, had the lunch special at the Chinese restaurant or a dog from the cart or burgers at the diner for lunch, and then hung out at the local pizza place after school. Dining out had already become a way of socializing, ingrained in our young psyches.
Fast forward to recent times and eating out has become commonplace nationwide. The city life of constantly visiting restaurants, picking up take-out on the way home or ordering in delivery food has become the norm. Old school dinner parties have faded with the younger generations. Everyone tends to meet in bars and restaurants to interact. Entire industries have developed around fast food and there are countless places emulating old school "comfort food". Comfort food is being defined as the food we used to get at home, the food that no one had time cook anymore. We used to go to restaurant to celebrate a special occasion or to get the kind of food that we couldn't make at home. Now people go to restaurants simply to be fed.
The result of this increased pool of diners eating out is the proliferation of mediocre restaurants. Because so few people can or want to cook at home, restaurants are able to get by on menu descriptions and the idea of good food. Commercials and advertisements depict happy families and savory looking pastas at the Olive Garden , strong fishermen and delectable seafood at Red Lobster, and young hipsters and aging frat boys chowing down on gooey pizzas at Pizza Hut. Clearly the advertisers have never set foot into any of these chains or they would know that the food and the patrons look and feel vastly different in the real world. But the continued success of these kinds of establishments makes it clear that it's not necessarily about reality. These places are selling an ideal. Even those of us who pride ourselves on visiting the independent restaurants are often sacrificing taste for that "Cheers feeling" of being known at a neighborhood joint where the food is usually pretty good, there are signature dishes that you order most of the time, and the owner or host knows you by name. It's often only at places where the service is cold or you're just passing through for special occasion that the food is greeted with a critical eye. At our favorite places, the occasional (or daily) culinary flops and missteps pass largely ignored because you're in your comfort zone. Almost anything is forgiven and good enough is still a better deal than employing the effort entailed in cooking for yourself at home.
On the bright side, the rapidly increasing number of surprisingly expensive and dreary restaurants has actually led to an increase in the number of people cooking at home. The social aspects of the blogosphere has also led to renewed interest in home cooking. Faced with the option of spending $20-$40+/per person in a mid-level restaurant for dinner, many people would rather spend $8.00 on the occasional great sandwich or decent Chinese takeout and buy better ingredients to cook with at home. There are few restaurants that present better food than the average home cook. What they do offer is the camaraderie of others and table service. The lure of having someone else cook and clean up is a siren call to each of us at one time or another.
We professional cooks tend to be the first ones suckered in. On our days off we want to go out to eat. We want to experience other people's food, be exposed to new ideas, and we want to not wash any dishes. We may think we want to cook our own food on a day off, but the caveat is that there must be someone to cook for (preferably someone who will appreciate our efforts). Otherwise we usually convince ourselves that it would be more beneficial for our education to go out to eat. We have to stay abreast of the trends and see what other cooks are doing. Besides, a line cook is usually exhausted by the time their day off rolls around. Their job is physical and stressful and they need to recharge. What better way to do that then to let someone else do the cooking?
Since our goal is usually to see and taste as much as possible, our bills tend to be on the more expensive side, even at seemingly casual restaurants. There have been a few restaurants where we felt the money was well spent. I never mind paying for quality. But as prices creep inexorably higher that feeling of contentment is much harder to experience. These days the price to satisfaction ratio is hardly ever in our favor.
What I find baffling about this is the amazing number of truly passionate cooks that I've encountered over the years. People love what they do, are fascinated by food and are inspired to create great things. So why aren't there more great restaurants? We know there are plenty of diners out there who want great food. The popularity of websites like eGullet and Mouthfuls, the Food Network and the ever-increasing number of food blogs prove that the demand exists. Who will be able to step up and fill that demand?
My prediction is that the proliferation of small restaurants is the beginning of the new wave rising up to fill the demand. You will see them increasing in number and becoming better restaurants in general and more individual expressions of their creators overall. Smaller restaurants allow for more creativity because there are fewer investors, smaller staffs and less seats to fill. Rents are less expensive, utilities and overhead are also proportional to size and the combination of these factors allow the proprietors the flexibility to express unique styles of food and service and to take risks in a way that is not possible in a larger place. The younger generations coming of age right now are more entrepreneurial than in the past. They are looking for ways to work for themselves and tend to value quality of life over career aspirations. It's an interesting shift and one that I agree with whole-heartedly. I think that we should be able to create wonderful, exciting restaurants and still be able too ensure an enjoyable quality of life for ourselves and for our staff. The days when aspiring line cooks stoically worked 15 hours a day, six days a week, for a pittance are coming to an end. It's the dawn of a new era and we need to make some serious changes to bring our industry into modern times. We can start small and dream large.