Three recent experiences in locally owned restaurants reinforce my theory that chain eateries have more going for them than they are often given credit for.
I am reminded of the review Marilyn Haggerty, a newspaper friend in Fargo, N.D., wrote about her visit to the Olive Garden in the Grand Forks Herald. She felt it was her responsibility to tell her readers about dinner at the new restaurant in town, but within hours after her column was published she and the newspaper received hundreds of emails criticizing her for having the audacity to write about a chain restaurant.
Much to her surprise, bloggers saw her report and it went viral. Marilyn became an overnight celebrity who has appeared on New York TV shows and has written a book published by Anthony Bourdain. Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews draws on her 30 years of reviewing restaurants. In the foreword, Mr. Bourdain defines her style of reviews as an “antidote to snark” and praises them as “a sincere, genuine reportage of food people don’t really see or talk about.”
There seems to be an unwritten rule among major city food writers to pretend the hundreds of chain restaurants that punctuate the American landscape don’t count even though crowded parking lots tell a different story.
We pretty much know what to expect from the chains because the menus have been developed, tested, and fine-tuned at the national headquarters for use throughout the system. What we like at a chain restaurant in Toledo we can expect to order at the same one far from home with consistent quality.
If the three disappointing meals at locally owned restaurants had been hit-and-miss over a period of time, I probably wouldn’t have been so disgusted. But two were lunch and dinner the same day and the third was the next day.
Three men were my guests at the first lunch experience. Two ordered hamburgers, one chose grilled cheese, and I decided to try the macaroni and cheese. Mac and cheese is no longer relegated to children’s menus, but is often now an adult meatless entrée choice.
After we had waited longer than I thought we should, I asked the waitress when the hamburgers might be served. She explained that because they were ordered medium, it always takes longer. “How much longer?” Her answer, “One, two minutes, how long does it take you to cook a hamburger? This is not a fast food place.”
The mac and cheese was made with spaghetti and not macaroni and was served in a gravy bowl. The cheese in it was a mild white and about a tablespoon of yellow cheese was sprinkled over the top. It was served with an anemic roll that needed more oven time.
After four bites I gave up trying to like the pasta mass, left it and the roll, and paid the $47 check. I also left a nice tip even though my friends were embarrassed by her rudeness.
Dinner that evening in a locally owned café in another city was even more disappointing. My friend ordered whitefish and I decided on pork chops. Each I believe was $7.99 with two sides. That is cheap enough, but money is not always the issue.
After my friend asked me to taste the whitefish I agreed that it was not fully cooked. According to the server it was taken directly from the freezer and tossed into the deep fryer, but obviously not for long enough.
The pork chops had undergone similar mistreatment that resulted in a leather-like chewy texture. The server admitted the frozen chops were thawed in the microwave and then grilled. She added she would never do that at home, but that was what her boss wanted. We left both entrees. I paid the bill and made a sandwich when I got home.
At the third family-owned restaurant I thought surely they can’t mess up spaghetti and meat sauce. Wrong! But that experience had a happy ending.
Enough meat sauce was spooned over the spaghetti for two or more servings, the spaghetti was as soft as canned Franco American, and both were sitting in a puddle of water. The server was exceptionally pleasant and said she loved the work. When she delivered the spaghetti, I had to say, “Wow that’s a lot of sauce for the amount of spaghetti.”
The young man, who is manager and was the cook that day, came to our booth, pulled up a chair, and sat down. He didn’t apologize but wanted to know how he could correct what was wrong because he was a pizza baker and spaghetti was new to him.
We talked about not overcooking the spaghetti, draining it well, not adding water to the sauce when it is reheated, and to balance the amount of sauce with the spaghetti portion.
He thanked me. My respect for his honesty and willingness to change overshadowed any disappointment. I will return to the third place and give the spaghetti another try.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: email@example.com