Random thoughts, musings, observations, & commentary on life
An Ode to Salad Dressing, Cute Waitresses, & Cheesecake
I am a bachelor, so I eat out a lot…probably too much. And while I have given up fast food for Lent I am still allowing myself to partake of a decent sit down meal on occasion. I did just that a couple weeks ago, deciding to enjoy March Madness while also munching on some tasty wings. My initial plan was to head to one of the large chain places that I will not provide with free advertising, but I changed course and ended up at a local place that is fairly new and that I had not tried yet. In the process of eating and such I began to reflect on what I consider important when passing judgment on an eatery. Legendary actor Burt Lancaster once said “I judge a restaurant by the bread and by the coffee”. I am not really all that particular about those two things, but I do have my own metrics.
Obviously atmosphere is important. A place doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be clean. Just because hot dogs and sandwiches are the anchors of the menu does not give an establishment an excuse to be dirty or creepy in any way, although a fancy Italian restaurant will logically be viewed through a different prism than a pizza place.
I almost always drink iced tea at a sit down restaurant. As silly as it sounds iced tea can be done right or wrong. It is rare that I get tea bad enough to color my whole experience negatively, but it is possible. Also, refills are a key issue. Don’t fill my glass up if it is still 2/3 full, but do not leave me sitting there on empty for too long. I also like lots of ice. And does the wait staff have to take my glass back to the kitchen to fill it, or do they bring a pitcher to the table?? Not a dealbreaker at all, but it is something I notice.
The next thing I look at are the menus. I used to work at a print shop and did a little graphic design, so I know cheap from decent. A menu need not be extravagantly produced, but it is a small thing that can have an effect on one’s impression. And there better not be misspellings. That is completely unacceptable and unprofessional.
Chances are at a nice restaurant salad will be served preceding the meal. I am not a fan of fancy salads with various kinds of greens, even though I know they are healthier than good old iceberg lettuce. Your mileage may vary. But regardless of what one’s preference may be, the more important issue is the dressing. There are a myriad of issues here. First, there had better be a good selection. High end places will usually have some sort of vinaigrette…maybe even a few variations. That’s fine. I don’t particularly care for that sort of thing though, and Italian, French, Ranch, and Bleu Cheese are the staples in most restaurants I frequent anyway. Bonus points if Thousand Island, Creamy Italian, or other less common choices are available. How is the dressing served?? Is it already on the salad when I get it, and if so is there enough of it?? Serving the dressing on the side in one of those round plastic containers with a lid is acceptable, especially if it is in a sports bar or any other low key restaurant that is on a level above fast food but can’t really be thought of as fancy. What I do not like…at all…is having my dressing given to me in a packet that I could have purchased myself at the grocery store. That is just cheap, even for a small Mom & Pop establishment. Also, please let me finish my salad before you bring my meal out. Obviously no one wants to wait an unreasonable amount of time for their food, but on the other hand don’t rush me.
It goes without saying that the quality of service and the yumminess of the food are the most important factors when assessing the value of a restaurant. Wendy’s owner Dave Thomas stated “It all comes back to the basics. Serve customers the best-tasting food at a good value in a clean, comfortable restaurant, and they’ll keep coming back.” However, both things are important. If the food is delicious but the service is horrible I will hesitate to return, and conversely if the service is excellent but the food is wretched my return is unlikely unless I hear some changes have been made in the kitchen. I like waiters/waitresses that are friendly without being obnoxiously chipper. And being a bachelor means that a lovely waitress who bats her eyes, smiles, and maybe flirts a bit will make my return…sooner rather than later…a reasonably safe bet.
Last but not least comes dessert. It always surprises me when I eat at a fairly nice restaurant, finish my meal, and am presented with the check without even being asked if I’d like dessert. I am not suggesting a hard upsell by the wait staff…don’t try to convince me to have dessert. But for pete’s sake atleast ask if I am interested. If/when I am asked there is a better than 50/50 chance I will partake because that’s just how I roll (and probably why I need to shed some poundage). Now the mark of a really upscale place is a dessert cart. I love those. But they seem to be rare. Most of the time the desserts will be on the menu, and the vast majority of the time…especially if it is my first time eating at a particular restaurant…I will test drive the cheesecake. I am a major chocoholic, but I can satisfy that craving with a candy bar out of the vending machine or with any one of a number of ice cream flavors. Cheesecake is special. It is the quintessential restaurant experience and can really tip the scales from mediocre/decent to “that was awesome”. I analyze cheesecake like a grocery shopper buys a melon. There is a level of firmness that I look for which tells me if the cheesecake was made from scratch or if it came out of a box. Trust me…if it’s a $5 Jello No Bake box special I can tell in a heartbeat. If one wants to buy that sort of thing to take to a picnic or a covered dish at church that’s fine, but if I am in a restaurant and probably paying around $5 for one piece I do not think it is unreasonable to expect something better. Plain or with topping?? Ehhh…it depends on my mood. But I like having the option. I’ll usually go for blueberry if it is available. A sports bar I used to eat at frequently would put chocolate sauce on cheesecake if requested, but strangely enough I did not really like it. Chocolate cheesecake…big thumbs up. Regular cheesecake with chocolate topping…not so much. Odd.
At the end of the day it really is about the food first, and then the service. But there are little things that make a difference. What those things are likely varies wildly from person to person, and can be molded & shaped depending on the type of restaurant one is eating at on a particular day. But once one finds a combination of factors that are pleasing then it is likely that establishment has found a lifelong patron, because as director Federico Fellini once said “It is easier to be faithful to a restaurant than it is to a woman”.