I’ve been in Fairfield County for 20 years now, long enough to come up with some general observations about the area’s most popular pastime: dining. Dinner parties seem to be “out.” We’re all going to restaurants now, and boy, has the scene changed since the days when every restaurant had bottles of ketchup on the table.
The quality of the food has improved over the last 20 years. Kitchens are turning out more innovative, carefully prepared and interesting dishes than ever before. But what are restaurateurs doing to respect the chef?
The advent of flat-screen TVs has only opened the way for restaurants to fill their walls with more TVs. My eye can’t help but drift up to the television if it’s in my line of sight. Even if it’s a football game that I couldn’t care less about, the broadcast competes for attention with my dining companion. I know myself I’ve lost out in a battle for eye contact when a Jets game is visible over my shoulder.
On a recent Saturday night, Paul and I celebrated a personal milestone (20 years!) at a restaurant that you and I had once praised effusively in Shared Dish. But the side rooms where we were seated the first time were now closed off. All there was was the main dining room, which was dominated by a large bar, several TVs broadcasting varying sports events, and the thump-thump-thump of dance music.
The owners had made a big fat deal about their pristine ingredients, the care with which they prepared their meals, and were quite serious about wine pairings. Once inside, though, I couldn’t seriously order an expensive bottle of wine in a place that blurred restaurant and rowdy night club. A few other patrons, some wearing jeans, sweat shirts and work boots, were shouting and whooping it up with impunity. The whole thing got on my last nerve. The food was good, but it didn’t go down very easily.
If the restaurant did more to telegraph their ernest intention to be taken seriously, maybe more patrons would.
Do parents even teach their kids how to behave in a restaurant any more? When I was 3, my folks decided it was time to test the waters, and they took me to the Tuckahoe Inn. I still remember it vividly. I escaped the table and decided to explore the underside of our neighboring tables. I would approach the other diners and, without provocation, recite my full name and address to the other diners, because I was so proud to have just memorized it. It was cute, I guess, my Mom and Dad didn’t take me out to another restaurant until I was 35.
The people working the floor have a challenge making sure all the guests play nicely together. Turning off ESPN and selecting music I can’t dance to might help.
The restaurant had other problems that we see in many restaurants. Clumsy lighting, for one. Why would halogen spotlights shine down on one side of a table while the opposite side is barely lit. It’s unflattering and irritating on the eyes.
Why would they build benches or buy chairs that are too low for the tables? I’m often finding myself hunching up my shoulders just to slice into my food. One time, the base of the table was so hulking, there was no room for my feet.
At this point, let me double back to the food. There are very few restaurants that I could call consistent. I regret raving about some of the dishes we’ve eaten because I’ve returned later to find home-made dressing is now apparently from the bottle, or a succulent pulled pork is now dry and lacking flavor. There was a restaurant downtown that recently closed. It was a perfect example of a place that could turn out excellent entrees on Thursday, but maybe not on Friday. I’d see the chef in the bar, hanging out with customers, leaving me to suspect the dishwasher was overcooking my pasta or torturing my steak.
Only the detail-oriented restaurant owners are going to earn my business.