Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday "in the middle of a chain reaction..."

The weekend brought news that Olive Garden cooks don't put salt in the water when cooking pasta. Trivial and inconsequential as that is, it offered a break from other available news diets: ISIS, Ukraine, miscellaneous sporting "celebs" who delight in giving their wives a good slapping around - or worse.

We don't eat out a lot, other than when away from home on one of our trippy explorations. Eating out then becomes part of the adventure. To those who've lived their lives in the USA, chain restaurants may seem, from what I read online, to be an anathema. To me, relatively new to the USA's version of "cuisine", American chain restaurants were, and still are, an interesting concept waiting to be explored.

I'm no foodie. I cannot be doing with effete and elitist crap on any front, including would-be food critics' ideas on "cuisine". I suspect that a good percentage of the derision aimed at US chain restaurants boils down to pure snobbery.

It all depends on whether one eats to live or lives to eat, I guess.

My main complaint about chain restaurants in the USA is the way they treat their staff. Ridiculously low pay rates, poor if any health insurance, leaving servers to rely on customers' tips. Yet, if we were to boycott chains, more people would lose their jobs. Catch 22 .... or something like it.

I grew up, as did most of my contemporaries in England, eating good plain home-cooked food. Typically English food is also a target of derision by effete and elite foodies. But that's another story.

Of the USA's major chain restaurants so far explored, my personal favourite is Cracker Barrel - spoiled only by a recent comment indicating that the chain is frequented mainly by Republican-loving folk. Much the same applies to country music - which used to be my favourite musical genre until sullied by a similar connection to Republicanism. Still though, Cracker Barrel's Haddock Dinner with home-style fries and some sides is the best fish dish, beautifully cooked, even if from frozen as it must be, that I've tasted since living in the USA.

Applebee's. Their menu these days isn't as good as it used to be a few years ago. A favourite Bruschetta Salad has disappeared, and their fish and chips leave much to be desired. Chili's is like Applepbee's younger sister. It's nice to be able to have a glass of beer or wine with a meal in these venues.

Olive Garden has never been a favorite of ours. In fact, I have never had a really good Italian meal since I arrived in the USA. I put this down to the fact that we've lived and travelled mainly in the mid-section of this vast land, and mostly outside of huge metropolises. Proper ingredients for Italian cuisine just are not available in these parts of the country, or if they were to be ordered in from Italy, would put meal prices through the roof. So what we get, at chains like Olive Garden, or privately-owned Italian-style restaurants, is "pretend" Italian food, of varying quality.

Mexican restaurants, whether chain or privately owned are likely to have similar, though less severe, problems to Italian restaurants. I've never been to Mexico so have nothing to compare Mexican food in mid-America, with food in Mexico. From what I can gather from others, there's a vast difference. I find most Tex-Mex a bit bland, but very occasionally have struck unexpectedly lucky in small, privately owned cafes.

Of the steakhouse or barbecue chains I've had little experience. We frequent these only when no alternative exists (quite often in small Texas towns). I'm not a meat eater by choice but not strict vegetarian; husband's not a steak enthusiast either, so if alternatives exist, then we go for them.

IHOP - I like IHOP, but this year their menu has gone through subtle changes. A favourite item - crepes filled with scrummy soft custardy stuff, then covered in fruit, has disappeared, with a much less delish alternative in its place. I think IHOP merged, or were taken over not long ago. This doesn't bode well! They're not as good as they were, but still quite acceptable.

Buffet type chains such as Golden Corral can be good or poor depending on the franchise holder. I find their salads sections most inviting. I think this style of restaurant will soon be a thing of the past, the branch in our town closed a couple of years ago, and another buffet-style restaurant closed in Lawton a year or so before that. I can imagine the reasons. To be profitable there'd have to be a constant stream of customers, otherwise waste involved would be huge. With so many other choices in most towns these days, customer volume would be bound to decline.

In our general area, within 50 or so miles, we're limited to Applebee's, Chili's, IHOP, Olive Garden, Red Lobster (been there only once - didn't enjoy), and Golden Corral. I know there are other chains out there, such as Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Fridays, Spaghetti Barn, and others, where we might, over the years, have sampled a single meal, but no lasting impression remains.

All in all, though most big chain restaurants don't inspire enthusiastic "ooohs" and "aahhs" when dishes are tasted, the establishments and their restrooms are always reliably clean, service is usually decent, and food good to acceptable - for the price - and that is no small consideration. So...what's to deride about chain restaurants, unless one hopes to appear as one of those insufferably sniffy food critics?

PS: The song in the post heading? Here it is: Chain Reaction, sung by Diana Ross backed by the Bee Gees, who wrote it.


Jefferson's Guardian said...

Twilight, I couldn't agree more with your synopsis of chain-restaurants. Personally, I avoid them unless absolutely necessary.

It's interesting that you wrote about this topic. Just yesterday I was commenting to an acquaintance that I rarely dine out anymore. It seems that any time I do, beyond just two or three local restaurants, I'm mostly disappointed.

mike said...

Olive Garden's attack by its shareholders aimed at reducing costs is one of my peeves. So many people have stock in companies directly or through their retirement assets, ie most Americans own corporate stocks, know it or not. We love it when our holdings increase in worth without considering what that means. A friend was complaining about the corporations that he felt were screwing him over and I suggested he take a look at his 401K...sure enough, he indirectly held stocks in several of those same corporations that disgruntled him...this was the same 401K that he was so happy with, as its value had doubled over the past several years.

I very rarely dine outside of my home. I simply can't afford the expense. I keep each of my meals under $1 and I've been doing that for a number of years it can be done.

I've had a number of friends over the years that have worked in restaurants and most will not eat in them! Too dirty. One of my last meals eating out, I watched a waitress polish the flatware by breathing on them, then polishing with a cloth...ewwwww. I guess there isn't much difference when it comes to touching doorknobs, money, or any common-use items. I always enjoy it when someone licks the end of their finger to separate receipts or paper dollars (NOT!). What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Better to be inoculated before the bugs mutate...LOL.

I've never had much desire to dine out in the old days, but when I did, I invariably chose the mom-and-pop outfits. I was rarely disappointed and quite often I was very impressed with outstanding cuisine. My years in Boston really stand-out for fine food, as the area had a diversity of ethnicity and tremendous competition for customers.

Twilight said...

Jefferson's Guardian ~ I think I've stopped being disappointed on eating out - I'm just happy to get away without adverse effects.

Off the top of my head I recall during my time in the US being afflicted with:
some kind of allergy to an unknown spicy ingredient, my tongue erupting in sores. This on at least two occasions, once in Santa Fe, once after eating in a tiny Taiwanese restaurant somewhere in Texas.
The former resulted in a visit to an Emergency Room!

Then there's the rush to the loo an hour or so afterwards, or a sickly feeling in the tum for hours.

I suffer less from adverse effects if having eaten in one of the chain restaurants mentioned above, which does tend to endear them to me more.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Ah yes the 401K - something I'd never heard of before arriving on these shores. Still don't quite "get it".

The pitfalls you mention on the hygiene front are more likely to be encountered in small private establishments; I've found this to be so anyway. But they are a definite put-off. Also, watching episodes of TV's "Restaurant Impossible" and seeing the filth in some kitchens of privately-owned (and failing) restaurants and diners was pretty scary!

We try both chain and private-owned, depending on what's available in any given location, but on balance I've found that I usually feel safer in chain establishments, on our budget anyway.

LB said...

Twilight ~ Generally speaking, most chain restaurants rub me the wrong way, though we still do Chipotle on occasion - not as often since we learned they weren't living up to all the hype. Only some of what they serve is organic and GMO-free - at least consumers can visit their website to investigate for themselves.

Right now, my favorite restaurant is one that serves organic (GMO-free), ethically-produced food *and* that appears to pay a descent living wage and treat its employees fairly. Their coffee, teas and chocolate are all fairly-traded, which I appreciate, and they try to buy as locally as possible. We're blessed here in California!

I also love that I can (and do) walk there. Having access to places like this is something I don't take for granted since I know choices are limited in other parts of the country.

Twilight said...

LB ~ You are indeed blessed in California~ :-) We'd starve in OK if we insisted on criteria such as you describe, or were strict vegetarian or vegan and and relied on eating out often...not that anybody but travellers do rely on eating out, and even travellers can visit a supermarket and buy sandwiches or meals to microwave in their motel room; we've done this on several occasions.

I do wish there were more "soup and salad" places around our area. I always enjoy visiting those whenever we've come across one. Nearest I know of is in Oklahoma city - at least 90 minutes away, more in traffic.

LB said...

Twilight ~ Even *if* we could afford to get away, food concerns make traveling far less desirable than it once was. Ignorance was bliss.:)

This afternoon, my husband and I were talking with a small business owner about how life as we once knew it is changing - and not for the better. With skyrocketing rents in our neck of the woods (and consumers wanting more for less), more and more smaller restaurants and other businesses are closing.:(

Twilight said...

LB ~ Small businesses have all but disappeared around here too. Hairdressers and antique stores are some of the only privately owned businesses to be found in most towns and cities.

I don't know what it was like in the US, but in the market town where I grew up in England there were several grocers, green grocers, bakers (my parents' ran one of these) printers, newsagents, paint & decorators, hardware store, candy stores, a leather work store, clothing stores and shoe stores, fish and chip shops and a couple of small cafes. Every one privately owned. Only company owned stores were Woolworths's and one electrical appliance store. I think things will have changed there too.

LB said...

Where we live it seems a lot of the older smaller businesses are being supplanted by privately owned businesses with more money - either because landlords are opportunistically demanding much higher rents when leases are up or because the internet has taken away walk-in business.

The small business my husband managed for many years finally had to close for similar reasons. In the end, they couldn't compete with the cheaper, poor-quality goods being sold on the internet.

Twilight said...

LB ~ Another item on the "con" side of the internet then. There are pros, attached to internet shopping, especially for those living in rural or semi-rural areas (incl. me) - but inevitably these come with cons attached.

anyjazz said...

We have noticed in our travels over the past decade the growing scarcity of "home-owned" or local restaurants. And although there seem to be more "chain" types, serving everything at all hours, in quantities that are sometimes opulent, the quality of the food has declined noticeably.

The corporations, after running the small shops out of business, allow their products to decline in quality, in effort to increase their bottom line. Their employees are given less in wages and benefits so service declines too.

When the FDA or the Health Department start grumbling about some level of non-compliance, the corporations call upon their stable of senators and representatives to just change the rules, lower the standards.

I'll quote Tennessee Ernie Ford again here: "St. Peter don't ya call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store."

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~ Yes, agreed, that must be what has happened and is still happening.

I've just looked up IHOP history. It's owned by DineEquityInc. who also own Applebees now.

Odd that I've noticed definite changes in the menus of both chains in the last couple of years. They must be having a purge on items with the least profit involved (and as it happens 2 of my favourite items) - that, or it's our old friend "The C.... Syndrome" at it again. ;-)