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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Your Table Is Ready" Part I

© 2013 Chris Terrell
Restaurants have been around for a long time. (Some educated folks believe they arose in China during the T’ang Dynasty, 618-907 AD.) Restaurants cover the spectrum: from whole-in-the-wall burger joints to gastronomic versions of Mt. Olympus. Why do we go to restaurants? Again, the reasons are as varied as there are restaurants. Perhaps it is to celebrate a promotion at work; a birthday; an anniversary; closing of a business deal: or just plain laziness—you just can’t pull it together to make meatloaf for the kids. Which restaurant we choose varies as well. A restaurant like Per Se or Le Bernadin would be great for a special occasion, but you would not want to eat there every day even if you could afford it. Time and place matter too. Sometimes the best meal is a conch fritter on the beach in Key West, with a special companion watching the sun set over the Gulf. 

For you see, eating is a social endeavor. And that may be the primary reason we go to restaurants. One of my kids is not much of a foodie, a somewhat distressing circumstance considering I am one who likes to eat and cook and write about eating and cooking. He is simply not very adventuresome and very picky. 

What is interesting, however, is that he loves—simply loves— going out to restaurants. And one day, it finally dawned on me: he likes the excitement; the people bustling about; the music playing; and the menu with all its choices (even if he’ll order the chicken fingers for the 145th time). But he’s also on to something. Eating, and eating in restaurants, is a fundamentally social affair for one of our planet’s most social of animals. And for this reason no one really likes to dine alone. (Though there are times I really kind of enjoy it.)

Yet in our age of celebrity chefs, with cooking as sport and dining that is increasingly didactic, a lot of people may be losing sight of why we eat out. It seems like a lot of people have this sense that they must go to the latest “it” restaurant by the latest “it” chef. I admit that I’ve been guilty of this too. In going back to the question I asked above, maybe I should have asked, “how do we pick the restaurants we do?” I think it depends on the circumstances; why are we going out to eat in the first place?; and, more importantly, who do we want to share a meal with?  I really got to thinking about this recently in planning a trip to New York at the first of the year.

I love New York. It is one of my favorite cities in the world (Paris being the other one). When I go to New York, there are really only three things on the itinerary: museums, shows, and restaurants. The first two are pretty easy. The last one is hard as hell for a lot of reasons. The most obvious being that New York has just shy of a gazillion restaurants. The other is that getting a good table, at a good restaurant, at a good time on a Saturday night is about as easy as getting a private audience with the Pope.

And when it comes to trips, and New York trips in particular, I approach with them Teutonic zeal. Every detail is considered. I even plan for spontaneity! And so with a trip to New York, in which going out to dinner will be center stage, I employ what I call the “method” when picking restaurants. Of course, I start with asking friends and family for recommendations, but usually that source gets tapped out pretty quickly. After that, I have several factors I employ when picking a restaurant in New York. Here they are:

1. The Menu. This is the first thing I look at. I always read the menu of a restaurant before I visit. One thing I like to see is a menu that is unified. I don’t want something that looks like Wikipedia. Have you seen the menu at your neighborhood Cheesecake Factory?! That thing is 15 pages long and has every thing from spaghetti to peanut-bourbon-glazed blackened flank steak! (And what the hell is that anyway?!)

2. Location. Where is the restaurant? If I’m staying in Midtown, which is typically where the best hotels are located, I may get tired of eating in the same Midtown restaurants. Maybe I’m feeling adventuresome, so I’ll go to Korea Town or the Village. Maybe I’m feeling trendy and hip, so I’ll hit Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Or, if I’m going to the theater district, then obviously I want a restaurant in the Theater District.

3. Cuisine. French bistro? Italian? Molecular Gastronomy? Gastropub? Seafood? Hot dog stand? Depends on my mood....and the time of day.

4. Price Point. For me, this too has a lot to do with my mood, because reasonably priced food and “laid back” are directly proportional to each other. I mean really? Who wants to kick back and wear jeans and a t-shirt and then pay $50 for a hamburger? (Even in New York!)

5. Atmosphere. I actually pay attention to this, believe it or not. Is the restaurant formal or kitschy? Is is sleek and modern or rustic? Again, goes back to mood.

6. The Chef. Ok, I know this contradicts what I said above, but I do pay attention to who the chef is....or isn’t. 

7. Reviews. I do look at reviews, even online ones from Urban Spoon or Yelp. Believe it or not, there is wisdom in crowds. When it comes to New York restaurants, The New York Times is hard to beat.

So, based on these factors, what New York restaurants did I pick and why? Patience dear reader. I will tell you when I get back, and I’ll tell you then if they held up to my expectations. In the meantime, I will leave you with a great quote about chefs and restaurants:

There is really no such thing as an original recipe…But cooks must feed their egos as well as their customers.” M.F.K. Fisher to Julia Child, October 4, 1968.

Tune in next month…

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