Sunday, January 09, 2011

Dining in North America

Generalizations are intrinsically inaccurate and always open to criticism. Never the less there are enough similarities in dining styles on this continent for us to think it worth making some broad general comments. Of course many of the ideas apply to other countries but there are characteristics that we will mention, that seem to be more distinct in Nth American restaurants.

We will divide restaurants into six generalized categories. Fine dining, ‘the wanna be ’s, (WB’s) the ordinary unpretentious, the unique, ethnic and the fast food providers. Of course the ultimate division is created by the total package which include the reputation which exerts a subtle influence, the venue and the service, all of which create an ambience and of course the food which is a crucial element.

Nearly all fine dining establishments are in architect designed spaces or converted rooms in former palatial buildings. There are exceptions, like Charlie Trotter’s but more often they exude atmosphere like the Empress dining room at the Fairmont in Victoria. They may be noted for some special character, for example the flower arrangements at La Grenouille or they may just be elegant rooms like per se. They are always $$$$.

The WB’s also look the part and can be gorgeous like the mini Versailles décor at the Palace Athene. They can also depend on a gimmick like Milos, which offers fish caught in Greece this morning and served to you today. They, the fish, lay on a small mountain of ice awaiting the patron’s selection. Price is again a marker, Mostly $$$ or $$$$.

The unpretentious almost all have substantial bars, with TV’s showing sports programmes. They offer bistro or diner style seating and relatively simple décor. They may be decorated with posters or local art for sale and often have attractive views. Prices vary from $ to $$$.

The unique, like Au Pied de Cochon, are distinguished by the food they serve. There is simply nothing else like it. Clientele are usually either tourists or the hip young with disposable income. They can be quite expensive. $$ to $$$

Ethnic restaurants can be extremely sophisticated architect designed spaces, such as Katsyus or Asia da Cuba, all the way down to hole in the wall type venues. At the low end they are very often run by Granma, mum and dad and the kids. Top end, like Nobu, are very sophisticated.

Fast food outlets are often franchised chains. They abound, especially in California. They are fundamentally all the same as there siblings and, like McDonalds much the same in all cities and all countries. It just that there are more of them here. In Manhattan there are deli’s within a few blocks no matter where you are. These are often combined with small supermarkets, called convenience stores. They often offer take away soups and a good variety of hot and cold foods and may be open 24 hours a day. They are inexpensive and food is sold by the size of the container, regardless of what is in it.

In both fine dining and WB’s there are usually too many service staff, who can be in your face although many I’net reviews inform us that they are still quite capable of taking an order and disappearing for 45 minutes, or more. Ethnic and the unpretentious restaurants tend to have well informed and very courteous and efficient servers. Turnover of customers is probably a significant element in their income. The fast food places are virtually self serve.

The better the restaurant the larger the tables but I wouldn’t like to use this as a basis for choosing where to eat.

For degustation meals, commonly offered at top end restaurants, servers often lack the special skills needed to tactfully interrupt conversation for descriptions of dishes. They provide an excess of information such as the names of farms from which ingredients are delivered daily. The last time I asked the waiter was unable to tell me the name of the quail that had delivered the egg I was about to eat! They also sometimes ask after almost every dish as to how was it and did you enjoy that. At Le Bernadine they were shocked when we told them the problems with their first four courses and went out of their way to give us a different experience with special dishes. Another characteristic of these places is the artistry which goes into the presentation of dishes. They can be works of art which would not be out of place in a contemporary art gallery. This largely disappears as you get to the ‘ordinary’ restaurants, and, of course, as you devour the food!!

Ordinary restaurants abound and vary from pretty good to dreadful. They are often theme restaurants like Shelley’s, for seafood, which we loved. More frequently they have a general menu, some French International some modern American and some Italian. They may promote some signature dish which might be as simple as a hamburger. They tend to have very crowded seating, overworked waiters, fairly good Zagat ratings and very variable food. At Felidia we got chicken liver cooked to the consistency of shoe soles with the lame excuse that the law demanded it be prepared like that. This was followed by an apology from the chef and not only another appetizer, but also an additional one gratis. Mostly they really try hard but when chefs are working in a taste free zone they’ve got problems. This is most apparent in the seasoning of the food. Occasionally they have not used anything, not even salt. More often they’ve gone overboard with salt making otherwise very good dishes inedible. At Montrealais one chef makes a specialty of a Bearnaise sauce with cayenne pepper and lots of either lemon or vinegar that makes your mouth shrivel. You may love it or hate it but I think Escoffier would turn over in his grave!

Tipping is almost mandatory although really bad service could be rewarded with a minimal tip, or none at all. The standard is 15% in Canada and 18% in USA. This is often added to the check, especially for larger parties, before it is presented. In those cases there is a space for an additional gratuity. The tip is calculated after the federal and state taxes have been added. Some checks include a calculation of what 15% 18% and 20% of the bill would be. In real terms the amount one pays is about one third more than the menu price. In top restaurants this often comes to $75+/person.

So what’s different about dining in Nth America compared to Australia?

Firstly there are a large number of absolutely top quality restaurants.

Secondly they are often in outstanding architect designed venues

Thirdly one never leave hungry. Serves are king size

Fourthly it is common to leave a restaurant with a take away bag of unfinished dinner

Except in the very best places seasoning is usually excessive.

Service is extremely attentive

Around 20% tip on top of food wine and taxes is normal

Regardless of the economic situation, for better restaurants, reservations are highly desirable or essential.


Jackie K said...

Hi - I found your blog trolling through Blogger some time ago and glance at it often - I love the premise. This one brings back some memories for me. As a kid I lived in California for 3 years with my family, and we often went out for dinner to "ordinary" restaurants, of which I remember Bob's Big Boy (at lower end!) - loved the fish and the chocolate brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce - Marie Calendar's (probably the one we went to most often), Maria Calendini's (Italian version!), and, for a little bit fancy, Black Angus. The service was always friendly, energetic and wonderful. Good memories!

Elliot and Sandra said...

Great to hear you are recalling fond childhood memories. We only ever went to one restaurant when I was a child in Melbourne. It was Mee Ging I think. In Acland St. at the Village Belle it had a half Chinese half Australian menu and I think dinner cost one shilling and six pence!

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