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Sunday, September 28, 2014
Food / Drink ... Personal Reflections ... Practical Advice ...

My brother and I were talking about restaurants the other day, after having a nice dinner at a local restaurant. We agreed that there are basically six kinds of restaurants, arrayed according to a 2 x 3 matrix (to put it mathematically; the matrix arrangement is mine, not my brothers). Along one of the two matrix axises, we have three choices: the new start-up restaurants, where the staff and management (often the owner and his or her family) are very anxious to please and go the extra mile to listen and respond to every customer’s desires and suggestions. The second choice is the restaurant that has been around for a while and is more-or-less doing OK; the owner no longer jumps thru hoops to make each customer happy, but will respond to any complaints as he or she is satisfied that the place is doing OK and wants to continue the whole enterprise.

Then there is the sunset restaurant, where the owner has decided that the place is not going to make it, and keeps the place going as long as possible just to wring out a few extra dollars in revenue as to defray all of the debt obligations that are not going to be fully paid off. The staff probably knows that the place is on the decline, and mostly just go thru the motions. Hopefully the cook will not take too many shortcuts so as to threaten food poisoning, nor let sanitation decline such that insects start showing up on the plate. But you know that some of the food being served is not quite as fresh as it might be in a better place. And you start hearing “oh, we’re out of that today” more often from the waiters.

So that’s one set of choices on the matrix grid. The other dimension holds two basic categories. The first is for restaurants that are more-or-less generic restaurants. The owner has gone around looking at other local restaurants, getting ideas on what pleases people in the neighborhood or in the “marketing group” (e.g., perhaps the restaurant wants to cater more to business people than families, or to a younger crowd versus older types, etc.). She or he puts together a list of what seems to work, what people seem to like, and sets out to design a “generic restaurant” that will more or less please all of his intended customers, even if it doesn’t thrill them. They may not look back on a meal at a one of these generic restaurants as anything special, as anything to remember; but so long as the food and service are reasonably good, they may well go back. It’s always good to have a place that you can rely on, a place were things are more or less predictable.

The other option here is a restaurant having something of a “signature” from the owner. Something is different, something is a bit risky, something reflects what the owner thinks a restaurant experience should be. Maybe the menu has some very different types of dishes, or maybe the decor and layout are a bit unique. This is the kind of restaurant that, if it works, you remember after you leave. If everything went right, you will remember it in a good way, and want to go back. If it didn’t, you the customer will probably be less forgiving than if a more generic place is having a bad night.

So, according to a 2×3 matrix, there are six resulting options: new and generic, new and unique; established and generic, established and unique; and declining and generic, or declining but still unique. Of course, there are further dimensions to restaurant identity. One big restaurant dimension is cuisine: American, Italian, Chinese or other Oriental, Mexican or other Latin, Mediterranean, and lots of smaller national identities. Then there is the overall price level: is the place intended to be low price / high volume establishment offering a basic decor and food experience, or a high price / lower volume experience with nicer decor and fancier food? Does the restaurant provide mostly a fast-meal with take-out options (e.g. a Chinese or pizza place with a small, not-too-fancy dining room), or a slower dining experience?

And then there is the difference between the national chain restaurant and the local home-grown establishment. The chains try to be distinctive, they try to create the image of a place that is special (e.g., having interesting bric-a-brack along the walls); but they really are generic after all, as the “specialness” is mostly just a designed-in illusion, something done in all of their restaurants.

I do enjoy eating out once in a while; a good restaurant experience makes life a little nicer. There is also a social-participation aspect to it all, i.e. to eating in a room with other people and interacting with the waiter (and sometimes the manager or owner him or herself). It’s a little extravagance that is usually worth the price. Oh, but speaking of price, it seems to me that restaurant bills have been going up much too fast over the past 10 or 15 years. Is this true, or is it just a function of my old age coming on?

Let’s do a little bit of math. Back around 1984 or so, right after finishing all of my schooling and settling into a steady career groove, I went out to eat a lot, usually more than once a week. This was just another component of my social life (back when I had one!) Despite the 30 years that have passed since then, I specifically remember thinking that $20 was a good rough estimate of the bill for food and drinks at a decent dining establishment. What should that bill be today, if the cost of dining out matched the general inflation rate? Well, if you use the national overall CPI index from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics site, $20 in 1984 should equate to $45.78 today. Hmmm . . . I guess you could get away with $45 today if you stick to a national chain or a lower-end place, but even the mid-level local places around me generally set you back at least $50 or more (before tip).

Digging just a little further, if we look specifically at food and beverage inflation in the NY Metro area, the $20 in 1984 would now be about $48.75. OK, that’s closer to the mark. Finally, if we look at the BLS index for NY Metro area specific to “food away from home”, the 2014 equivalent of that 20-spot would be $49.37. So, restaurant prices did rise a bit faster than national inflation in general. But actually, the problem may be more a question of overall price trends in the New York area; the all-goods price index for my home region would inflate a $20 bill from 1984 into $50.87 today. Hmm, so restaurant prices aren’t really any worse in general than what has been happening for most everything in the metro region.

Well, part of it is just getting old. Today, a $50 “Benjie” is needed to do what a $20 “Hamilton” once did in my neck of the woods. My mind is still living in the past, still remembering the good old days when I was younger and had the time, energy and social contacts to get out a lot. Things are different for me today, as a sixties-generian. Not necessarily worse in every way, not even in most ways. Probably better in more than one aspect. But certainly different. I do get infected by the nostalgia bug now and then, and those old days don’t seem like so long ago; so having to pay two and a half times as much now to eat out seems like a sign of impending social breakdown. (Another factor is that I wasn’t thinking at all about retirement back then; but now, the financial realities of an approaching “next phase of life” when I won’t be working anymore [not full time, anyway] continue to stare me in the face, and make me think a bit harder about almost every expenditure.)

But no, a $50 restaurant tab doesn’t mean that the world is coming to an end. And I hope that my brother and I can still continue getting out to restaurants on a regular basis (he actually was a part of my restaurant circle back in the 80’s), and pondering what makes one restaurant different from another. And I will try to hold in my angst when the check comes around!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:17 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Being the “math person” you are, I am not surprised that you categorize even restaurants into some kind of “math matrix”. But for me, I have a much different way of categorizing restaurants. Actually, there were a few kinds of restaurants, but I’ve never taken time to “mathematize” them.

    When I was young, working, had a family, my “restaurant” was the kitchen where I’d make a meal for the family. There were few “jumping thru hoops” to make people happy, but I did try. The “jumping thru hoops” usually went this way: “What do you think? Is this a “make again? Or not?” It was my husband who usually decided, as far as I was concerned; if it was “make again”, it went on the list of conceivable meals I might consider making, depending on how much time and energy I had left when it came to cooking time. If the judgment was “not again”, then the recipe was disposed of and never made again.

    There was a second category of restaurants at this same time for a while: My husband and I realized that going for breakfast got us out of the house for some “together time”, yet was not very expensive. So we’d pop over to the chain/family restaurant for breakfast maybe once a week. Cheap, effective, and food that was OK.

    A little later in life when people in the family had grown, others had died, and the siblings were “left”, we decided to celebrate the birthday person by going out to the favorite place of the b’day person – with the b’day person being treated and the others picking up the bill. Sometimes a suggestion would be made for a very expensive restaurant; other times it was a mid-expensive restaurant with a river view where eagles hunted and made their nests by the river, or some other place that the b’day person might be in the mood for. It was all about the birthday and the person who had the birthday; no questions asked regaring price.

    Times changed: Now occasionally, when there’s a taste for it, we may order Chinese. Birthdays may or may not (depending on how things go) consist of getting a carry out from a chain restaurant of some kind whose food we prefer, take it to the b’day person’s house, spending some time visiting and eating.

    Fast food restaurants, i.e., drive-ins come up when one is on the run over a breakfast or lunch time and must have some food. A small something or other is on the menu then. It’s surprising how expensive fast food places can be and how quickly the cost of 2 people eating can climb to $20 or more at a fast food place. At one time in life I was even known to grab a donut and coffee, take it to my office; eat it at my desk; that was breakfast.

    I’ve found that restaurants come into play in various ways at different times in life. I’ve never considered the “math” of restaurants; not “speaking mathematics” is a hindrance then in figuring out the “matrix” of restaurants.

    And to go off (as usual) on a tangent: Food has never been a “big thing” in my life, i.e., that is I don’t really give it that much tho’t, and I’m sure my weight reflects that. However, when health is involved in what one eats (e.g., in cooking for/taking care of a diabetic or someone [including myself] who may require a particular kind of diet) I can and do rigorously follow such a diet. There have been times I’ve been very thin, other times heavier; depending on the rigor of the medically important diet. I am not one to bother much about how others see me in that way. I’ve known people who are very much “in fashion” and worry about how they “look”, that is, they must be thin, thin, thin. The saying some follow religiously, “one can never be too rich or too thin” probably accounts for the fact that I’ve never been rich or seriously/fashionably thin.

    Thus, it seems you have one way of categorizing restaurants, your brother has another, I have mine; there have been people I’ve known who considered “eating in at McDonald’s” a major treat. I say, God bless them; to each his own.

    And lastly, I lately have found myself thinking of the many people in the world starving from famine – simply nothing at all to eat for them or their children. (Thus, “eating in” at McDonald’s may be a treat for those who are poor.) I find myself thinking that only in America would a *choice* of kinds of places to eat be a consideration. Some places in the world, having *anything at all* to eat would be a feast.

    Then too, the various cultures of the world consider the important thing the social aspect of eating. More specifically, that involves, making a point of sharing, no matter how little one has, with another. I read recently in a blog of a person traveling the world who told the story of a single man, eating a meal, who had one bowl of rice; he asked the individual who was visiting his country to join him in sharing his one bowl of rice. He had little but the sharing was the important part of eating. There’s another way of classifying eating – sharing with at least one other.

    It seems to me that often we do not consider how important that sharing aspect is, but it lies subconsciously at the foundation of much eating that goes on. Most people want to go to whatever kind of restaurant with someone. Whether they realize it or not, sharing seems to be involved in some way. It may not be the “pure” sharing of one bowl of rice with another, may involve some “showing off” of who can/will pay the bill, or be a generous offering to pay the bill, but somewhere at the bottom of the whole thing, few people actually prefer to stand up in the kitchen, gab something out of the refrigerator, and eat his/her meal.

    I’m amazed at how different individual people may be when it comes to eating (out or in); how different cultures regard eating and food; then there is the aspect of taste. Strangely enough various cultures change the taste of the food to fit the particular country in which they operate. A personal example: A person from China once told me he had an absolutely *wonderful* something to share with me; I just had to taste it. His family had sent him a special treat he particularly liked, and he wanted me to take a taste of it. To say the least, when I tasted it, it would have taken me quite some time to acquire the taste for that particular thing. Thus various countries sharing their food in America change it so Americans will like the taste. Americans selling their foods in other countries throughout the world (China, India, Europe for a few examples) change our foods so that the peoples of the various countries will like the taste of “American” food.

    I have to confess, though, that in recent times, I find myself going back to the point that only in America can dieting for fashion be a crucial part of eating – a kind of “not eating” eating. In some cultures having “meat on one’s bones” shows how rich one may be, as in: “I’ve got money to buy food enough to gather some weight.”

    So many aspects to food as it is prepared for others either at home or from other “outside” eating places. I’m sure I’ve gone way off the track of what you started with: restaurants; but I’ve just been kind of stream of consciousness thinking, my non-mathematical classification of restaurants and eating. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 29, 2014 @ 10:17 am

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