1/20/2007

When I am King: Ball and Chain

When I am King...

No more mediocre restaurant chains.

There's a funny phrase in the U.S.: “big box stores”. I have no idea what it's origin is; I think it's either because you walk out of the store carrying lots of big boxes or because these stores actually look like oversized boxes themselves. I'm talking about the humongous places like Home Depot, Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Thumbtack Emporium. These stores are larger than the towns they serve. You walk inside one of them and you could be anywhere in the world, because the store looks exactly the same as it does everywhere else; same smock colors, same merchandise locations, same lines. And the same inability to find anyone around to answer a simple question; maybe they're all hiding in a big box.

Now I'm noticing an onslaught of what I'll call “big box restaurants,” which typically reside in huge buildings near the mall. Each one looks exactly the same here as it does in Boston or Atlanta or Duluth. You know the ones I mean: Macaroni Grill, Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's, The Outback, .... There are a lot of them around, and more every day. They're spreading faster than an STD in a coed dorm.

The weird thing is that these places pretend to be fancy. The wait staff is dressed nicely, there are wine glasses on the table, fancy sconces up-light the ceilings, and trendy tile and slate decorate the floors and walls. But it's all a cheap facade, like McDonald's wearing a tuxedo.

So why are these places so popular? The food is passable ... and that's all. There are so many good restaurants around for the same price, why are chains with merely 'passable' food thriving like E. coli on a spinach farm?

Dependability, that's why. Dependability. Americans demand consistency and the knowledge that the meal they are about to eat is going to be exactly as bland and uninteresting as the one they had last week. It's too frightening to try out a new place: What to order? What if it's too spicy? What if they serve Pepsi and not Coke? What if the waiter can't do that cool upside-down writing-with-crayons trick?

I suppose it's the same reason that people stay in horrible relationships. Heck, the next one could be worse. “Maybe the next guy will hit me even harder.” “Maybe the next woman will be be an alcoholic and a Meth addict.” And maybe the next restaurant won't have that chicken macaroni dish that I could force down without puking.

So you find a place that serves food that goes down and comes out just fine, and you just keep going back. Who needs all the stress of something new when you can have the same damn thing every day, no matter what mall you happen to be losing another weekend in?

During my reign, restaurants that chainify must fall into two categories: good food and fast food. Anything with more pretense than a hamburger joint that serves mediocre food won't qualify. Let's save America's palates and wallets for real local restaurants that have a reason to exist other than corporate shareholder dividends.

As for fast food, hey, who doesn't like the taste of pure fatty evil in a Big Mac now and then? At least it's clear what level of food and service to expect in a place like that. Of course, that Burger King chain's got to go; there's only room for one King in my kingdom, and it's not them.
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