Saturday, December 16, 2006

A tale of two restaurants

I like dualities, I guess.

Last night, my wife and I went out to dinner at Zander Cafe in St. Paul. The night before, we and our kids had been to Sunsets in Woodbury. It's probably not fair to compare the two experiences, because aside from us paying for a meal they weren't very similar (small vs. large, couple vs. family, and so on), but then again fairness is looked for more often than it is found.

The upshot of the two experiences was that we took Sunsets off our list of restaurants to visit, and reminded ourselves that we need to go to Zander more often.

The best part of the meal at Sunsets was the dessert (creme brulee, which it is possible to screw up). The second best was our daughter's chicken fingers. The third... well, my wife's suggestion was "my Diet Coke wasn't bad...". Definitely the worst part of the dinner was her filet mignon. When you put filet mignon on your menu, you should definitely hire cooks who know how to prepare it.

The meal at Zander, on the other hand, was excellent -- I had a pork loin filet that was excellent, accompanied by a butternut squash that I ate every bit of. My wife had "the" jambalaya, which she pronounced "pretty good" and then when pressed clarified to "I mean excellent." She has a habit of understatement at times.

Apart from the entertainment value of making fun of last nigh's disastrous dinner, this got us thinking about restaurants and our tastes. I'm of the opinion that our tastes and expectations have changed (we have higher expectations now) even as the overall quality of food has fallen at chain restaurants.

The key problem, I think, is the economics of running a chain. When you have the opportunity to pursue volume discounts, you start making decisions based on having as many options as possible with your stuff, and not based on making the best stuff you can. TGI Friday's, for example, has in effect a menu matrix. You choose some kind of meat, some kind of sauce or topping, some kind of side, and so on. They're almost doing Garanimals with food. This approach works relatively well for cafeteria-style food, but I don't want to eat at a cafeteria when I am paying restaurant prices.

I need to remember to eat out more at smaller restaurants. It costs a bit more, but the quality is better, and I like voting with my daily behavior. Food isn't a commodity, and treating it like one is a disservice to ourselves.

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