Dining Out Disaster

While I wait for the Paper Chef entries to come flooding in, I’m going to resume blogging about other subjects. In this case the matter of going out to eat at restaurants. I do this less and less and especially less and less at fancy dining establishments. Why? Because I find it a worse and worse experience. The cult of celebrity has made truly high end dining so expensive that it cannot be worth it – especially at large establishments where you just cannot get truly personal attention. And mid-level restaurants just don’t seem to get it anymore – they act like high-end places but the food isn’t good enough and the service is phoney. As a result I prefer low-end dining. My favorite places to eat out are all under $20 per person total for a full meal (excluding drinks – but I rarely order much anyway – I don’t have the legs for it anymore).

I still have some favorite high-end places, but they are all very established and are clearly no longer ‘fashionable.’ Never mind that I think the food and the total experience is better – they just aren’t trendy anymore. I’m talking about places like Chez Panisse and Boulevard and Bay Wolf that are reliable and comfortable and just plain good.

What crystallized all this for me? A recent trip at the height of Summer up to Sonoma and then back through Napa. I took some visitors from England up to Dry Creek for a very nice trip around some wineries. We had lunch first in Healdsburg, did a nice circuit and then headed across to Calistoga and back down through Napa in the hopes of scoring a decent meal without a reservation at a good spot. We ended up in Yountville at a new establishment that has gotten lots of attention, highly positive reviews, and which is associated with one of the highest reputations in the world. We were seated at the bar, treated indifferently and got a meal that started on a high note and went steadily downhill to plumb the depths. I should have sent the dessert back and perhaps would have done if I wasn’t with overly reserved and polite English people (and wasn’t one myself).

And that was the bottom line. I could not have made a salad as nice as the one we started with. But I could have done better on the next two courses and ANYBODY could have done better on the dessert. Let’s just say that a raw crumble is very bad indeed.

I was not asked how my meal was – which WAS a good thing since I was prepared to say what I thought. Obviously I’m not going back. And I may very well not bother going to any of the other restaurants I associate this one with – life’s too short

Anyway, this is just one example. In fact I am more disappointed than not when I eat at high end establishments. And I am almost always disappointed when I eat at mid level restaurants. It’s only down at the so-called-bottom of the range that I find satisfaction anymore. Am I the only one?


  1. You’re not alone on this. There is one fancy restaurant here in Portland that I am consistently pleased with, but the rest are charging way too much for very pedestrian food. I’d rather just hit the Vietnamese joint for a $6 bowl of pho that’s big enough to bathe a baby.

    It’s funny, but I actually consider it a negative when I try something at a restaurant that I know I could do myself.

  2. This is a VERY interesting post, Owen. I’ve also been finding your observation to be truer and truer, both in NYC and in other cities. On a recent trip to Quebec, all of our favorite meals were at “downscale” joints. And in NY, although we have some tried-and-tested high end restaurants (Danny Meyer’s establishments come to mind — they are consistently wonderful, and worth the price) but far too often, we find ourselves feeling ripped off.

    Recent budget constraints mean that we don’t dine out much anymore, but I don’t feel very deprived, since I’m fed up with experiences like our summer visit to a famed restaurant in Nantucket, where we paid almost $100 a person for a meal that I could have cooked much better myself — not to mention infinitely more cheaply.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.