My daughter Tracy knows good food when she tastes it; she just doesn't always want good food.
Sometimes--frequently--she wants FUN food.
Food that gets dipped into things. Fried food. Food on buns. Food with your choice of toppings. Food wrapped in dough. Food that makes grownups say things like 'Sure you can eat all that, sonny?' when it comes to the table. Food in baskets.
I mean, in fact, food available at that segment of the restaurant world called "casual", "family" or "chain". And you know the names: tgiFridays, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden. (Tony Bourdain refers to these places as "TJ McFunsters.")
Families are very fond of these restaurants. They are a step up from McDonald's and they have flashy, over-illustrated menus and you can color on the placemats.
It used to be you couldn't walk into one of these places without being smacked on the head with a fake lobster trap, whilst the hostess cracked gum and handed out Clawde the Lobster hats and the waitstaff, attired in full oilskins as found on the Gorton's of Gloucester box, sloped off miserably to present frozen daiquiris in huge brandy glasses, adorned with plastic lobsters wearing Mardi Gras beads. Small children screamed, some in ecstasy, some in the throes of a lifelong Shellfish Trauma. "Happy Birthday" was viciously shrieked by bands of roving busboys, who liked nothing better than frightening incontinent old people. Animatronic moose heads were the order of the day.
At least...that's how it used to be. Because, I don't know if you've seen this, but those memorabilia-drenched funhouses where everything could and most often was served with extra cheese, are now becoming minimalist.
Okay, it's not like Mies van der Rohe is going to pop into the place, screaming with joy; they are still family-oriented chain restaurants and everything has to be washable. But they've taken the snow shoes and the movie posters and the Elvis junk off the walls, and what remains is mellow, comfortable, and visually quiet.
The menu is quiet too. Plenty of heart-healthy dishes. Lots of unfried green stuff. Hamburgers, yes, but rarely with more than three other ingredients, including the bun.
Last night we went into the local Red Lobster and everything was so quiet and classy you practically expected Eric Ripert to come out of the kitchen with Michael Ruhlman taking notes for a new memoir with recipes.
The Lobster (the decor seemed to imply), was merely a national temple to fish. Pristine fillets came into the kitchen, were lightly broiled with a squeeze of lemon, and came out at the serving hatch with perhaps a sprig of parsley. No more was necessary.
And yet...and yet...there were also crab cakes, with more bread than crab and probably more xanthum gum than either; those addictive cheddar chive biscuits, all microwave warm and chemically salty, platters of breaded everything with two or three mayo-based sauces, towering chocolate and cream desserts...
Yes, there was more choice than there had been before. But I don't think the availability of this "new" chain cuisine is going to solve our national obesity crisis. Portions are as rudely enormous as ever, especially portions of cheap starch. Plenty of things are fried when nature never intended them to be so. And the luxury conventions of tomato sauce, melted cheese, gravy and cream sauces spilling over the rim of the dish to signify "plenty" are meaningless when they only serve to camouflage grade Z meat, and fish which has been frozen since Bush the First left office.
My point is, this seems to be just another fake-out in service of the food police. And it's not really doing anyone any good at all.
Even Tracy would prefer that we stay home and eat an honest hamburger.