As though a holiday week’s worth—make that a year’s worth, compressed into a week—of a real Iowa grandma’s meat and potatoes weren’t enough, we had ourselves some steak dinners the other night at Dave & Buster’s, where we went to catch UFC 79 on the big screen. Because what else are you supposed to eat while watching two men in a cage maul each other to a yummy pulp? A nice piece of salmon and a side of asparagus with a lemon wedge?
On a gut level, I have to admit I find a fair share of chain restaurant food tough to dislike. After all, it’s got visual appeal down to a ridiculous science; the dishes set before us looked exactly like the dish shown in the below photo from D&B’s website—right down to the perfectly fake grill marks on the sirloin and the colorful bits of mystery topping on the potatoes. As for flavor, it’s got plenty: fat + salt + flavor-enhancing additives in bright, shiny array pretty much = deliciousness. I vacuumed up every last shred of those greasy onions, infused with the bonus flavor of Fryolater oil undoubtedly ancient enough to qualify as fossil fuel.
What’s more, franchises demonstrate dining democracy in action. The Burger King slogan “Have it your way” says it all: while, at a haute destination, what the chef says goes, low-to-middlebrow eateries operate on the principle that the customer knows best (which may, after all, be literally true, given the percentage of line cooks still in the teething stage). You want your steak bloody, you got it; you want it black-and-blue, you got it, no questions asked. (Hey, that steak looks just like those guys on TV!)
It’s on an intellectual level that I object to chains. I don’t want to know better than the chef; what’s the point of going out to dinner if not to have your culinary horizons broadened beyond the boundaries of your own kitchen? If he or she is going to take my advice as to how my meal should be prepared, why not just shove over and let me cook it myself?
On my first tour of Italy, I entered a tiny trattoria in the tiny village of Atrani, on the Amalfi coast, and was promptly greeted by the enthusiastic gent who served as the sole waiter as well as chef-owner. He clapped his hands and asked what I would like for him to bring me. He could, he said, make me any kind of pasta, any kind of sauce. He named some examples: I could have A with B, or C with D, or E with F…I said, oh, I’d like A, but could I have it with F?
He looked pained. No, he said gently but firmly. They don’t go together. Then he reiterated the acceptable combos.
That was the moment Italy became my one true place-love. I was charmed by my host’s loyalty to culinary tradition & the logic behind it, as well as by the un-American, oh-so-Euro notion that the guy with the dough, literal, could and should dictate to the guy with the dough, merely monetary. I let him choose my meal from start to finish—and returned the next night to relive the experience.
On that note, compare the above steak to that served at Black Pearl (no, I’m not on their payroll; I’ve simply got the memories and I know how to use them).
It’s a mess, smothered in breadcrumbs atop a slick of olive oil & balsamic vinegar. The honchos over at D&B’s HQ would be scandalized: why, it practically looks homemade!
Having had it more than once, I can assure you that’s exactly how it tastes—like a real adult is cooking a real piece of meat, from a real cow with a real place of origin, just for you. How’s that for a slogan, BK?