Viewpoint: Eateries: Whom Do You Trust?

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For the better part of the decade I have been assiduously experimenting and gathering information for the following analysis. My purpose has been to discover whether and to what extent one can govern the selection of restaurants on the basis of some underlying principles. In other words, how can one straying outside the immediate familiar neighborhood contrive to find a decently prepared meal? It is certainly not a matter of following in the footsteps of Teamsters. Forget the old idea that the sight of 14 trailer trucks surrounding a country diner is a sure clue that a hearty home-made vegetable soup is simmering there on the back burner. It isn't necessarily so. From my experience, truckers are most attracted to way-stops where the food is prepared by able diesel mechanics. While these may indeed be skilled masters, the art at which they excel is unreliably connected with good cooking. Add to this the fact that heavy truck traffic is banned from center cities and most other locales where you would be seeking out a dining spot anyway, and you are back to the same question—where to find a good restaurant?

Having dispensed with the myth that truckers are connoisseurs, the next plausible fall-back position, as in most cases of ordinary ignorance, is to ask someone. Having traveled extensively in recent years, I can report that this, too, is not likely to yield a result any more dependable than random selection. On a number of occasions I have asked apparently reputable strangers where to go in their town to find a good meal. Sometimes, of course, I was well served by their suggestions. More often, I came to suspect afterward that I had queried a substantial stockholder in an antiacid company.

Partly this may be a result of hostility to strangers of the sort encapsulated in many Vermont farmer jokes. The weary traveler asks the farmer, "Do you know the way to Burlington?" Yes…he knows but he won't tell. By the same token, one may experience a certain resistance to the normal tendency to extend a kindness to a stranger. More likely, however, the case of asking for a restaurant recommendation is closely similar to the experience of inquiring as to directions. Ask a few people, and you soon find yourself steered along several contrary routes even when you are seeking a known location. Ask the same people where to dine, and you get the same kind of reply.

This is to be expected—people do not have a very high incentive to serve as effective tour guides on a gratis basis. And even if they did, they might not know a pâté de fois gras from a patio. So it doesn't help to ask the question cleverly. It doesn't matter whether you say, "Can you direct me to a good restaurant?" or "If tonight were your honeymoon and you had to go out and celebrate some place in this town, where would you go to eat?"

The next expedient is the tour guide or the printed restaurant review. If you happen to be toting an up-to-date copy of Gourmet magazine and it happens to have a story about the town in which you find yourself, then you indeed have no problem. (Or if you have a problem, it runs in the direction of figuring out how to pay for the meal, rather than attempting to determine whether it is worth eating.) More frequently the review you read will be just as suspect as the casual recommendations of the passer-by on the street corner. Most reviewers, especially in local newspapers, run restaurant reviews in informal conjunction with the advertising departments of their publications. For obvious reasons they tend not to hold their would-be clients to a very high standard.

In the days before he turned to endorsing cake mix, Duncan Hines thrived upon the difficulties arising from the lack of independence and an established "brand name" on the part of reviewers. Hines used to spend his time traveling the country, sampling the fares of the various establishments and stamping his recommendations upon those which met his favor. Presumably, even many persons who did not share Hines's taste in every particular found in his judgment a reliable guide. They could presume of a well-recommended establishment that a meal there was a comparatively low-risk experiment.

Unhappily, the sort of service offered by Mr. Hines has faded with the advent of the mass franchise restaurant. Instead of having the brand name identification adhering with the reviewer, it has been capitalized by the operators of the restaurants. The success of Holiday Inns, for example, is in large measure attributable to the fact that they offer a predictable standard of food, as well as clean sheets.

And standardization is even more a factor in the rise of fast-food chains. A McDonald's hamburger purchased in Oakland, California, will vary only microscopically from one in Sarasota, Florida, or Augusta, Maine. Wherever one travels, one can know what is about to be bitten into, even if that known quality is not as high as one would prefer. Coming upon a McDonalds, therefore, there is an advantage not to be had in setting sights on "Mama's Country Diner." Mama may be the best cook who ever stirred ingredients into a bowl, or Mama may be a retired Marine sergeant who took over the diner from the previous Mama.

This uncertainty about the quality of the fare offered in independent eateries is a large contributor to their demise. In his classic prophecy of the degeneration of the art of public cooking, "Dining in the Motor Age," Albert Jay Nock foresaw a new type of restaurant catering "to people who come along from God knows where in motor-cars, eager to snatch a bite of anything, and push on." Nock continued, "For the most part, they would eat raw dog without knowing the difference." He attributed a large measure of this effect to the automobile, which has so accelerated the pace of life that people no longer have the patience to wait for a well-made meal. No doubt, this is a large measure of the problem. Another consequence of the increased speed and frequency of travel is that more and more persons find themselves in locales of which they lack an intimate knowledge. Being ill-informed, they need information shortcuts of the sort provided by the brand-name restaurant—the Emerson's, the Family Fish House, and many others.

That isn't the whole story, however. The question is why the information deficit tends to be solved so predominantly by franchise operations and large corporations offering food standardized within a fairly narrow range of quality. Certainly, part of the explanation is market demand. But that is not the whole story.

At least part of the outcome may be a consequence of the lack of a market for independent verification of food quality. Almost everywhere this function has been short-circuited by municipal and other governments whose generalized health inspections are considered an adequate testimony, rightly or wrongly, of the wholesomeness of food served in commercial establishments. If local governments did not undertake this function, entrepreneurs of various sorts would.

There is little reason to suspect that the standards of the private inspectors would conform to one another or to the uniformly low levels of government inspection—which admittedly aims at no more than ascertaining whether food sold in commercial establishments is fit for consumption. Some of the independent inspectors would no doubt confine their attentions to restaurants of a certain type, such as Chinese, French, Hungarian, or Spanish. Some would aim at restaurants of a certain quality, in much the way that the Michelin Guide rates restaurants in Europe. Still other inspections would be organized as fringe benefits for membership in organizations, such as automobile and travel societies. The sum of these efforts might be to increase the consumer recognition and acceptance of independent restaurants and eating places catering to different and better standards of quality than that common to the nationally franchised establishments.

So if anyone would like to try a little social experiment that would point the way toward better commercial eateries, he might join in an effort to eliminate the post of city health inspector.

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