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Sunday Food: Evaluating Eating Out


Are you being served?

(Picture courtesy of  russavia at wikipedia commons.)

Growing numbers of U.S. eaters are doing more of that outside the home, and there are ‘restaurant rows’ on the outskirts of almost every city I’ve visited.   For the past few years, I’ve been working as a ‘secret shopper’ in a couple of restaurant groups.   Given criteria invented by the vendor that’s selling that service to different restaurant chains, I’ve taken notes on what I was told, what I’ve experienced, and the way the restaurant of the moment has been operating.   Needless to say, the quality of food is mentioned, but hardly an emphasis of the report.

When you go into a restaurant, no doubt you deserve a welcome and interested service, but what your staff is trained to do is something else, a kind of ritual that may bother you as much as it’s been a silly exercise I’ve been paid to exact.

Your greeting is supposed to take place within a minute, and your server arrive and be about getting your order taken and served within another set number of minutes.   I admit, I keep my usual conversation to a minimum, because it takes away minutes from the server.

As you probably realize from reading food posts from me, I am particularly partial to natural,  healthy, food.   When I eat out, I’m all too aware that what I’m served is full of appetite enhancers, developed in kitchens that manufacture what most keeps diners coming back.   I’m all too aware, as well, that the chemical underliers of those tastes are not the best things I can be eating.   Especially in the case of steaks, I taste the metallic elements of the ‘accented’ meat more than the actual food itself.

Several times, the sauce that made the particular attraction has been added to a separately cooked meat or pasta, and not the same temperature, one remaining colder than the other and not melding.

I have to applaud the chefs working with ingredients such as under-ripe tomatoes, or wilted and/or old greens, who work to make an attractive product.   A few times I’ve mentioned in my reports that it was clever to cut the ingredient small so it would go unremarked.

A favorite episode was dinner in a restaurant specializing in barbecue, when one dish was supposed to be beef that had been barbecued.   Unfortunately, the meat was solid, gelatinous, and somewhat solid.   True barbecue has been cooked in sauce for a long time, and the strands easily separate, just a fork should make it through the true barbecue.   I had to explain several times at length why I underrated the restaurant’s pride and joy, and explained that I have had barbecue in many ways, even cooked outdoors in a pit by the Texas State Society on Capital Hill.   For this I was scolded as being ‘too subjective’, which sent us here into laughing fits.

If it doesn’t meet normal standards, that’s not what the vendor of restaurant reviewing want to know, it’s your opinion.  The ‘subjective’ label also has been used at me for describing attractive surroundings, and for any method of serving or decorating being ‘a nice touch’.   As you can imagine, my respect for the management did not grow over time.

The cost of having a cup of hot tea or coffee is outrageous at your everyday standard restaurant, as well.   While my companions and I would have preferred simple water we needed to fill a requirement, and spent upwards of $2 for a cuppa each visit.   Okay, you have to wash the dishes after use, but any cup of coffee or hot tea that actually was worth over $2 has yet to be served me.   Though I tried to explain that to management, the requirement stayed the same.

You will not be surprised to hear that often I was asked to explain that what I had reported meant … what I had reported.   I even was once told that adding “as stated in the previous sentence” was not wanted.   I have yet to find a satisfactory way of telling the reported to that the report means what it says, the facts being the facts.   I did feel sometimes I was not speaking the same language as the reviewers of my reports, and as I had a couple of phone conversations with a few of them, I am quite aware that I was speaking occasionally to reviewers who were not fluent in English.

Guess you know, I won’t be doing this anymore.    Cost cutting means I am constantly encountering little tricks meant to keep from paying me for the work I’ve done, a major one being assigning one restaurant to me, and then putting another one into the reporting function so that my report isn’t accepted, I went to the wrong restaurant.  I also am sick of spending hours writing up the reports that really don’t have much to do with your experience dining out.

I’m interested in what you think, too.   Does the attentiveness of the serving staff mean more to you than the food they serve?   I am not going to be offended if I’m not met with a lot of trained chatter, and the food takes some time to prepare, are you watching the minutes your service takes?   I actually go to restaurants for the food, and am now free to go where I choose, which is a relief.

My favorite restaurant choices are Asian, South/Central American and really fresh food buffets.   I have yet to be offered a job reviewing that sort, but I doubt they’re trying to escape the burden of providing a cover for ordinary food.

Just as an aside, I do a great job cooking for myself, and seldom have found any restaurant that serves me standard fare better than my own.   I also prefer a steak that has not been salted, flavored, tenderized, and sauced to the point I can’t taste anything but chemicals.


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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.