Monday, October 16, 2006

Rethinking Chain Restaurants

The other day, I was joining in the foodie game we all play: Speculation. This particular game had to do with what would replace the venerable northside Keystone Grill, calling it quits after at least 8 years in business. (They may have been around for longer, I can't remember.) Of course, the conversation turned to chains.

I'm no stranger to the I-hate-chains bandwagon. Not only am I the first one on, I'm usually serving the hot chocolate. I'm the one at the head of the line for razor blades and a hot bath every time the chain-laden Nuvo "Best of Indy" list hits the stands. I've said it all, loudly: Chains serve corporate cookie cutter food! They're the scourge of the Northside! I've been equally harsh whether it was Fleming's or Maggiano's, Red Lobster or On the Border. They all are labeled "non-local/non-independent" in my book. It's no secret that Indianapolis is one of the top two test markets in the United States for new chain restaurant concepts. But recently, over a disppointing meal at a new, local independent, it occurred to me that we were sitting there trying to *justify* a sub-par meal and service only because it was an independent. While my friend and I lamented how our choices are dwindling, it began to dawn on me that we foodies can't have it both ways. We can't support only independents *and* always support the best food.

Don't get me wrong. There are many, many spectacular independent restaurants in Indianapolis doing a consistently amazing -- and profitable -- business. They will always be my first choice when it comes to spending my dining dollar. But, we have to recognize that there are also some fine chains -- like Oceanaire -- doing first rate food. When we start to recognize a few chains doing good work, we foodies find we've painted ourselves into a corner by only eating at independents. Do we skip Ruth's Chris in favor of a sub-par local steakhouse with bad service? Do we only patronize independent lunch places and talk ourselves into being happy with food we'd send back at P.F. Chang's? Do we lower our standards because we feel some obligation to independents (even if they're not able to step up)? Is it fair we set the bar impossibly high for a corporate operation where the chef follows a well-tested, pre-planned corporate menu book? And if so, how come Puck's gets a pass and Bravo! Doesn't? (One could argue that Puck's doesn't even *need* a name chef to execute their corporate menu.)

As foodies, we should love excellence in any form. We can't discount great food just because it happens to be well-funded and backed by a corporate entity. In some cases, we should even appreciate that the stronger financial backing and corporate leadership may allow more flexibility for those restauranteurs who want to cater to both foodies *and* a larger market.

Take, for example, P.F. Chang's recent opening of Taneko Japanese Tavern, their first restaurant testing the popular Japanese izakaya concept in the US. In Japan, izakayas are the hugely popular haunts of salarymen serving sakes, shochu, and small plates of food. Chang's has opened the first location in Scottsdale with well-designed space, well-thought out food, and a sake list that will help introduce America to the fine rice wine that many will come to love (and that many will learn is never served hot.) It's very likely the restaurant will have a better chance of success with a large staff of experts, marketers, and recipe developers focusing on their test market. Remember Scottsdale is one of the only bigger test markets for chain concepts than Indianapolis. Hopefully, we'll be next for Taneko. (Fans who've been singing the praises of the new chain location of Barcelona Tapas due to expand here next year will start having the same twinges of conflict right now.)

Maybe we should give ourselves a chance to re-think chains and not just because they have a cool concept or they look pretty. Whether chain or not, a restaurant should put out fantastic food with excellent service. Maybe, just maybe, we should expand our thinking a bit and remember that we can't have it both ways. We can't ask for the best, then reward sub-par independents with kudos, recommendations, and reviews. Excellence should be rewarded with our business no matter who the corporate backers. You probably won't see me at a any more chains than before. I'm not endorsing the Tyler Florence Applebee's promotion, but you might find me serving a little less enthusiastic hot chocolate on the foodie chain-slamming bandwagon. I hope we see a Taneko in Indianapolis, and if the food is great, the service delivers and it's a great space, I'll probably be a regular.

Chain food is never going to be able to top the creative and innovative work of chefs like Steven Oakley or Dave Tallent. Most foodies will agree that the highest degree of excellence will always come from highly trained chefs handcrafting amazing food every day. But the pressure is on. If you've been cooking the same thing for years, it's time to stop complaining about all the chains affecting your business and compete. If you're not excelling in every way, don't complain when your business falters and blame "all those chains". We diners expect the best and shouldn't have to feel guilty over demanding it. I'm still not going to be a chain regular, but I'm not going to be as quick to rule them out. But don't worry. I still don't think there's much in the Nuvo "Best of" list that I'll be giving a pass. I've already put the toaster oven next to the bathtub.


Shelly said...

Great post! I have to say I agree…there is a locally owned and operated restaurant here in Indy that I had a horrible experience with (the food was awful) The problem was I felt guilty telling people it was so bad…I don’t want to cut down the little guy…but I would give my money to PF Chang any day over this place! Hell…Tyler Florence…bring on the Crapplebees! Bad is bad and good is good!

braingirl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
braingirl said...

What I meant to say was that yes! You're exactly right! I felt *guitly* for not liking this place! And it was because, sure, I want to support them, but come on. I would rather have been in the bar at Sullivan's.

Don't expect to find me at Applebee's anytime soon, but I might be rooting a little harder for us to get a Teneko. Hey, we're a big test market -- come test us!

Anonymous said...

Yes there are bad local, independent restaurants. But as long as there's enough good ones, and good info to help us locate them (like this blog), I don't think i'll be dining at the Cheese-slop Factory.

With that said, there are some great, non-local restaurants (small US chains) in indy that use local ingredients and have great service, excellent chefs, and creative menus. I'll trust Oceanaire, chain and all, before I'll chance the seafood at our 'local' sushi dives (Wasabi excepted). And though it may not have the cache (or the 2 hour wait) of Elmo's, Mo's has better steaks any night of the week.

Jim said...

Very, very well-said.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I love reading your blog.

braingirl said...

Thanks for all the nice comments! As long as you all keep eating (and reading), I'll try to keep posting.