Restaurant Blues

Today we went to another longtime favorite restaurant of ours, and for the second day in a row, we were deeply disappointed. Yesterday it was horribly bland She Crab soup (and overdressed salad) at the Blue Marlin in Columbia, South Carolina. Today it was “a-plenty” at Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg, SC.

We’ve been going to the Beacon for about 15 years. We look forward to it, even though it is a pile of greasy food, it is generally a pile of delicious greasy food. Today, two things were missing. The first was JC Stroble, the blind man who takes your order at the head of the line and calls it back. I don’t know if he’s retired, or just taking a day off or something but it was kind of flat without him.

The other thing missing was the “Low Country Plate” which was my favorite. Sigh.

So my son ordered a cheeseburger a-plenty and I ordered a small perch plate. His burger was fine. The perch were fine. But the rest: fries, onion rings, coleslaw, tartar sauce– were inedible.  Bland, soggy-not-crisp, undercooked at too low a temperature and not at all seasoned. This is not the way it used to be. A cursory glance at Yelp, and Trip Advisor show that others have noticed the decline. (Of course, some people are just pricks and should stick to Applebee’s, but that’s another column altogether.) Even the tea, which I’d always loved before tastes like it was made from iced tea mix.

I thought more about this as I drove up through the Smoky Mountains home to Ohio: I don’t remember the last time I had a stellar meal in a restaurant. In fact, I don’t even remember the last first-rate meal I had in a restaurant. If people want to charge me for dinner, it ought to be something better than I could make at home. But it isn’t. If anything, restaurants in these days of economic peril seem ever more inclined to dish up the mediocre.

Do they think that our palates are so uneducated that we don’t know the difference? Do they think that we will be so dazzled by their decorating choices or their poetic menus that we won’t care? Do people head for gawdawful chains because they can expect some consistency? It may come in a pouch from corporate to be boiled or microwaved and dumped on your plate, but you can bet it will taste the same in Pawtucket, Poughkeepsie, Peoria and Palm Springs.

But why are independent restaurants, who struggle hard for every dollar they get, why are they satisfied to serve up slop for their customers?  We may pay them once for it, but we won’t be back again. And I guess that explains why on a Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m. there were only about 20 cars in the Beacon Drive-In parking lot. You used to have to stand in line to reach J.C.

I did just remember the last great meal I had in a restaurant– at the New Asian in Trotwood. Bok Choy and chicken in Ginger Sauce (made just for me, when I asked Mr. Jung to make me whatever he felt like cooking) along with hot and sour soup. For six dollars. At least some people still take pride in what they put on a plate for their customers.

Target today 54. Steps 3302. Consumed for breakfast: peach, a few mozzarella pearls, slice of prosciutto. Lunch: 4 pieces fried perch. One French fry. One onion ring. One quarter hush puppy. Half-spoonful of coleslaw.  Later: iced coffee. Dinner: green salad with grilled chicken breast.




3 thoughts on “Restaurant Blues

  1. And my fried tofu at New Asia that day was delicious. I can’t wait to get beck down to Charleston SC and see if my favorite restaurants there are maintaining the quality.

  2. It is a shame when old favorites let us down, but I’m surprised there are so few restaurants you like any more.

    I saw you went to Pine Club recently for your anniversary — what’d you think of it? I’ve been twice in as many months and still enjoy it, although I always get the same thing–filet mignon medium rare, stewed tomatoes–well almost always the same thing–two months ago I got a baked potato and it was okay but last month I got creamed spinach for a change and really liked it.

    And are you still boycotting Olive An Urban Dive over Kim’s use of what you considered slave labor (and what I considered a voluntary contest) for design work? I love Olive and go just about every week for lunch and often enough for Saturday brunch. There are lots of good things on the menu that I like–chicken salad sandwich (made without mayo), grilled cheese, flatbread pizza, fresh patio herb salad dressing–but I also love to be surprised by the many specials. This week I had a terrific pork chop sandwich, and last week I had an absolutely delicious chilled carrot ginger soup. A couple of my favorite specials have been scallops — one was a warm salad with scallops, bacon, apple and mushrooms on top of spinach with a warm red vinaigrette. I will say that despite Olive’s being in the Wympee building I’m not a particular fan of their hamburgers. But you talk about people having had to line up at some of your favorite restaurants — perhaps it’s a marketing trick due to a small building but Olive is just about always busy for lunch, so you need a reservation or to go later than usual for lunch.

    Last week I went with a friend to another favorite of mine, a pricier place that I don’t go to every week, Meadowlark. The fried green tomatoes were very good, and I enjoyed the pork tenderloin with jezebel sauce.

    Another place I like that I know you had a bad experience with in December is Jay’s. My mother loves Jay’s and it’s a Christmas tradition for our family to go there–though I know you had food poisoning the same day my family went this past December. But I’ve been back a few times this year and still quite enjoyed it. I was afraid that when Jay died it would go downhill, and the menu has changed somewhat–when he was alive the menu had more choices. And they don’t have my all time favorite dessert any more, white chocolate amaretto pie–they took that off the menu when he was still alive, although he told me they’d still make it for me if I called ahead.

    Speaking of streamlined menus, I also like El Meson in West Carrollton. Their menu used to be book sized. Bill and Mark and their family travel to various places in Latin America and Spain and bring back wonderful recipes.

    I did go once to the one place you said you still like, the New Asian, and did what you and Bruce both said to do, not order off the menu but rather ask Mr Jung to make what he felt like making, and I had a good dish with fresh green beans and beef, but I still like Thai 9. I like the Thai 9 fried rice, but my favorite dish there, which I try not to get every time, is the chicken ramrong. I know that my going to Thai 9 more often than the New Asian may color your view of my culinary opinions. Oh well. Chacun son goût.

    • David, I generally love restaurants. At least that’s always been the case in the past. I’m a long-time subscriber to Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood, and I am not particularly a “food snob.” (For instance, I love a hamburger from Rally’s.) I just want to have a meal that doesn’t have some glaring disappointment in terms of food quality and service. That seems like it shouldn’t be too much to ask.

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