The Making of a Restaurant

Friday, April 13, 2001

Regarding candid waiters: Phil Vettel's review of the Kit Kat Lounge today describes exactly that: "We were interested in the Mama's Meat Loaf entree, made with sauteed mushrooms and port wine glaze, but our waiter warned us off that dish rather adamantly (doing everything shy of grabbing his throat and making choking noises), so we passed."
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Who else would see the doggie bag? Not passersby so much as, as Sandy notes in his original post, co-workers, relatives and roommates.

Some other ideas:

  • A box with a transparent window, so you can peek in to check the contents. The trick would be keeping the box airtight.
  • Boxes should come in assorted bright colors that are as appropriate to their contents as possible. This way, I know the red box has my barbecue ribs and my brother knows the green box has his green peppers stuffed with spinach, bulgur and seaweed.
  • In addition to religious figures, discounts should also reward grease spots that resemble former Cub shortstops, cast members of the original Second City, or Mike Royko.

Quick, to the patent office!

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The innovative doggy bag idea is a good one. But there's good reason why restaurants haven't employed it. When you're shopping at Bloomie's or Marshall Field's, you're probably dedicating your whole day to shopping. A bag you pick up there will likely meet hundreds of eyes before it's plopped in your car for the trip home.

However, a visit to a restaurant, is, more often than not, a trip in and of itself. Once you get your leftovers, you're probably heading straight back home, and besides you, your date and the people you live with, who else will see the bag? Or even if you stop in for a bite to eat between shopping sprees, you're not going to want to schlep the leftovers all around the mall with you for the rest of the day. You'll probably drop it off in the car and continue shopping.

That having been said, I still think it's a grand idea. If we're good enough, it might even force the media to create a "Best Of" category just to honor us. Off the top of my head, here are some ideas:

  • A bag or box covered in comics. It would have to change periodically.
  • A box with a rub-off coupon that's worth a discount for the patron's next visit.
  • A bag made of highly absorbant material. If the grease from the food leaks into the shape of a recognizable religious figure, the customer's next meal is on us.

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To encourage leftovers, perhaps we could invent a doggy bag, extraordinary in shape, graphic design or both, that is so innovative and fun, people look forward to it and order an extra appetizer in order to necessitate one.

Department stores have long done this with their shopping bags (Bloomingdale's come to mind, and it seems many Michigan Avenue stores intentionally give oversized bags, the idea being that the shopper will put smaller bags inside them, making them visible as she strolls the Mag Mile all day; I'm loath to admit that I, too, feel all cool walking around with a giant Marshall Field's bag, even if all I bought was a box of Frango Mints and the balance of the bag is underwear and toilet paper from the dollar store). I'm surprised restaurants haven't picked up on it, too.
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On the topic of leftovers:

Sometimes, when I'm feeling frugal about the price of entrees at where I'm having dinner, I'm able to squelch those feelings by remembering that if there ends up being more food than I'm capable of eating, it'll mean lunch at work tomorrow. Which means I won't be going out to buy lunch, which means more money saved. So, $20 for dinner suddenly turns into $20 for dinner and lunch.

I say "sometimes" because I often neglect to remember this trick until I'm suddenly stuffed and staring at plate still half full of food. And then it's like a light bulb goes off in my head -- eureka! -- and I'm reminded of the concept of doggy bags like it was the first time I'd ever heard of it. (There a few restaurants at which this scene inevitably unfolds: Buca di Beppo, Andie's, Hi Ricky.)

I wonder if most people look at a price of an entree as the cost of just dinner or of dinner and lunch tomorrow. If we decide to intentionally oversize our portions, we need to think of a way to remind our patrons that paying the the price they see will prevent them from having to spend money on lunch tomorrow. And, boy, won't their bosses love them for staying in the office for their lunch breaks instead of being unproductive for an hour? Perhaps we should put a message on the front of cleverly-designed menus? Maybe a subtle reminder from our friendly waitstaff?

There's a marketing advantage to this as well. When office workers smell the delicious odor of a neighbor's re-heated lunch and inquire about where their co-worker got such a feast, our patron will be kicking our word-of-mouth gears into motion. If spending a few more cents on extra rice today means selling two more meals next week, then I say we go for it.
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I've remarked on portions before. I'm about to again. Seconds, if you will.

An otherwise pleasant lunch at That Little Mexican Cafe was spoiled by the sides of rice and beans, neither of which was more than a few spoonfuls. Perhaps I've been spoiled by my favorite taqueria, but I expect a river of rice and a bean bonanza, especially when I'm paying $8 for a taco and tamale. For $4.50 at Taqueria Guerrero, I could have gotten twice as much food without sacrificing much taste.

At Reza's, on the other hand, a side of dill rice comes on its own full-size entrée plate. The kitchen must make the stuff by the barrel. Only a swine -- a swine more swinish than me, at that -- could finish it all. Consequently, leftovers are a given, no diner leaves hungry, and the perceived value is very high.

It's a good investment, spending an extra 10 cents on sides. Because of it, I may return to Reza's, but I can't say the same about T.L.M.C., as good as everything else was.
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Thursday, April 12, 2001

We should insist that our waitstaff respond to our patrons' inquiries with the utmost candor. Even though each and every item on our menu will surely be a delicacy, some will undoubtedly be worse than others. And some will appeal to some while others will appeal to others. So when a customer asks the opinion of her waiter -- he being intimately familiar with every dish that we serve -- of a certian selection, he shouldn't be afraid to express the truth, whether it forces the direction of his thumb up or down.

Most waiters are either trained or assume it necessary to act like the dish his customer orders is the best thing since sliced bread (especially if it is sliced bread). Maybe they've never eaten the stuff they're serving and they try to cover it up with empty praise. It is a refreshing surprise when a waiter will tell me that the dish I'm thinking of ordering isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and that I'd be better off ordering such-and-such instead. Such behavior rids the restaurant of the pretention of assumed perfection, and we should definately adapt it.

YANI: Candor

(Why do all my suggestions start with "C"?)
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Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Commenting on manufactured scarcity, Greg says a Malibu restaurant reserves a table at all times for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyone can sit there, but they must move if Arnold shows up.

This is an excellent idea, and I think we should select someone to get similar star treatment at our place. It would be fun to set up a modest shrine to this person, and we could get publicity from our quixotic quest to cajole them into dining with us.

But who? I'm thinking it should be a second-tier luminary, someone famous but obscure (without being campy!), maybe someone "almost famous." It should be someone with a connection to us or to Chicago, and, most important, someone we admire and would like to meet and entertain.

Some possibilities: Neil Stephenson. Ani Difranco. George Will. Jennifer Grey. Steve "Your table is ready" Rosenbloom. Garrison Keillor. The woman from the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." Mike Veeck. Polly Esther. Randall Schwartz. Stanley Tucci. Robert Silvers. David Wallace. J.D. Salinger. Bill Murray. Stephen Hawking. Nancy Cartwright.

And of course, Greg Knauss.

So many luminaries! How's this: After the chosen one has dined once, we devote a second table to a second celebrity and go on a second quest, and so on. Eventually our entire dining room would be devoted to various objects of our affection, though this could create a problem if they all happened visit on the same night.
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Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Bruce Sherman, executive chef at North Pond Cafe, tells the Tribune that GlobalChefs.com is one of his favorite sites.

It's not a deep or well-designed site, but some of the chef interviews are interesting, and I think I'm going to try the recipe for oatmeal cookies.
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Monday, April 09, 2001

I was telling Greg about my affection for Chicago, in particular how in the summer my love for this city, like the weather, gets all hot and steamy.

YANI: Hot and Steamy

A triple entendre!
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