Uniquely American?

This article (via Insty) lists the top 5 restaurants that define America, and quite frankly, it made me gloomy. Here’s why.

Two of the restaurant chains (Taco Bell and Domino’s) are basically watered-down bastardizations of another country’s food type.  Taco Bell is barely Mexican, and Domino’s is barely Italian — much as is the case with Spaghetti Warehouse and Olive Garden.  (I do take issue with the author’s lionization of made-in-Italy pizza, by the way.  I think you get better pizza in New Jersey and Chicago than anything made in Rome, for instance.)  That both Domino’s and Taco Bell are so popular — despite their tenuous relationship with their specific ethnic origins — is fine, I guess;  but it does point to the homogenization of the American diet, which is not so good.

Then there’s this about Starbucks:

When Howard Schultz conceptualized Starbucks, he wanted the coffee shop to be a “third place” for people. He knew that most people spent the majority of their time at home and at work. He hoped Starbucks would fill in any gaps that existed and become the place where people went when they were in between home and the office. And he succeeded.

That this defines America is a huge tell — because in almost every other Western country in the world, the “third place” is not a coffee bar but a pub.  That we prefer coffee to alcohol in our “third place” is unsurprising, because we Americans (your Humble Narrator very much excluded) have a peculiar attitude towards booze in that we’re constantly at war with it (e.g. Prohibition) while at the same time we’re in love with it.  Just as unfortunately, Americans prefer to consume booze to get drunk (e.g. shots, chasers and keggers) instead of using booze moderately, as a social lubricant.  Worst of all, American bars have totally fucked things up either by playing loud, horrible music inside as though they’re dance clubs, or else by mounting giant TV screens on the walls to screen sporting contests (likewise played at earsplitting volume, to create the “live” atmosphere).  Being deafened by rap or rock music or having one’s conversation destroyed by screaming sports fans is not supportive of socializing — which, by the way, is one thing that Starbucks did get right, by not succumbing to the bar ethic.  The other thing that Starbucks got right — even though I disagree with it — is that by pricing their product so high, they’ve made coffee equivalent to booze (a Starbucks coffee costs about the same as a beer and is only marginally cheaper than, say, a daiquiri).

As for the other restaurant chains named, I find little to disagree with (except for his dig at Wendy’s).  And thank goodness we have Dunkin’ Donuts, America’s answer to Britain’s Greggs chain.  Maybe there is hope for us after all;  but I still wish we had more of a pub culture Over Here, if for no other reason than to lessen the influence of the dreadful Starbucks.

8 comments

  1. Dunkin’ Donuts is apparently dropping the “Donuts” from its name. Because…reasons, I guess. Maybe it wants to appear healthier or something.

  2. I saw that list the other day, and it depressed me.

    Some years ago my wife and I took a trip to Italy. We took a bus tour because it was the most time-efficient way to see the highlights. The day we arrived in Italy, in Rome, jet lagged and worn out, we visited the Vatican Museum then the tour guide recommended we stop at a food truck, get something to eat, bring it back to the hotel, eat and take a nap, then we’d meet for dinner. So wife and I got basically pressed flatbread sandwiches, couple slices of salami, couple slices provolone, folded and pressed. It was one of the most delicious things we’d ever eaten, everything, even the bread, tasted wonderful.

    I told you that so I could tell you this: Americans are weird about food too. We don’t take it seriously. Hell, my wife who’s full-blooded Italian and has eaten lasagna her entire life got the best lasagna she’d EVER eaten at a highway rest stop where we stopped for lunch in Revel, Italy (this one wasn’t an Autogrill, but the food at those was good too). Because even Italians who stop for meals on trips want good food and will take the time to eat and enjoy it, instead of scarfing down some crap so they can get back on the road.

    The old adage of good, fast, cheap, pick two at most? For Americans we’ll settle for one, and preferably fast.

    Don’t get me started on how Italian rest stops (the above mentioned Autogrills) actually serve WINE, imagine a highway rest stop in the US serving alcohol? MADD would be out in force.

    Back to the list, three of the five (Taco Bell, Dominos and McDonalds) are absolute crap. The other two are decent (I actually like Dunkin Donuts coffee, especially the dark roast) but there are better options.

    The thing about places like Olive Garden (also Red Lobster, Houlihans/Fridays, Chili’s, and pretty much any other mid-level chain and especially the ethnic ones) is that they’re consistent. Yeah, I can get better Italian food at the family-owned place two miles from my front door in NJ than Olive Garden could ever dream of selling (Hell, I get better Italian food when I visit my mother-in-law), but if I’m driving thru the middle of Pennsylvania and I’m hungry I’ll get a decent meal at Olive Garden, and it’ll taste pretty much the same as the one in NJ. Not sure I’d trust a place that advertized Italian food outside a major metro area, they probably think ravioli comes in a can and has meat in it (shudder).

  3. Spot on post and comments so far.

    Same here in western Canada, and cold too. Quebec is much better, but still not great.

    Roman pizza was crap at all 3 places my wife and I tried it, and stupid expensive too. All bars here and most restaurants are equally horribly loud, except for, ta da! The Royal Canadian Legion.

    The Legion is our version of the VFW, I think, and is full of old guys and dolls, chatting, reading a newspaper, drinking tax free beer in a nice quiet room. The food is appalling, but the guys like it, reminds them of army chow.

  4. Good comments Kim.

    At my favorite place, the food IS uniquely American. They have a nice wooden bar stocked with a good selection of beer, bourbon, rye, and other whiskeys. There is a TV at one end, but the sound is turned off. The staff is friendly, and I’ve never seen anyone drunk there.

    I certainly hope it stays that way.

  5. “Two of the restaurant chains (Taco Bell and Domino’s) are basically watered-down bastardizations of another country’s food type.”

    Nobody tell Kim about the movie Demolition Man!

  6. Watering down & bastardizing other people’s cuisine in order to make a nation wide chain is what Americans do.
    Of course, we also make it easy for newly arrived immigrants to open up their own restaurants, serving food as authentic as they want to make it. And then they discover that you can get actual good quality meat for not a whole lot of money… and then proceed to bastardize their own cuisine, because they don’t need to use rice straw and stray rat organs like they do back in the old country.

  7. I concur heartily with both the post and the comments. It seems the day of the non-franchise restaurant is drawing to a close; between massive advertising budgets, especially TV, and the brand recognition it creates, and whatever it is that Americans use for palate and tongue, “anything that fits on a plate for $5.99 in 3 minutes” looks like the only thing resembling food that will survive American culture. Economically, it’s so tough to compete against the chains’ money, unless a restaurant was well established 20+ years ago it’ll never make it today,and when the owners retire or die, the game’s over; whomever takes it over will, despite efforts not to, nearly always fail to measure up unless they’re one of the children who grew up in the kitchen.

    There’s a local BBQ joint that delivered exquisite barbeque, right until they started chasing dollars and opened 3 more locations. Now their “sides” are mass produced in a central kitchen and taste like it; what was very good cole slaw is now “cole soup” and I suppose the beans are still “baked, ” but now in some fashion unknown to practitioners of the culinary arts. Unfortunately, the barbeque is still just good enough to keep them in business (side note: I was thoroughly spoiled on cole slaw and barbeque at a very young age by Arbaugh’s in D.C., a phenomenal rib place long since merely a memory, as is, alas, Avignon Freres for pastry; Avignon’s died with the last of the brothers who owned and ran it. Probably a Krispy Kreme on that corner now….).

Comments are closed.