Dirty Bathroom, Dirty Kitchen




We’ve all been there. Literally.
The dirty restaurant bathroom that makes us wonder about the kitchen. As Anthony Bourdain said in Kitchen Confidential, ‘If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like.‘ You can argue that there are different crews with different responsibilities, but Bourdain is not alone; most of us see it as an omen. A poll from Cintas, a provider of restroom supplies to the restaurant industry, found that 79% of respondents would avoid a restaurant if they knew the bathrooms were dirty. 88% of them agreed that the state of the restrooms says something about the kitchen’s hygiene, and 94% said if they personally encountered bathroom nastiness, they wouldn’t return.

There’s spillover in our minds, but there is actually little hard data to support a connection between a dirty bathroom and a dirty kitchen. According to Doug Powell, publisher of the BarfBlog, health inspectors will take note of the general state of a restaurant restroom and include impressions and any obvious violations in the report, but they don’t pull out the swabs and test kits like they do in the kitchen. Correlation or not, when we eat out, we want to know about the table and the throne. While the state of the restroom sometimes makes it into the review on sites like Yelp or Tripadvisor, restaurant bathrooms, like favorite dishes and ambiance, really warrant their own crowdsourced reviews. Since personal preferences can be very personal, there’s no shortage of potty apps out there to help you find the right place at the right time. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Bathroom Scout directs you to more than a million user-reviewed restrooms worldwide.
  • Flush’d won us over with its motto: No one takes this sh*t as seriously as we do.
  • The Charmin-sponsored Sit or Squat has ease of use going for it, dividing all its mapped facilities into two categories: safe to SIT; or maybe you want to SQUAT.
  • Refuge Restroom locates safe and welcoming restroom access for transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals.
  • The Looie is not for everyone, and that’s by design. For $25 a month, the New York City-based app offers its members entry to restrooms housed in restaurants, hotels, and office buildings—all places that normally deny public access. In exchange for admitting its members, the Looie team provides the janitorial services to its partnering establishments.

Cintas, the company behind the poll, gives an annual award for America’s Best Bathroom. Last year’s award went to the town of Minturn, Colorado for a public restroom that resembles a passageway into a Rocky Mountain mine. Past nominees include a distillery’s restroom in a whiskey barrel, a Las Vegas casino men’s room with urinals set into authentic, graffiti-covered sections of the Berlin Wall, and a Presidential porta-potty made for Barack Obama’s inauguration. You can find all the winners and top nominees at America’s Best Restroom Hall of Fame.

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The Political Donations of Restaurant Chains



Is that a ‘blue plate special’ you’re eating? Or could it be a red plate?

In these hyper-partisan times, even restaurants have their own political action committees (PACs).
The companies can’t contribute directly to federal elections so they pool their financial resources in special accounts, combining corporate funds, employee donations, and contributions from vendors, customers, and other stakeholders. Usually the corporate board decides how to distribute it.

The businesses don’t have to list campaign contributions in proxy statements or annual reports. Some, like Chick-Fil-A, are well known for their political leanings, but it’s usually more of a challenge to assess both the political orientation and full extent of their corporate political activities.

Nearly all of the major restaurant chains donate primarily to Republican candidates, committees, and causes. The same is true for the right-leaning National Restaurant Association, the industry’s dominant trade association, as well as most of its 53 state affiliates. Together they represent more than 500,000 restaurant businesses plus supplier companies, faculty and students in hospitality education, and nonprofits like hospitals and health care facilities, schools, prisons, and military food service establishments. With annual spending that’s just south of $100 million, the association maintains 37 in-house lobbyists and supports still more outside lobbyists whose agenda tends to be aimed at blocking legislation favoring paid sick leave, immigration reform, nutrition labeling, and raising the minimum wage.

The reddest of the chains
DineEquity, the parent company of Applebee’s and IHOP, leads the pack contributing 96% of its funding to Republican candidates and causes.
It’s followed by Outback Steakhouses’ parent Bloomin’ Brands and Chick-Fil-A, both at 93%;
Wendy’s and White Castle, each at 91%;
Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut) at 90%
Chili’s parent company (Brinker International) at 89%.

Closer to the middle
Dairy Queen goes Republican 72% of the time; 
Panera is at 67% and McDonald’s is at 63%.
While Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, leans 63% toward the GOP, its CEO personally contributes 100% to Democratic candidates and causes;
Dunkin’ Donuts slightly favors Republicans with a 52%/48% split.

Lonely on the left
Of the country’s leading restaurant chains, only Starbucks and Chipotle favor Democratic candidates and causes, Starbucks at 83% and Chipotle at 100%. Unlike their conservative counterparts, neither of these two chains has its own PAC.


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Just Try Paying a Bank in Crème Brûlée

image via Saveur

image via Saveur


2015 is the year that crowdfunding will eclipse venture capital as a funding source for entrepreneurs.
Crowdfunding was once a space dominated by technology startups, do-gooders, and indie filmmakers, but food trucks and small artisan food producers quickly moved in. It’s been steadily climbing up the industry ladder and is now a dominant funding source for every kind of enterprise from the scruffiest popup to the loftiest end of fine dining.

Restaurants have always been an iffy proposition with a 60% failure rate in the first three years of business, and banks and other traditional lenders have generally steered clear. Would-be restaurateurs often turn to friends and family members to help with seed money or else resort to raiding retirement savings and home equity, and maxing out credit cards. But in the crowdfunded world of startups, with an overall failure rate of 90%, restaurants look like a good bet.

Crowdfunding takes one of two structures:
Early crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter adopted a rewards-based model. Participants aren’t lenders or investors but patrons. They pool money in increments as small as a few dollars and hand it over with no expectation of a financial payback. Instead, patronage is usually rewarded in the form of project mementos or perks— a $10 pledge to an organic nut roaster might net you a snack bag, or $200 to a pickle maker could get you a weekend brining workshop. Restaurants tend to reward patrons with fringe benefits like priority reservations, an invitation to the opening night party, or a year of free collateral, no interest, and no financial payback
The newer crowdfunding model uses a more conventional equity-based mechanism in which investors receive ownership shares (or debt instruments) in the enterprise. It’s been slower to get off the ground because early offerings were in breach of various securities laws. It’s since been sorted out with new federal legislation, certain regulatory exemptions, and SEC oversight, and the space is evolving rapidly with about $2.5 billion under management in equity crowdfunding portals.

Crowdfunding is more than just an injection of capital.
It creates a pre-opening base of customers that largely self-identifies as ‘foodies’ and has a vested interest in the success of the restaurant. They tend to mobilize as brand evangelists, sharing on social media and bringing friends in to dine at ‘their’ restaurant. Crowdfunding has found some of its most enthusiastic investors and loyal customers in smaller cities where diners can be looking to fill a specific need in the community like a vegan option or a gluten-free bakery.

Put your money where your mouth is.
Crowdmapped  lists 12 of the best crowdfunding platforms that specialize in food enterprises.
The National Restaurant Association’s Trendmapper reports on the health of and outlook for the restaurant industry.
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I Coulda Been a Contender — The Catchphrase of the ‘Next Chipotle’

The hunt for the ‘next Chipotle’ is well documented (I got 21,500,000 results from a Google search). 
And why shouldn’t restaurants aspire to attain that status? Chipotle tapped into the zeitgeist with a fast-casual model emphasizing freshness, quality, customizability, and the mantra ‘food with integrity.’ It’s a company that does good with enlightened employment practices and a commitment to sourcing humanely and sustainably-raised products. And it’s a company that does well–$1,000 invested in the company 10 years ago would now be worth more than $15 million. Crazy but true.

Thanks to Starbucks and Chipotle, customization is the new standard.  
Today’s restaurant customers expect to control portion size and toppings, bowl or bun. They need gluten-free and vegan choices, optional toppings and drizzles, and a specific number of pumps of caramel in their lattés. Even old line fast food is jumping on the customization bandwagon as McDonald’s experiments with a build-your-own-burger menu and Pizza Hut rolls out a pizza builder. The ‘next Chipotle’ will undoubtedly follow suit.

It can’t just be about the food.  
A meal at Chipotle is solid but unspectacular. What’s truly masterful is the way the company combines an unremarkable product with a socially conscious business model to forge a connection between the brand and its audience. The ‘next Chipotle’ would be well advised to seek a similarly integrated approach to cause marketing.

Here are the contenders, the startups, and the up-and-comers. Industry watchers believe that the ‘next Chipotle’ could be lurking in this list. 

The healthier options:
Protein Bar is all about being the healthy alternative. The menu is paleo-friendly and has never met a superfood that it couldn’t wrap in a whole wheat and flax seed tortilla. Kale, quinoa, Greek yogurt, and agave all appear in the signature Protein Bar-ritos; add an avocado and green tea smoothie and you’re still safely below the typical Chipotle calorie count. Even more austere is the meat-, dairy, egg-free Veggie Grill. They call it a ‘veggie positive’ experience. The company is on an expansion tear but has yet to prove that the format can succeed away from the west coast.

lyfe-kitchen-officeThe pedigree:
LYFE Kitchen covers all the bases with its ambitions. It was founded by an alumni group of McDonald’s senior executives with a menu created by a pair of celebrity chefs. Their motto is ‘Something for everyone, from carnivores to vegans’, and indeed every contemporary food trend is represented: there’s pizza, pasta, barbecue, fish tacos, a grass-fed burger, Thai curry, and a quinoa bowl. There’s a genuine commitment to mindful, principled business practices that comes through in every choice from sourcing local ingredients to LEED certified restaurant construction and living herb walls.


The buzz:

Piada is getting a lot of love from insiders winning a slew of industry awards for its concept and branding. It’s also caught the eye of an investment partner with a history of picking winners like PF Changs and Restoration Hardware. The menu looks like an Italian-accented Chipotle with flatbread wraps standing in for burritos and follows the same formula of a simple menu with a few, freshly-made-to-order entreés.


The lifestyle brand:

If the secret sauce is building a connection with the public, then Sweetgreen will rise to the top of the fast casual heap. The chain sells make-your-own bowls of grains and salads, and while the food gets high marks, nothing’s on the menu that doesn’t align with the founders’ values and forward their agenda. That means every element is hip and wholesome; it has to be sustainable, healthy, based in authentic relationships, and it has to make a positive difference in the community. They’ve already won the hearts of Silicon Valley tech investors who are facilitating coast-to-coast expansion.

The heir apparent:

ShopHouse is Chipotle’s Asian spin-off. It’s got the familiar production line with fresh, local, mostly organic ingredients, and naturally raised meats, but this time they’re going into noodle bowls and Vietnamese sandwiches. ShopHouse also gets to rub shoulders with the parent company’s brand equity and ‘food with integrity’ ethos, and to piggyback on existing supplier relations and cross-promotional marketing. Could Chipotle be the ‘next Chipotle’? Who better to duplicate its success?



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Paid Placeholders, Virtual Queues, and Other Ways to Hack a Restaurant Line




Just another day outside of Dominique Ansel Bakery, home of the cronut.






Yep, they’re still lining up for cronuts.
The line is out there every morning snaking down the Soho sidewalk before the 8am bakery opening. It’s not just New York and it’s not just a mania for pastry hybrids. They’re lining up for old school barbecue in Austin, Korean fried chicken in D.C., and the latest ramen bar in Chicago.

The problem is, it’s not just hype and tourists clogging our sidewalks. Restaurants of every stripe are happily embracing the queue. It keeps down the administrative costs of doing business—there’s no salaried reservationist, reservation no-shows, or cut off the top going to a service like OpenTable. Plus a line out front is good for business. It’s like a flesh and blood Yelp review signaling quality and popularity.

You hate waiting in line (and who doesn’t?).
You can stick to restaurants that take reservations, at the risk of missing out on transcendent sushi and the best pizza in town. You can go out before the lines form and force feed yourself a Florida-style 5:30 dinner. You can brave prime time but eat before you go to keep your blood sugar from plummeting before you’re seated. Or you can avail yourself of one of these solutions to the frustrating time suck of restaurant lines.

Pay someone else to wait, so you don’t have to.
CFxlvYdUkAEb_hd13 year-old Desmond (left) is heading back to junior high so his Austin-based business BBQ Fast Pass will be on hiatus til the next school vacation. He spent his summer as a line-sitter for hire in a folding chair outside of Franklin Barbecue, a local legend known for its succulent brisket and 5 hour waits. Taskrabbit, in Austin and more than a dozen other cities, connects you with locals that you can contract with to do your waiting for a negotiable fee. Rent a Friend claims to have more than 530,000 registered service providers worldwide. The company specializes in fake wedding dates and other stand-ins, but line waiting is among the service options. Los Angeles’ Line Angels enables ‘influencers, doers, and go-getters to make the most of their time’. New York City has the similarly pitched Same Old Line Dudes with two fee schedules—one for cronuts and one for all other lines.

Take a virtual number.
According to QLess (company motto: Queue less. Live more) we spend two years of our lives waiting in lines. The mobile wait management system is making a dent in all that lost time. It allows you to take your place in line, online, merging your spot with the in-person waiting list at the hostess stand. While others are cooling their heels at the restaurant, you’re going about your business while QLess gives real time estimates and alerts. If your table is ready before you are, just give someone a virtual ‘cut.’ A running tab on the website tallies the total time savings restored to QLess users; at last check it was 1,185 years, 304 days, 18 hours, 9 minutes.

Go off-peak.
Google recently added a new feature to its search bar. Tap on the restaurant’s name in the search result and the tool displays its busiest times.

fdfdb007a5ab3d6c2c71f065a250b126Get it to go.
Hangry was just added to the Oxford Dictionary, a clear sign that waiting for a table is incompatible with contemporary culture where gratification is supposed to be just a few keystrokes away. Impatience and tech savvy join forces in the many ordering, takeout, delivery, and payment apps that let you breeze by all the analog suckers standing in line. Users appreciate the streamlined process, and the restaurants like them too. According to a MasterCard survey, customers will spend as much as 30% more when they order dinner using a cash-free mobile app. It’s a crowded field with hundreds of apps vying for different market segments. There’s Tapingo, a campus food app for college studentsthe no-smartphone-required, all-text Zinglethe coast-to-coast 600-city coverage of Seamless; and Caviar, with its stable of Michelin-starred restaurant partners.

Is it worth the wait?
Yahoo Travel
lists the top ten longest restaurant lines around the country. Huffington Post shares 19 Cult Food Destinations Worth Enduring An Insanely Long Wait In Line.


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Read ’em and Weep: 100 Salads that are Worse than a Big Mac



CCF_BarbequeRanchChickenSaladimgresimagesimages   images-3images-2

Just a few members of the salad hall of shame

Salad is never going to win a popularity contest against a hamburger.
Or a burrito or a plate of pasta or a waffle. There’s really only one reason to order an entrée salad at a burger chain or a pancake house or a Mexican restaurant—because it’s healthier than the fat and calorie-laden specialties of the house.

Of course salad has its faults. Everyone knows to look out for cheese and croutons and to go easy on the creamy dressings. But worse than a Big Mac in terms of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories? The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine analyzed the nutrition data for salads at popular chain restaurants like Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Denny’s, and IHOP. The group chose the Big Mac as a nutritional yardstick believing it’s a kind of shorthand for everything that’s wrong with the American diet. They found more than a hundred salads, both side and entrée-sized, that are worse for you than McDonald’s iconic sandwich. You could even top off the burger with a couple of donuts and still not come close to the dietary damage done by some of these seemingly good-for-you choices.

Here are some of the worst offenders according to PCRM data:

Applebee’s Grilled Shrimp ‘N Spinach Salad
Applebee’s describes it as: Tender spinach, crisp bacon, roasted red peppers, red onions, toasted almonds and hot bacon vinaigrette topped with grilled shrimp.
PCRM defines it as a sodium disaster.

California Pizza Kitchen’s Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Salad
CPK says it’s: One of a kind, with roasted butternut squash, dates, avocado, toasted almonds, beets, red peppers, chopped egg and cranberries. Tossed with housemade Champagne vinaigrette.
PCRM says it’s more like three of a kind, if the three are the calories in a Big Mac.

IHOP’s Crispy Chicken Cobb Salad
IHOP dubbed it: The most satisfying salad. With crispy chicken, smoky bacon, hard-boiled egg, juicy tomatoes & tangy blue cheese crumbles all tossed in a tasty buttermilk ranch dressing.
PCRM calls it the most cholesterol—more than eight Big Macs put together.

You’ll find the complete list at the website of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Maybe you’d like a side salad with that burger? See why salad is just a gateway to french fries.


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We’ll Choose a Dirty Restaurant Over a Clean One, as Long as We Think It’s Authentic

image via The Health Inspector's  Notebook

image via The Health Inspector’s Notebook


Authenticity is the value of the moment.
Much more than a buzzword, it shapes our attitudes and our ideals. It rolls off the tongue when we speak of everything from politicians to blue jeans.
Why would we let a little thing like hygiene get in the way of the pursuit of authentic dining experiences?

Studies like Dirty, Authentic…Delicious and Conflicting Social Codes and Organizations: On How Hygiene and Authenticity Shape Consumer Evaluations of Restaurants have looked at diners’ Yelp reviews and correlated them to inspection data from local departments of public health. The findings consistently demonstrate that authenticity trumps cleanliness when consumers choose and evaluate their dining experiences.

Some diners even extoll the virtues of shaky sanitation.
When they see line cooks ankle-deep in bok choi trimmings and unrefrigerated ducks strung up by their necks they double down on the Yelp review, lavishly praising the unvarnished authenticity of the meal. In cities where health inspectors assign letter grades, it’s common to joke that ‘A’ is for ‘Americanized;’ a grade that’s only earned by restaurants that pay too much attention to superficial attributes and not enough to the food.

Let’s be clear, for a variety of reasons we are primarily talking about non-European ethnic restaurants.
First, these are the establishments that are most scrutinized for their bona fides by the self-styled urban adventurers who dominate online opinion and ratings sites. These are also the restaurants that are most challenged by differences in language and cultural norms, two significant obstacles to successful health inspections. And finally, the old clichés are borne out by statisticsimmigrant-owned ethnic restaurants, especially small and family-run businesses, fare poorly in health inspections when compared with similar businesses owned by native-born restaurateurs.

Go ahead and try that grubby little hole-in-the-wall.
And don’t worry; authenticity doesn’t correlate to food poisoning. A look at food-borne diseases by the Centers for Disease Control found that the inspection grades of restaurants with verified food poisoning outbreaks were no lower than those without.


Posted in food safety, Health, restaurants | 1 Comment

Compliments of the House? Teaspoons, Napkins, Sweet’N Low Packets: These are not on the takeout menu.

restaurant retribution via Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry Sanders endures restaurant retribution via Curb Your Enthusiasm


Diners are notorious for pilferage.
They waltz out the door with silverware, glassware, and salt shakers stuffed into pockets and handbags. They load up on bottles of hot sauce, straws, and thick stacks of paper napkins. Artwork disappears from walls and flowers from from tables. Restrooms have their own subculture of thievery with patrons treating it like a Costco run, stocking up on toilet paper and cleaning products.
If it’s not nailed down…and sometimes even when it is.

This not about need. You’ll find sticky-fingered diners in every class and category of restaurant. Sizzler gives up a lot of steak knives but so does Peter Luger. Particularly exalted locales are often especially targeted. The Stockholm hotel that hosts the Nobel Prize winners’ banquet replaces silver teaspoons by the hundreds after every awards ceremony, and the restaurant at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria runs a no-questions-asked amnesty program for larcenous guests with troubled consciences. But troubled consciences are rare; whether it’s a handful of condiment packets or a logoed coffee mug stashed in a coat pocket, most pilferers tell themselves that it’s practically a victimless crime.

Restaurant thieves have a knack for rationalizations.
They shift responsibility to the restaurant: ‘If they didn’t want me to have it they wouldn’t have put it out’; or ‘They want the PR.’ They’ll call it a ‘memento of a special occasion’ or justify the theft because ‘it has my initials on it.‘ There are brazen ‘collectors’ who display stolen treasures in gilt frames and china cabinets, and serial scroungers who boast that they haven’t bought their own coffee creamer in years.

Who among us doesn’t grab a few extra Starbucks napkins for the glove compartment? Or a handful of mints from the bowl? What about those teeny, tiny Tabasco bottles you sometimes see? Aren’t they perfect when you bring lunch from home? Whether it’s a handful of condiment packets or a logoed coffee mug stashed in a coat pocket, the perpetrator is convinced that the moral stakes are low; it’s not like you’re stealing an old lady’s handbag. Restaurant thievery has been called a crime of the moral majority, committed by otherwise upstanding citizens.

Neon signs, plumbing fixtures, taxidermied animals, novelty urinal mats: read about the most epic, outrageous, and audacious acts of restaurant thievery in Eater’s ongoing series Shit People Steal.




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We’re Hungry and We Want It Now

We’re fussy, we’re fickle, we’re inconsistent, and unpredictable.
We say we want healthy but opt for decadence. We chase the new but choose the familiar. We demand quality but reject premium price tags.
Somehow, restaurant operators need to parse all the contradictions and inconsistencies to give us what we really want.

Restaurant Business Online has come out with one of their periodic snapshots.    
They compiled data from numerous business intelligence sources (including Consumer Reports Magazine, Technomic, The National Restaurant Association, and to capture our ever-changing dining preferences at this singular moment in time.

infographic via Restaurant Business Online

infographic via Restaurant Business Online


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Oh, Is It Just You This Evening?

We’re being ridiculous and we know it, but we still feel stigmatized by solo dining. Take a confident, capable, rational adult, plunk him down at a table for one, and residual memories of a middle school cafeteria come back to haunt him.
Everyone’s staring I look like a pathetic friendless loser I’m going to die a lonely virgin.

A scene from the 1984 movie The Lonely Guy dramatizes those fears. Steve Martin, the titular solo diner, requests a table for one. You can hear a pin drop as the restaurant’s service grinds to a halt. Busboys stop clearing, diners’ forks freeze in midair, and out of nowhere a theatrical spotlight bears down on the poor sap as he follows the smarmy maître d’ to his table.

It’s the middle school scar that never fades. 
Contemporary media continues to fuel the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1 and on Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation I feel sad when I see an old person eating aloneIkea’s 2014 April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed so close to the stereotype it left many wondering if it was really a put-on.1

One woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a Bite. The website is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And then there are forever alone tables, partitioned cubicle-style cafeteria seating that are popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.


In fact dining alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert. We need to take a page from the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher who, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captures the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone… She suggests that ‘snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality.’ In other words, sometimes you can be your own best dining companion.

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Selling Like Hotcakes? It’s time for a new metaphor.



IPads, kale chips, Bean boots, Taylor Swift’s new album: these are selling like hotcakes. Pancakes? Not so much.

Pancake sales are tough to pin down.
We visit IHOP, pull Eggos out of the freezer, add oil and water to boxed mixes, and sometimes even sift flour and crack eggs for homemade. In the industry, they look at the total picture and call it the ‘pancake experience.’ And when you add it all together, the pancake experience has been pretty flat for years.

It’s the rare household that makes pancakes from scratch. You’ll find a box of pancake mix in two-thirds of American kitchens, but it’s probably just whiling away the months until its expiration date. Annual household spending on pancake mixes is a mere $1.16, which adds up to a single new box about every three years. The frozen category is the only bright spot in home pancakes.

We still like a good restaurant pancake. We just wish that Chipotle would put them on the menu.
IHOP, with more than 1,500 locations, is the top chain in its category, but customers are increasingly abandoning the whole category. The top five traditional family dining chains (by sales) are IHOP, Denny’s, Cracker Barrel, Waffle House, and Bob Evans Restaurants. Every one of them is in the pancake business. Diners have been shifting to the new category of fast-casual restaurants where the top five brands are Panera, Chipotle, Panda Express, Jimmy John’s, and Five Guys. There’s not a pancake in sight at any of them, unless you want to count the scallion pancake-filled orange chicken wrap at Panda Express.

Don’t blame this one on the gluten police.
We flip over carb-heavy fads like ramen and cronuts, and trendy cupcakes, mac and cheese, and craft beers are still going strong, while pancakes are falling behind.
Hotcakes: these days they’re selling like sweetbreads.





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Are You a Music-Nerd-Slash-Foodie?



If you’re a music-nerd/foodie, it’s your golden age.
Restaurants are adding music directors who create musical pairings for the night’s list of menu specials, and British Airways now partners inflight meals with its Sound Bites music matching menu. There are pop ups like Covers, a kind of tribute band for the restaurant world, serving the signature dishes of well-known chefs, each paired with a cover version of a well known song. The bands and food booths are both headliners at festivals like San Francisco’s Outside Lands, Charleston’s Southern Ground, South Africa’s Delicious, and Maryland’s Sweet Life.

Sonic seasoning
We all know that a good meal is about more than just the plate of food in front of you. It’s also about the pleasure you take in the people you’re with, the buzz in the room, the atmosphere, and the ambiance. Music adds another sensory component, and the right music will complement the meal and elevate the whole dining experience.

Create your own soundtracks with these resources:

Supper is like a cookbook with mood music.
It’s a website and a Spotify app that combines recipes with enough harmonious tracks to carry you from cooking through dining. Well-known chefs, restaurateurs, and musicians collaborate on the selections like shrimp with tomato fricasee paired with Massive Attack and John Coltrane, and black rice-stuffed baby squash accompanied by Solange, Leonard Cohen, and Scissor Sisters. Are playlists becoming the new wine list?

The Recipe Project sings for its supper. 
It’s a book, a CD, an app, and a video, with contributions from top chefs, food writers, and musicians. It’s smart, with interviews and essays exploring the relationship between food and music. And it’s silly, with sing-along recipes set word-for-word to music. There’s a heavy metal octopus salad with black-eyed peas from Michael Symon, Chris Cosentino’s Beastie Boys-esque offal and eggs, and the classic rock of Tom Colicchio’s creamless creamed corn. Bonus tracks: David Chang shares a playlist he calls ‘Songs to Lose Customers by’.

Turntable Kitchen calls their service ‘a curated food and music discovery experience.’
A subscription to their Pairings Boxes brings monthly shipments, each with recipes, spices and other ingredients used in the recipes, a digital mixtape of new music, and a limited-edition vinyl album pressed by their own record label.

Mood magazine is a food and music quarterly organized around the notion that ‘not many things can beat a good record and a delicious meal.’
A recent relocation from Brussels to New York has served to beef up the US-focussed content, while still gathering stories from around the globe. The latest issue looks at Brooklyn’s fried chicken scene, visits a South African café owned by a local indie rock star, and travels to food and music festivals in Norway and Illinois.

The creator behind Musical Pairing has devised a mathematical system that’s supposed to identify the perfect song for every dish.
The system assigns a numerical value to a meal based on ingredients, flavor profile, and cooking method. It also looks at music, assigning a value based on instrumentation, tempo, beat, and genre. The supposition is that when the Food Pairing Number (FPN) is equal to the Musical Pairing Number (MPN), you’ve got your match.


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Restaurant Slang — Learn to Speak Their Language






Restaurant people are truly a different breed.
They look different, with their own clothes and tattoos. They keep their own hours, heading to work when most of us are heading home, and going out when we’re going to sleep. The industry has its own rites and rituals, its own rules, and its own language.

Dining room jargon–

BOH: Back Of the House; the kitchen, walk-in, or any other area where you don’t deal with customers; BOH also refers to the people who work there. FOH: Front Of the House is the bar, the dining room, or anywhere else the staff deals with customers, as well as the people who work those areas.

[ _ ]-Top: describes the table’s seating– a 4-top seats four; a 2-top seats two but is better known as aDeuce, and a Hi-top is a tall table like you’d find in a bar area.

Covers: the count of meals served; multiply the tops by the Turns (the number of seatings at a single table) and you’ll get the total covers.

What they call us–

Diners are called Campers when they linger too long at the table, or Cupcakes when they’re flirting with staff. If it’s an open kitchen there are probably a few other coded descriptors.

PPX is an Extraordinary Person–it might be written on the ticket to signal VIP treatment. It’s not just for celebrities and high rollers; someone might write NPR on a ticket to tell the staff that Nice People Are Rewarded too.

There are numerous unprintable phrases to describe a bad tipper; some of the kinder ones are Stiff andFlea.

Kitchen jargon–

After you place your order, the kitchen might print out Dupes; these are duplicate tickets frequently printed in multiples on color-coded paper to signify courses. The dupes are hung on the Rail or theBoard where they’re considered On Deck.

If your server has checked the Low Board they know the Count of a particular menu item; if it’s 86’edyou’re out of luck. In a hurry? The cooks will be told it’s On the Fly, and they’ll Fire the dish immediately.

When multiple cooks are working different components of a single dish they’ll call 3 Out or 5 Out to signal to the others that they’ll be ready to plate their items in the stated number of minutes. All Daycounts the number of dishes that the cook is readying at that particular time, as in ‘I’ve got 2 lamb and 3 risotto all day.’

Cooked orders go from the Line to the Pass, a long counter surface where they’re plated and picked up by servers. If the kitchen is In the Weeds with too many dupes, the orders won’t be Coming On Up as quickly as they should. Conversely, if the waitstaff is Slammed the orders can sit there Dying on the Pass.

Learn to speak their language and who knows—the next time you’re at your deuce in the FOH, you just might find yourself comped like a real PPX.

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Seeking Perfection: One-Dish Restaurants

Some restaurants try to have a little something for everyone.
They aim for a wide audience by giving the people what they want. It’s the Cheesecake Factory with its exhaustive, globe-trotting, genre-straddling menu, or the new small plates dining that gives a nod to every passing trend. All that variety can please a crowd while stretching a kitchen thin. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the tyranny of tasting menus. The inviolable procession of courses doesn’t presume to appeal widely, and even the most receptive diners will find misses among the hits.

The growing ranks of one-dish restaurants  go their own way, expanding on the greatness of a single, much-loved dish.
The most successful single-subject restaurants focus on a dish with mass appeal, often a classic comfort food like macaroni and cheese or meatballs. There might be multiple variations and a few side dishes and embellishments to spice things up, but the main attraction is where it’s at, and it’s probably safe to say that most customers of Potatopia aren’t there for the side salad.

All those eggs are in just one basket.
A one-dish restaurant needs to achieve excellence through its specialization. That single dish better be flawlessly prepared because there’s nothing else for the kitchen to hide behind.
Here are some of the restaurants that are 
singing just one note, and some of them are even making beautiful music:

There’s luscious coconut pudding, butterscotch pudding, chocolate pudding, and tapioca at New York’s Puddin’. They probably make a pretty good rice pudding too, but wouldn’t you rather go a few blocks further downtown to the rice pudding specialists at the single-dish Rice to Riches?

Meatballs are universally and perennially loved; the kind of homey humble dish that is rarely stylish but always in style. They’re at home in soup, on a sandwich, atop pasta, or stuffed in rice paper, grape leaves, or dumpling wrappers. They’re practically tailor-made for the one-dish concept. That must be why we need a national ranking of the best all-meatball restaurants.

Macaroni and cheese is another dish that never seems to fall out of favor or fashion. Some restaurants try to reinvent it with luxe and modern ingredients, but the best are those that barely tweak the classic recipe. Maybe that’s why so many of the mac and cheese specialists aim for distinction through an establishment’s name, resulting in places like S’Mac, Mac AttackElbowsMac & Cheese 101, Mac Daddy’s, and the nostalgic HomeroomClose cousin grilled cheese has inspired more than its share of punnily-named one-dish cafés. There’s Ms. Cheezious, C’est Cheese, Meltdown, and the Star Wars-themed grilled cheese truck The Grillenium Falcon.

Southerners and Midwesterners are always shocked to learn that casseroles are much maligned in coastal culinary circles. They’re a mainstay in much of the country where they even have their own nickname of ‘hot dish,’ a generic term that includes everything from tuna-noodle to tamale pie. Wherever the casserole is held in high regard you’re likely to find the all-hot dish establishments like Illinois’ mini chain Johnny Casserole and Georgia’s Casseroles. Minnesotans can choose between the traditional (Hot Dish) and the contemporary (Haute Dish).

There’s a hummusiya or all-hummus restaurant in Philadelphia and a risotteria or all-risotta restaurant in New York. It’s cold cereal only at Cereality, hot cereal straight through to dinner time at Oatmeals, and San Francisco’s The Mill serves nothing but toast, where its rarefied all-toast format became an instant parable and parody of the city’s latest crop of shallow, callow tech millionaires with their overheated consumerism.

One-hit wonders? One-trick ponies?
Some of the one-dish restaurants will certainly die off, but a strong concept that’s well executed can live on. And the next wave is already on the horizon: look for two-dish restaurants like Tom + Chee (tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches), BubbleDogs (hot dogs and champagne), and Burger & Lobster, whose name needs no explanation but it could use a rationale.


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Top 10 Food Scenes: not just the usual suspects.

2010 07 31_0006foodcitysign

What defines a great food scene?
Is it a cluster of big name chefs and world-class restaurateurs? A distinct regional cuisine? The diverse offerings of authentic ethnic enclaves?

The definition is changing.
We still have our celebrated food meccas like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco with countless options and Michelin stars, but America’s towns and small cities are proving that you don’t need vast offerings and high-end restaurants. Instead, what they have is communities of concerned farmers and talented food artisans, passionate and discerning food lovers, and a deep-rooted, indigenous food culture that adds authenticity and meaning to the experience.

These communities give rise to clusters of second tier restaurants. The cooking can be just as refined and inventive as anything you’ll find in their better-known, big-city counterparts, but they’re the kind of restaurants that are opened by independent chef-owners rather than investor consortiums. There’s no publicist garnering national press and pushing these restaurants onto top 10 lists. You don’t go there to add a notch to your foodie belt; you go there to eat well.

Sperling’s BestPlaces, a research firm that produces city rankings, crunched the numbers to come up with a list of America’s Top Cities for Foodies
The list ignores the ratings and emphasizes the food culture by counting up specialty food markets, cookware shops, wine bars, craft breweries, and farm markets, and the ratio of local ownership to chain franchised food outletsIt leveled the playing field for small cities by leaning heavily on density data rather than sheer volume. By Sperling’s measure the ten best ‘foodie’ cultures are found in:

1.Santa Rosa/Napa, California
2.Portland, Oregon
3.Burlington, Vermont
4.Portland, Maine
5.San Francisco, California
6.Providence, Rhode Island
7.Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts
8.Seattle, Washington
9.Santa Fe, New Mexico
10.Santa Barbara, California



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Show Me the Labels!



It’s been four years since the passage of the national menu labeling law. Where are the labels?

The law calls for the FDA to mandate calorie labels at “restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations.”
It seems straightforward enough. At the time of its passage the 
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg even hailed its simplicity and ease of implementation. But four years later the agency is still tinkering with the rules and dithering about the date by which restaurants must comply.

Lobbyists for the food service industry dedicated themselves to obstructing the law by nitpicking the language of a single phrase restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations.”
The bowling alley lobby (who knew?) successfully argued for an exclusion by focusing on the phrase “retail food establishment.” They can serve a full menu but they claim to be in the entertainment business. Ditto for the movie theater operators’ lobby, and places like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave and Busters. The pizza chains concede that they’re in the retail food business, but establishments? Their lobbyists argue for an exclusion from onsite menu labeling because so much of the business is takeout and delivery. The true establishment, they claim, is the customer’s home. Retailers like Target, Costco, and BJ’s want to wriggle out of compliance because of the verbiage “20 or more locations.” The retailers themselves have the requisite number of locations, but the in-store restaurants are often independent, and operated by small business owners.
Convenience stores, supermarkets, vending machine operators, and airlines have all found their own loopholes in the language.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual at the nation’s chain restaurants.
Earlier this week, the nutrition watchdogs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest announced the 2014 Xtreme Eating Awards—its annual survey of chain restaurants’ latest permutations of fat, calories, salt, and sugar. A few years ago, a 1,500 calorie entrée would elicit gasps from the judges; this year every single nominee topped 2,000 calories and a handful weighed in at more than 3,000. The ultimate ‘winner’ came from the perennial overachiever The Cheesecake Factory whose Bruléed French Toast is a gut-busting plate of sugar, butter, syrup, and custard-soaked bread clocking in with a full day’s worth of sodium, 3 days’ worth of sugar, and enough saturated fat to carry its eater through an entire workweek. It’s the rare dish where the side of bacon is the healthiest item on the plate.

It’s not like it’s named The Lo-Fat Cottage Cheese Factory.
Caveat emptor, right? No one goes there expecting health food. You could argue that chains like The Cheesecake Factory are just giving us what we want, and we’re a willing public with a taste for fats.

But is this really what we want?
Restaurants aren’t just delivering amped-up comfort food; they’re pushing ever harder at the boundaries of our taste and serving the results in eye-popping portions. Look at the dish that appears on The Cheescake Factory menu as Bow-Tie Pasta, Chicken, Mushrooms, Tomato, Pancetta, Peas and Caramelized Onions in a Roasted Garlic-Parmesan Cream Sauce. It sounds hearty, soothing, even indulgent with a bit of creamy garlic sauce, but you’d never guess that you’d have to eat five entrée-sized boxes of Stouffer’s frozen Classics Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo- each topped with a pat of butter!-to achieve the calorie and saturated fat equivalent. We shouldn’t have to guess.

This is a broken social contract. 
The Cheesecake Factory has every right to pile on the salt, fat, and sugar, and nobody is twisting our arms to eat there. But the abysmal nutritional standards and gargantuan portions are served up in the midst of America’s ever-worsening obesity crisis, and the food service industry is fighting tooth and nail to obstruct the stalled federal menu-labeling mandate. You can say that it’s beyond the scope of corporate responsibility to provide a solution to society’s ills, but corporate citizenship be damned; this is unconscionable.

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Would Jesus Tip More than 20%?



Tips for Jesus struck again, this time in Philadelphia.
After drinks ($150) and dinner ($250) a diner left a $2,000 tip for the bartender and $5,000 to the server. Those latest tips bring Jesus’ total extravagance to nearly $150,000.

An anonymous diner or group of diners has been tipping for Jesus since last fall, leaving absurdly generous tips at restaurants and bars in more than a dozen cities in the United States and Mexico. Each receipt has been stamped with the Instagram handle @tipsforjesus, where photos of the tips and the ecstatic recipients are posted.

The tech-savvy Samaritan is rumored to be former PayPal VP Jack Selby and a few friends from his inner circle. While maintaining their anonymity, the group has released public statements and given a few interviews explaining their mission. Despite the insignia and the extensive coverage by religious press organizations, they prefer to keep some distance between Tips for Jesus and traditional Christian philanthropy, calling theirs ‘agnostic’ giving.

The Tips for Jesus crew is hoping  to inspire an army of munificent copycat tippers. They try to create an internet sensation with each new episode, harnessing the power of social media through the 75,000 followers of their Instagram account. And it’s exactly the kind of off-kilter, feel-good story that the internet likes to run with.

The problem is, as an act of charity, this kind of giving falls flat.
With the gap between rich and poor ever widening, plunking down the occasional out-sized tip isn’t especially effective or even moral. It smacks of hubris and privilege, more like the drunken lark of an entitled frat boy than genuine altruism. And while n
o one would argue that restaurant servers aren’t worthy of largesse, the Tips for Jesus recipients aren’t exactly hash slingers working the midnight shift at Denny’s. Whatever their true identities, the Tippers definitely dine like tech millionaires of a recent vintage, and the Instagram photos show receipts for high-end sushi bars, craft cocktail lounges, and  blow-outs at clubby steakhouses—the kinds of places where a server makes a solidly middle class living and is more likely to use a tip windfall to buy a big screen TV than to pay an overdue electric bill. 

Not that I think they should stop.
Tips for Jesus is probably not destined for long-term sustainability, but it’s bringing attention to charitable giving and packaging it for a new generation of givers. Some of them just might take their philanthropic impulses and find their way to more conventional forms of charity. In the meantime, it’s fulfilling the fantasy of everyone who’s ever waited on tables.


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States Vote to Ban Gays from Restaurants


Mississippi is the latest state to pass its version of ‘turn away the gays’ legislation.
Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which goes into effect this July, allows restaurants to ban customers whose lives don’t align with the owners’ religious values. While the broadly written law doesn’t specifically mention gays and lesbians, it’s widely understood, in this heavily conservative Christian state, that it’s a license to discriminate against gays in the name of religion.

Where civil rights fit in
The Civil Rights Act protects us from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, and there are other laws that prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, or disability. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act prohibits discrimination of sexual orientation in the workplace, but otherwise there are no federal laws that protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians. 

Civil rights of restaurant owners
Restaurants are privately-owned businesses, which guarantees certain rights to their owners. They have to comply with federal laws banning recognized forms of discrimination because they provide what the law calls a ‘public accommodation,’ but it gives them a lot of latitude as long as they don’t step on the rights of a protected class. That means that a restaurant can refuse to serve anyone who wears a pro-Israel t-shirt as long as they don’t ban Jews, or they can have a policy that bans sagging pants if they otherwise serve young black men. Unlike blacks and Jews, gays and lesbians don’t constitute a protected class. It doesn’t matter what they wear; they can just be sent packing. 

Most states don’t have laws protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination by restaurants and other public accommodations, but Mississippi’s RFRA goes a step further by explicitly codifying the bigotry. It protects restaurants and their owners from lawsuits if they refuse service to gays, and it permits hate speech against individuals and their lifestyle. It even adds a provision that’s like a children’s version of the Act, forbidding schools to discipline students for expressing anti-gay views either verbally or through written assignments.

LGBT activists wonder: Is this the making of a new Jim Crow-style era?
Along with Mississippi, Republican lawmakers in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Kansas have recently introduced their own so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills giving citizens the right to segregate their businesses against LGBT Americans. All of these RFRA bills popped up in just the last four months, suggesting a concerted, national effort by the religious right to push back against the movement toward expanded rights for same-sex couples. A total of 31 states have already taken a stand against what they call a ‘substantial burden’ placed on their citizens’ religious practices.





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This Man Has Eaten at 6,300 Different Chinese Restaurants Across America

image via LA Times

image via LA Times–and yes, he prefers a fork


Meet David Chan. 
He’s a 65-year-old lawyer and accountant, a native of Los Angeles, and a third-generation American who doesn’t speak Chinese. He’s probably eaten at more American Chinese restaurants than anyone else on the planet. 

He didn’t plan for it to happen.
Mr. Chan sees himself as more of a cultural historian than a foodie. As an undergraduate at UCLA in the 1960’s, a single class in ethnic studies inspired him to explore his heritage, and he embarked on his own gastronomic roots tour after graduation. Sometime in the 1980’s he realized he’d been to every single Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles and that achievement urged him on to further challenges. His dining became more deliberate, reaching 300 restaurant meals a year and taking him to Chinese restaurants in all 50 states.

An avid collector (before Chinese restaurants there were record albums and stamps) and, as befits a CPA, a highly organized and methodical man, Mr. Chan catalogs menus and documents each experience on detailed spreadsheets, including childhood meals that he retraced from a time when Chinese food could only be found in metropolitan Chinatowns. The subsequent spreadsheet entries track more than just a series of meals; they reveal much about the migration patterns and evolution of a half-century of Chinese-American life.

It’s a collection of memories and experiences that are unmatched anywhere.
Fortunately for us, Mr. Chan is generous in sharing his passion and insights. He blogs as Chandavkl and contributes to Menuism as the resident Chinese Restaurant Expert. His Twitter account gives a look at his prodigious dining habits and the stream is frequently trolled by restaurant critics and travel writers searching for recommendations. He also shares general guidelines for choosing excellent and authentic restaurants:

  • The best Chinese restaurants are almost always influenced by Hong Kong-style cooking.
  • You don’t need a Chinatown to find authentic cuisine—look to the suburbs.
  • Vietnamese-Chinese restaurants or Thai-Chinese restaurants are fine, but avoid Japanese-Chinese which Chan says ‘mix like oil and water.’
  • Never eat at a restaurant that’s been open for more than two decades; by then they’ve lost their edge and are lagging behind newcomers

David Chan calls Koi Palace the best Chinese restaurant in America and he’s not alone in that estimation.
True to his guidelines, Koi Palace is a Hong Kong-style restaurant and it’s located in a suburban strip mall outside of San Francisco. You won’t find sushi or other pan-Asian dishes on the menu. But what of its opening in 1996? In 2012 Chan added 5 years to what was then his 15-year rule in order to keep the 16-year old Koi Palace on top of his best restaurant listings.

The next Koi Palace could be out there waiting to be discovered by David Chan.
What happens in 2016 is anyone’s guess, but there are still another 40,000 or so Chinese restaurants across America that he has yet to visit. 


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Me, Myself, and I: Table for One



We’re being ridiculous and we know it, but we still feel stigmatized by solo dining. Take a confident, capable, rational adult, plunk him down at a table for one, and residual memories of a middle school cafeteria come back to haunt him. It’s the mark of the loner, the weirder, the social outcast.
              Everyone’s staring I look like a pathetic friendless loser I’m going to die a lonely virgin.

It’s a displaced dishonor that just won’t die.
Newspapers and magazines regularly run features on the how-to’s of this unnatural state. It’s treated as the extreme sport of food and drink, calling for nerve, verve, practice, and pep talks. It doesn’t help that there are restaurateurs who still grumble Here comes lost revenue for the 2-top, and there there are servers that will treat you as if you have a communicable disease.


The internet pokes fun while fueling the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1I feel sad when I see an old person eating alone is Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation that has attracted 749,000 likes. And Ikea’s April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed close enough to the stereotype to leave many wondering if it was really a put-on.

alonetablesOne woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a BiteThe website is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And as further proof that middle school scars will never fade, there are forever alone tables. The partitioned cafeteria seating from Japan has been popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.

We all know the joys of the communal dining experience, but eating alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert.

Eenmaal is a recurrent pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam that aims to take the shame out of dining alone. The dining room is filled exclusively with tables for one and the wine list is stocked with half bottles. There are no couples, no families, no chattering groups of friends to prey on a solo diner’s insecurities. 

The great food writer M.F.K. Fisher, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captured the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone…

I still wished, in what was almost a theoretical way, that I was not cut off from the world’s trenchermen by what I had written for and about them. But, and there was no cavil here, I felt firmly as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality. If One could not be with me,“feasting in silent sympathy,” then I was my best companion….


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