Tag Archives: dining

Rethinking Airplane Food

This fall, Continental joins every other major U.S. airline when it ends free economy-class meals on domestic flights. Like checked luggage and bulkhead seats, in-flight meals join the list of existing amenities that airlines are looking to spin into upgrades. The stuff of jokes probably since the dawn of aviation, few are mourning their passing.

Entrees On Trays

Prison food, hospital food, school cafeterias— has anything good ever been served on a divided tray? In fairness, serving meals at 40,00 feet poses unique challenges of logistics, space, cooking technology, and security. On top of all that, the altitude messes with the body’s sense of taste.

When ‘beef or chicken?’ is a trick question.

The recently published Titanic Awards, a celebration of dubious achievements in travel, identifies the 5 worst airline meals of all time. The current titleholder is Estonian Air’s Baltic herring (we think) with potato salad.

Airline food doesn’t have to suck.

It is a whole different scene at the front of the plane. A seat in the first-class cabin of Singapore Airlines can get you pan-seared scallops and grilled-to-order steak washed down with fine French wines (the airline happens to be the world’s second-best customer of Dom Perignon Champagne). While airlines typically spend about $5.00 for an economy class meal, the cost can soar to over $100 in first class.

Before you book your summer travel, take a look at these online resources to see what you can expect on your tray. Personally, I say the airlines can keep their meals. I’ll pack a sandwich. But how about a little extra legroom?

The Independent Traveler presents a survey of food service on major domestic carriers.

The Diet Detective rates the healthfulness of on-board meals and snacks.

Air Meals has a staggeringly complete photo gallery of airplane food. More than 18,000 photographs depict meals served on 552 airlines around the world. Other galleries on the site are devoted to vintage airline advertisements, crew meals, and in-flight dining scenes on film.


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Small Plates: Love ‘Em or Loathe ‘Em

image via Little Red Book

Appetizers are the new entree.
Is there any bigger dining trend than small plates? It’s been gaining momentum for about a decade, but in 2011 there was a quantum leap in popularity. Restaurants everywhere are encouraging us to graze our way through dinner by putting together a shareable meal of small courses in large numbers.

Eveyone has a theory.
Some say that small plates are like snippets of meals, reflecting the MTV fast-cuts and twitter-length of our attention spans. Or that it’s driven by the economy; it’s the down marketing of our plates after the sky-high vertical towers of food we saw in the dot-com boom. It could be moderation driven by health and diet issues, or a rejection of the formality and structure of traditional dining. Or maybe plate size is just fashion, like the rise and fall of hemlines.

We love small plates.
Any dining veteran can tell you that appetizers are the best part of the meal, and the small plates format gives you a veritable smörgåsbord of appetizers. The best small plates are not just scaled-down entrées; the flavors are bigger, more intense. You can take more risks with them because the commitment—of dollars, appetite, and calories—is smaller.

A meal composed of small plates has its own rhythm. It doesn’t have to fit the traditional progression of courses so it always fits into your day. You can get the variety of a tasting menu, with less expense and formality, or have fries and dessert- just fries and dessert- and no one even raises their eyebrows.

We loathe small plates.
What was wrong with full-sized plates of properly paired food? Small plates bring a clash of flavors that never quite add up to the balance of a well-composed meal. And with per plate prices that fall somewhere between appetizers and entrees, it can quickly add up to a very uneconomical way to dine.

Sharing brings its own headaches. You tussle with the number and assortment of dishes, sidestepping allergies, aversions, and dietary restrictions. Plates bring supremely unsplittable portions like a single duck leg or 3 scallops for 4 people, and you never get more than a few precious bites, no matter how much you love a single dish.

Small plates have their place.
We don’t just eat in restaurants on special occasions like previous generations of diners. The unstructured small plates format gives us versatility, expanding and contracting to fit a range of appetites and social occasions. But we are the nation that invented super-sized meals, the unlimited salad bar, and the bottomless cup of coffee. Small plates are a refreshing alternative, but not a monumental shift in the way we eat.

 

 

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Your Plate is Making You Fat

image via Beard Crumbs

It turns out that portion control is just an optical illusion.
The size and shape, even the color of dishes and glasses have a huge effect on how much we eat and drink. We pour larger drinks into short, wide glasses, and put big servings on big plates. When the food coordinates with the plate’s color, we load up even more.

Did you think it was your appetite and willpower determining choices?
We face an average of 226 food-related choices in a day, but we exercise conscious decision-making in only around 15 of them. The other 200 or so daily food choices are essentially mindless decisions. You’ll finish any sized hamburger just because you always eat a whole hamburger, grab a doughnut because someone brought a box into the office, and help yourself to seconds because the bowl is right there.

Size matters.
Fifty years ago, the standard dinner plate had a 9 inch diameter. Today, it’s most likely to be 12 inches, and we tend to calibrate our appetites to what’s on the plate instead of what our bodies tell us.

Color matters too.
Portions appear smaller when the food blends with the plate color. You’re likely to eat more spaghetti with marinara sauce on a red plate and cornbread on a yellow one. White and blue plates tend to provide the best contrast for portion control; researchers say red and gold are the worst. Even the tablecloth color can shape portion perceptions.

It’s impossible to avoid the environmental cues that encourage us to eat, but recognizing them is a step in the right direction.

 

 

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American is the New Ethnic

photo via Meat America

There’s a culinary frontier right in our own backyard.

We spent the past few decades mastering the fine points of regional cooking from all around the globe— we know our Szechaun from our Cantonese, our Burgandy from our Provençal, and can spot a Neapolitan pizza at fifty paces. It’s time to come home.

America’s regional cuisines are getting their due. Finally.
For years, American food was ridiculed abroad and ignored at home. American food was what we ate in diners and fast food joints; fine dining was synonymous with French cuisine and Continental restaurants.

Not anymore. Seriously credentialed and pedigreed chefs are exploring the foods of every region and sub-region from every corner of the U.S. They’re treating our regional dishes with the respect previously reserved for the imports, elevating both the cuisine’s stature and our pleasure.

Chefs are combining contemporary aesthetics and local ingredients into modern incarnations of regional cuisines. They’re exploring indigenous flavors and products from the well-known regional cuisines of  New England, New Orleans, and the Southwest; fast-rising regions like the Gulf Coast and the Pacific Northwest; and newly emerging sub-regions like Hawaii and Florida’s Panhandle.

Of course we’re still a big, old melting pot. We have a vast and complex culinary heritage that continues to be renewed and enriched as new ethnic groups and generations add to the mix.

Regional American food is constantly evolving and will never truly reach its fullest enunciation. Some are troubled by the notion of a cuisine that defies a tidy definition, wondering if there is a true American cuisine. But that’s just culinary semantics. American food is in a constant cycle of rediscovery and renewal, and that’s what makes it so exciting.

Open Table has just released its 2011 Diners’ Choice Awards. They culled over 10 million individual reviews to name the top 100 restaurants serving American cusine.

The all-American food marketplace Foodzie offers carefully curated tasting boxes that let you choose representative regional products from small-batch producers.

 

 

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Forks or Fingers?

image via Design Boom

You keep your elbows off the table, your napkin in your lap, and always use the proper fork. You pass to the left, spoon soup away from yourself, and at the end of a meal you park your utensils at the 4 o’clock edge of your plate. You’re a real etiquette stud.

Still, there are foods that can slip up even the best of us. It could be a dish like steamed artichoke that requires complicated technique, or a food that’s awkward and contrary, like peas that can’t be coaxed onto a fork. You’d love to get in there with your fingers, but you worry that it’s frowned upon in polite company.

The fork or finger divide can be based in practicality (no fingers in the mashed potatoes, for obvious reasons) or evolve as custom (a french fry is always a french fry, but forks or fingers are dictated by circumstances); and of course what’s de rigeur in one culture can be the height of barbarity in another. Here’s a guide to American-style etiquette for the most controversial foods.

Artichokes: eat the leaves with your fingers; use your fork for the heart.

Asparagus: if the stalks are firm and unsauced, fingers are fine; floppy or saucy, use a fork.

Bacon: like asparagus, if it’s crisp it’s finger food; use a fork when it’s limp and greasy.

French Fries: when they’re served alongside a food that requires a fork, like a steak, they are eaten with a fork; if they come with a sandwich or a hot dog in a bun, they are eaten with fingers.

Pickles: of course they are always finger food, right? Wrong— a little gherkin or cornichon served alongside a fork food, say a slice of pâté, should be eaten with a fork.

Shrimp: unsauced shrimp—hot or cold, fried or cocktail—is finger food when you’re standing up and eating hors d’ oeuvres; if you’re seated at the table, shrimp in any form is eaten with a fork.

Sashimi is never finger food; sushi goes either way.

When in doubt, use a fork. You might seem prissy, but never impolite.

For more tips, plus a dining guide to nearly every country on the planet, consult The Etiquette Scholar.

 

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Their Last Meal on Earth: What the Chefs Would Choose

It’s a morbidly perverse little parlor game.
Chefs have been playing the My Last Supper game for years. Alone together with some down time, in the kitchens and after-hours back rooms of restaurants around the world, they ask each other the question: As the big clock is ticking down, what would you eat?

Like The Aristocrats joke told among comedians, it was always a kind of secret handshake for chefs. Then a few years ago, photographer Melanie Dunea asked 50 prominent chefs to describe their ideal last meal, and she compiled their answers, along with portraits informed by their responses, in an absorbing, intimate volume titled My Last Supper.

The answers are as varied, imaginative, and distinct as the chefs, and it’s a diverse list that includes Ferran Adria, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Bourdain, Marcus Samuelsson, Gabrielle Hamilton, Tyler Florence, and Thomas Keller. Some of them would pile on luxurious ingredients like truffles and foie gras; some would seek perfection in the simplicity of a hot dog or a BLT; and others would return to their early taste memories choosing scrambled eggs, rice pudding, or Mom’s fried chicken. Each also shares the wished-for setting, dining companions, and even background music (count on lots and lots of early Rolling Stones).

Last week, Melanie Dunea launched a website bringing the concept to life. Every other Tuesday at noon, EST, she’s releasing a video in which a different chef shares the manner in which they would bid adieu, complete with recipes. The current episode features the ultimate meal of chef Daniel Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park.

You can watch the latest installment of My Last Supper here.

In October, Dunea will release a follow-up book, My Last Supper: The NextCourse. Asking the question that drove the first volume: “What would be your last meal on earth?” it features a new roster of chefs including Grant Achatz, Heston Blumenthal, Paul Bocuse, David Chang, Tom Colicchio, Bobby Flay, Todd English,  Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, and Joel Robuchon.

 

 

 

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A Most Unusual Restaurant Map

CLICK !

 

You ate what?! You ate where?!

You know the feeling. Chinese—been there; pizza—done that. The taste buds are feeling a little jaded, the neighborhood spots are old hat. If only there was a restaurant where you could be served by monkey waiters. Or nuns. Or a restaurant with an all-blueberry menu, or one with straw-hatted donkeys wandering between tables waiting for leftovers.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World is here to rescue you from the same old, same old. The map, assembled by an eccentric Russian foodie, is marked with hundreds of little map pins, each with the promise of a unique dining experience. There are rare delicacies, exotic settings, quirky service, and wacky themes.

Restaurants with unusual settings.
You can dine in a quarry or a tree house, underground, or under the sea. There are working prisons, churches, cemeteries, and sewage treatment plants with restaurants open to the public. You can dine at the rim of an active volcano, in a Mediterranean fishing hut, or feast on cabbage soup and pelmeni in Stalin’s bunker.

Restaurants with unusual service.
Yes, there really are monkey waiters at Japan’s Kayabukiya Tavern; they prefer their tips in edamame. At Rome’s L’eau Vive, the serving nuns (who favor the title  ‘Missionary Workers of the Immaculate,’ or  ‘Daughters of the 44th Psalm’) dish up a fine plat du jour—today’s is steak served with an eggplant mousse and potato croquettes—or you can always order from the John Paul II Beatification Menu.

You can find meals delivered by robots, model trains, and catapult (at Bangkok’s Ka-tron Flying Chicken). Child labor laws are skirted at Holland’s Kinderkook Kafé, and good taste goes out the window at Hobbit House and Dwarfs Island (yes, little people do the serving).

Restaurants with unusual food.
There’s plenty of exotica; the bats, snakes, and sheep heads of foreign menus, but the map also points you to the prosaic. In addition to blueberries, you can find menus with nothing but potato dishes, grilled cheese sandwiches, apples, eggs, cheese, or breakfast cereal. For the truly undecided, one Thai restaurants checks your blood type and personality traits and then brings what it thinks is best; or you could try a restaurant where the customers choose each others meals.

There are restaurants where you catch your own fish or cook your own meal; others lend lonely diners a cat or bunny for company. You can eat in a recreated Jewish ghetto, Alice’s Wonderland, a vampire’s lair, or  a hospital room.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World  links to websites, menus, and directions. It’s a work in progress that welcomes your suggestions.

 

 

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Americans Love Ice Cubes. And we’re the only ones.

They do things a little different over there in Europe.
The main course comes before the salad, and they eat cheese for dessert. We’ll grant them a certain logic there. But the ice thing is a mystery.

Nothing refreshes a European like a lukewarm glass of Coca Cola.
We can assume they are refreshed, since that’s the beverage of choice when the thermometer hits 32° (that would be 90° to you and me). Ask for ice and the request is either met with a blank stare or fulfilled with two tiny slivers that dissolve on contact with the tepid beverage.

Here in the land of plenty, we take ice cubes for granted. We expect them in our soft drinks and in every glass of water at every restaurant. Our home refrigerators dispense a continual stream of them, and when there’s a party we buy bags of ice cubes to fill buckets and tubs. There’s an ice machine in the hallway and a bucket in every room of every hotel or motel from coast to coast. Just try and find that in Paris’ George V.

The ice cold war.
Historians, cultural critics, economists, culinarians, and the medical community have all weighed in on European ice avoidance. Theories abound to explain the continent’s cold shoulder:

  • The poor quality of many of Europe’s urban water supplies produces unpalatable cubes.
  • Energy costs are higher.
  • Smaller houses, smaller, kitchens, smaller freezers.
  • Teeth are overly sensitive to cold due to the notoriously inferior dental hygiene of certain nations.

And then there are the explanations for America’s warm embrace:

  • Big cups, loads of ice, free refills—in the U.S. we believe that more, not less, is more!
  • The taste of our inferior whiskeys and other spirits welcomes dilution.
  • Our taste buds lack an appreciation of nuance and subtlety.

Puis-je avoir de la glace s’il vous plaît?
Posso avere un po di ghiaccio per favore?
Могу ли я иметь лед, пожалуйста?
Kann ich etwas Eis bitte?¿Puedo tener un poco de hielo, por favor?
Can I have some ice please?

 

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College Dining: It’s Not Like You Remember

image via GraphJam

 

Sushi Bar … Espresso Bar… Carving Station … Mongolian Barbecue… Made-to-order Pasta
This is a college cafeteria?

The old dining hall was supposed to be a taste of home. There was little choice: a green salad, a main and some sides, bread and butter, and  jello or a slice of cake for dessert. There was little imagination, plenty of repetition, and mediocre execution—just like Mom used to make.

Steam trays full of meatloaf and homey casseroles don’t cut it for a generation raised on Starbucks and shopping mall food courts. They have eclectic tastes, broad palates, and a long list of food allergies and specialized diets.

Colleges are more than happy to cater to fussy, finicky students. Campus dining is a $9 billion market—as much as Americans spend in fine dining restaurants. More importantly, according to the food service consultants at Technomic, 44% of college students give significant weight to college dining programs when deciding where to enroll. And it’s a lot easier for a school to boost the meal plan than the average SAT scores.

Sodexo, the food service provider to 650 U.S. campuses, gives us their predictions for the top 10 trendy dishes of the 2011-2012 school year:

  1. Grilled Chicken Souvlaki Kabob
  2. Paella
  3. Spanakopita
  4. Couscous Chicken Stew
  5. Orecchiette with Broccoli and Garbanzo Beans
  6. Fattoush and Sumac (Pita Bread Salad with Tangy Dressing)
  7. Spanish Tomato Bread with Manchego Cheese
  8. Edamame and Corn Salad
  9. Pesto Pasta Bowl
  10. Wild Mushroom Risotto Balls with Pesto Aioli
According to the Princeton Review, these are the top 10 college cafeterias :
  1. Wheaton College (IL)
  2. Bowdoin College
  3. Virginia Tech
  4. Bryn Mawr College
  5. James Madison University
  6. University of Georgia
  7. Washington University in St. Louis
  8. Cornell University
  9. Colby College
  10. University of Massachusetts- Amherst

 

 

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Offal for Beginners

Clockwise from top: pig's tongue, heart, foot, ear. Image via Eat Me Daily

We are having an offal moment.
Nose-to-tail, organs, innards, variety meats, the nasty bits—whatever you want to call it, whole-animal cookery is experiencing a revival in restaurant and home kitchens.

There are good reasons to eat offal.
It’s cheap, full of nutrients and protein, and adds variety to our diets. It reduces waste, maximizing the resources of food production, and pays a kind of respect to the animal that gave its life to appear on our plates. Of course those reasons are probably the last thing on your mind when you’re confronted with a grilled sheep heart (very tender, distinctly ringed with chambers) or boiled pig ears (simultaneously crunchy and gelatinous, still looking very ear-like).

Offal doesn’t challenge us with its taste. Most innards and extremities are subtly flavored and not unfamiliar. And intellectually we appreciate its virtues. The problem is an emotional, elemental, visceral response—one we feel in our own viscera. Its homophonic name (yes, it is pronounced awful) doesn’t help.

Offal is the stuff of nightmares for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Some might recoil from brussels sprouts and others gag on cottage cheese, but offal provokes a squeamishness that is nearly universal. It’s a shame, because some of today’s most creative chefs have embraced whole-carcass cooking as a badge of honor, producing innovative, exciting dishes based on offal and odd bits like heads, tails, and trotters.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, here are some tips to get you started.

  • Leave it to the professionals.
    Preparations can involve some fairly gruesome peeling, snipping, and soaking. You want to be sure it’s done right and hang on to your resolve and your appetite. Eat out.
  • Start with sweetbreads.
    You probably thought I was going to say liver, but no, the thymus gland (or sometimes pancreas) is the better gateway offal. Sweetbreads are sweet and mild, and in expert hands will emerge tender and crispy, sort of like a cross between monkfish and fried chicken. Liver, on the other hand, is chalky with a powerful mineral tang—paté and terrines did not prepare you. Trust me, you want the sweetbreads.
  • Know your limitations.
    The true challenge is not to your palate but to your head. Pig brains might taste like nectar from the gods, but if you can’t get past the ick factor, then don’t go there. We all draw our lines somewhere, and there’s no shame if yours is this side of ram testicles.

The U.K. Guardian explains all the nasty bits in An A to Z of Offal.

AOL’s Gadling travel blog has A Guide to America’s Most “Offal” Restaurants.

 

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A Daily Deal Just for You

[image via ToMuse]

It’s the daily deal battle royale.
Groupon’s success has spawned an entire industry of ‘deal-of-the-day’ clones. The good news: outstanding bargains are out there; virtually something for everyone. The bad news: something for everyone is flooding your inbox, from tequila tastings to pole-dancing lessons, when all you really want is a good, discounted pizza. There are so many of these daily deal startups out there, that now we have daily deal sites aimed at them.

Fortunately, there are sites that stand out from the pack. They are targeting narrow, niche markets, and putting their own spin on the social buying business model.

For the boys gone wild
Thrillist, the online newsletter celebrating the bro lifestyle, has launched Thrillist Rewards, heavy on half-price brewery tours, mail-order meats, and all-you-can-eat spare rib deals.

For the other boys gone wild
The Daily Hookup and Daily Pride are the gay man’s answer to Groupon.

For the foodies
Too tasteful for coupons, Savored takes you into the kind of high-end dining rooms where the discount is kept under wraps. It’s prearranged at reservation time, and then automatically, and discreetly, subtracted from the total at meal’s end. I guarantee you will be amazed by the celebrated and coveted tables to be had through these deals, and it’s all so hush-hush that even your dinner companions won’t know your secret.

For African-Americans
The discount deals offered at the Black Biz Hookup come from black-owned and operated businesses.

For moms
You’ll find half-priced treats aplenty for family-friendly fro-yo shops at Plum Distict.

For the Jews
A dozen bagels for the price of six, or maybe a nice brisket sandwich? Between JDeal and yes, Jewpon, you’re sure to find them.

For suburbanites
You get big city dining bargains and you don’t have to pay for downtown parking with the small town BigTip deal site.

For Hispanics and Latinos
Multiple sites are still duking it out for preeminence in this massive target market; Desceuento Libre, Groupacho, and Social Libre. Each offers a different Latin-flavored oferta del dia.

For the Fox News crowd
Glenn Beck launched Markdown, touting its combination of values (of the shopping kind) and values (conservative ones).

The pizza and beer pong set has CampusDibs, there are Gluten Free Deals for celiac sufferers, and Vegan Cuts is the place to save money and animals. Don’t feel left out if your tribe isn’t represented here; new niche sites pop up regularly.

To help you sort through the deals:
Yipit aggregates all the deals from all the services, and then sends a single, consolidated email customized to fit your preferences. Take a look at the more than 200 deal sites they are currently tracking.
Restaurant critic meets price tracker at The Bad Deal. Check here before you buy.
You have unused, prepaid Groupon and other coupons, and the expiration date is approaching. Impulse purchases can happen to the best of us. Fortunately, there is a robust secondary market for deal coupons at Lasta.

 

 

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Why the Chef Gave Back his Michelin Star

The chef said:
The food world was stunned this week when Le Lisita, a restaurant in the south of France, handed back its Michelin star.

Why on earth would a restaurant give back its coveted Michelin star?
The best known and most highly respected of all the restaurant ratings, Michelin stars are awarded very sparingly. A star (or two or three) in Le Guide Rouge can make or break a restaurant.
But so can a bad economy.

A Michelin star signifies a standard of décor and service. The guidebook’s inspectors demand it, diners know to expect it, and bankers are more than happy to extend credit lines for capital improvements to starred establishments. According to the Society for Quantitative Gastronomy, a restaurant’s prices will rise by 20% after the award to offset the higher operating costs.

Thanks, but no thanks.
Following the accolade, Le Lisita found itself barely breaking even, serving haute cuisine in a rareified atmosphere in the midst of an economic crisis, while humble, affordable brasseries and bistros were doing a roaring trade. Since giving back the cherished award, Chef Olivier Douett has revived his former, brasserie format.

Le Lisita now offers a menu with starter and plat du jour for €23.60 ($33.54). Each waiter looks after twenty to thirty customers, rather than the five or six of the one star restaurant. Chef Douett now feels like he is cooking for his customers, not just for stars.

 

 

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Taste with your Ears

The fish tastes fishier when the background sounds are nautical.
We reach for Bordeaux wines when La Vie en Rose is on the soundtrack, and oompah bands have us craving Reisling.

The music playing, the swirl of conversation, the ambient noise in the background—they all have the power to affect our taste buds.

Drink a glass of wine in a noisy bar with the jukebox blaring.
Now sit down in a quiet room, queue up a little jazz and have another glass. It’s an entirely different experience. A British study found that the musical selections played while drinking wine can change the way the taste is perceived by up to 60 percent: a little 80’s New Wave pop makes white wine taste zingier, while ponderous German classical music gives heft to a Cabernet.

Another study, reported in the journal Food Quality and Preference, linked background noise to the taste of food. The study found that loud ambient noise makes flavors lose their intensity. Sweet foods taste less sweet and salty foods taste less salty. The researchers attribute this to the distraction—the noise seems to overwhelm the senses, drowning out the taste of food in the same way as it drowns out conversation.

Too much quiet, though, does nothing for the palate, and the solitary clink of cutlery becomes grating. The sweet spot for dining pleasure is found between 62 and 67 decibels, with a combination of muted classical music and a hint of background chatter (about as loud as the rinse cycle of a dishwasher at 10 paces).

When you want to be where the action is.
It’s not always just about the food. The smart restaurateur knows that nothing says fun like clattering dishes, chattering diners, and a pounding bass line. Some will cultivate the noise level to signify that the place has a buzz; it’s busy and lively and happening. Sedate and quiet feels empty. Raucous draws in customers who will want to be there because so many other people feel the same way. But if you want to really enjoy the meal, you’ll need a side of earplugs.

 

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Open Table: Putting the squeeze on restaurants

Remember when…
It started with a well-timed phone call—if you made it too early, no one was there; too late and the dinner rush was under way. Maybe there were a few busy signals before you got through to the reservationist who promptly put you on hold, leaving you hanging with a little smooth jazz to keep you company. Then she came back to you for a spin through the reservation book. Friday at 8? Sorry, nothing till 9:30…

That was then.
Since the advent of Open Table, you can immediately see what’s available and when, and book a table with a firm confirmation any time, day or night. Friday at 8 is still a tough get, but now you just move down the list of available tables without doing another dance with another reservationist.

Win-Win, right?
It’s true that there are two real winners in the transaction: the diner gets the ease and convenience of going online, and Open Table makes a little pocket change on each reservation. The problem is that there are three parties to the transaction, and the advantage to the third—the restaurant—is not so clear.

When a restaurant signs on with Open Table, it pays a set-up fee that hovers somewhere around $1,000. For that it gets a rented terminal connected to the Open Table network and system training for employees. It costs the restaurant $199 each month to stay connected, plus it pays a fee for each seat at a table booked through the service—$1 per diner if the reservation was made through the Open Table website and 25¢ per seat if it was made through the ‘online reservations’ link on the restaurant’s own website.

There’s always been grumbling about the one-size-fits-all fee structure.
The 30-seat neighborhood spot pays the same $199 monthly fee as the 300-seat corporate-owned chain, which can be punishing to the bottom-line of small, low-volume restaurants where the charge is spread out among few diners. And the same dollar-per-diner charge that is inconsequential to a high-end restaurant with $30+ entrees is eating up a big share of the revenue at a modestly-priced bistro.

Open Table does have its advantages.
The arrangement benefits the restaurant in three ways: the restaurant can cut staffing costs by reducing or eliminating the reservationist function; it manages reservations in a way that optimizes the seating chart; and it creates a customer database full of food, wine, and seating preferences, ordering history, and significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries.

What it doesn’t seem to do is bring in more diners.
Few restaurateurs credit Open Table with adding to their customer base. The difference, they say, is that thanks to the subscriber fees, they are now earning less on the same business. Busy nights are still busy and off nights are still quiet.

About 14,000 U.S. restaurants—one-third of all those that accept reservations—use the service, which seats more than 4 million diners every month.
Open Table has become the gatekeeper to the nation’s restaurant seats, and for the restaurants, it’s become the pathway to both old and new customers.

The service has become indispensable for the way it has inserted itself in the middle of a restaurants’ relationship with its customers.
Diners used to ask “Where would you like to eat?” Now they turn first to Open Table and ask the question “Where can we eat?”

 

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An Inconvenient Meal

Heal the planet, but don’t be late for dinner.
Laurie David is best known for producing An Inconvenient Truth, the Academy Award-winning film that raised international public awareness of climate change, attracted millions of dollars to environmental causes, and is included in science curricula in schools around the world. After tackling a subject that is no less than the future of the planet, she has written a book about the family dinner hour.

Family dinner time is about much more than the warm and fuzzies of bonding over food.
In fact the reality can bear little resemblance to the cultural ideal of mom, dad, and kids sharing the events of the day over meaty roasts and noodle casseroles. There is probably more texting to outsiders than sharing with family. And a weekday roast? In your dreams.

Yet for all that, there is something about a shared meal that pays huge family dividends. Study after study points to the same thing: regular family dinners lead to healthier kids who are less likely to smoke, drink, abuse prescription or illegal drugs, or develop eating disorders, obesity, or depression. They watch less television, delay sexual activity, and get better grades in school.
Clearly there’s something to this.
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Whatever it is, it’s not just about the food
No regression analysis of the family spaghetti dinner can explain these results. There are whole sets of values and rituals that anchor healthy families, and a common mealtime is just one piece. But it seems to be the bellwether.

Just because we eat together does not mean we eat right. Just because we are sitting together doesn’t mean we have anything to say. There’s nothing to guarantee meaningful conversation, much less moments of genuine intimacy, but the ritualized access of the family dinner at least makes it possible.

Unlike her last project, Laurie David’s book, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, doesn’t have Al Gore’s narration. It does have child-care experts, writers, artists, and chefs sharing their personal dinnertime rituals. Participants include Maya Angelou, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Alice Waters, Arianna Huffington, Nora Ephron,  Judge Judy, Michael Pollan, and Sheryl Crow.

The differences between families that eat together frequently (five or more family dinners per week) and infrequently (fewer than three times per week) are striking. The definitive studies have been conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Read the full report: The Importance of Family Dinners VI.

 

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In-N-Out Burger: Coming to a Town Near You

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Tweets were flying, food bloggers were posting furiously, and the local TV stations went on air with the news: In-N-Out was coming to New York!

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Signs appeared one day last spring, posted on empty storefronts in several New York city locations, bearing the iconic yellow boomerang and these tantalizing words: In-N-Out Burger, Coming Summer 2010. Workers clad in company aprons and caps were handing out flyers announcing the grand opening scheduled for July 4th.

By day’s end, New York was a city of dashed dreams and empty bellies; In-N-Out was not on its way to New York—not that summer, maybe not ever. Its burger-loving denizens were the victims of an elaborate, almost too-cruel hoax perpetrated by the comedy website College Humor. It seems that the heady cocktail of desire and desperation made everyone forget the date. That’s right— April Fool’s. […]

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Tasty Cartography

funny food photos - Food Map

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Google unleashed a beast when it gave the public access to the code for the Google Maps interface.
All of a sudden anything and everything could be turned into geography with a mash-up of data overlaying a map.

A Google Maps mash-up brought us a map of farm stands to shop for locally grown produce. A mash-up pinpoints every fast food hamburger from coast to coast, and another tells if a locality has more strip clubs, pizza parlors, or guns. There’s a map of happy hour specials for every day of the week, a  food truck location spotting map, and a map that can guide you through a multi-state burrito roadtrip, complete with reviews.

If it’s edible and mappable, it’s been mapped. […]

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Shoulder to Shoulder with Strangers: Dining at the communal table.

  image via The Publican

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We tend to like our public dining experiences to be private.

The communal tables of school cafeterias and summer camps are in the past. As adults, we envelop the experience in an aura of privacy, seated with just our private party, at our own table, booth, or banquette. We seldom pay to eat a meal at a table alongside strangers. […]

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How Much of Your Life is Spent Eating?

image via Harvey Ralph

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Americans spend less time eating than just about anyone else on the planet. We’re also among the most overweight.

A graph has been making the rounds.
Taking data from a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it plots minutes spent eating per day versus national obesity rates (based on a body mass index of 30 or more). In the US, our eating and drinking add up to 75 minutes a day. We edge out portly Mexicans and Canadians, but don’t come close to the 2+ daily dining hours of the slender French. […]

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No Doggie Bag Needed

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I don’t like dogs in restaurants.
Lately I’ve been seeing more and more of them. Owners’ dogs and patrons’. Dogs parked under tables and perched in laps. Freely roaming and lashed to table legs.

It’s not that I don’t like dogs.
I just don’t like the way they smell. And drool. And press their cold, wet noses against my bare skin. And beg for attention, please. Please. Pleasepleaseplease! Especially when I’m eating. […]

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