What’s ‘appening with Dining Out?

After moving our daughter into her college apartment last Saturday, we offered to take a group of her friends out to a local restaurant to celebrate the beginning of the school year.  The place we chose did not allow for table reservations but did offer call-ahead seating.  Thus did our party of ten arrive during the busy dinner hour and was seated less than ten minutes later.  It’s fair to say this call-ahead experience was entirely pleasing to the palate.

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Call-ahead seating is an interesting concept to me.  It’s somewhere between a full-on reservation and simply showing up for dinner.  The restaurant puts you on a list when you call ahead, and then you’re given the next available table after you arrive.  In essence, call-ahead mitigates the restaurant’s risk of the no-show reservation.

Call-ahead feels entirely dated if you use OpenTable, of course  With OT you’re limited to the restaurants supported by the app, but you’re also given the convenience of choosing cuisine, location, menu, and time; right up to the moment you walk through the door.  OT’s website boasts “seating more than 20 million diners per month… across more than 38,000 restaurants”.  Clearly the new-age approach to restaurant reservations has arrived.

But is OpenTable also dated?  With a little research I was amazed to discover several other companies changing our approach to dining out.  Consider the following:

NoWait allows you to add yourself to the wait list of a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations.  NoWait is like having someone stand in line for you, with the convenience of knowing when that person gets to the front of the line.  Hence you can shop or have a drink nearby instead enduring the crowding and impatience of the restaurant’s waiting area.

Rezhound and TableSweep are boosters for OpenTable.  They scan OT for newly-released (cancelled) reservations, then notify you by text or email with what they find.  You have to jump over to OT to actually book the reservation (be quick!), but it’s a great concept if you’re in the habit of waiting for last-minute seats at popular restaurants.

Table8 is designed for the more upscale dining experience.  Table8’s restaurants set aside a fixed number of peak-time tables every night.  You can reserve any available table at a Table8’s restaurant for free, or reserve one of the “set-aside” tables for a fee if there are no other tables.  Again, last-minute seats at popular restaurants, as long as you’re willing to pay a little extra.

Settle allows you to book a table, pre-order your food, and pay for your meal on your phone.  I’m not a fan of Settle’s time-saving tactics.  I think the moments perusing and discussing the menu is part of the fun of dining out, not to mention the brief relationship with your waiter.  If saving time is your objective, just get your food to-go.

Shout borders on the absurd.  Shout is the ticket-scalper’s approach to restaurant reservations.  For a fee negotiated with the “seller”, you the “buyer” can purchase a hard-to-get restaurant reservation, or pay the seller to wait at a given restaurant until your name is called.  Really?  Is the restaurant that good and your time that important?

To end on a humorous or horrifying note (take your pick), Happy is marketed as the do-it-yourself happy-hour app.  Walk into a bar, cue the Happy app, and a timer starts a 60-minute countdown: to enjoy whatever 2-for-1’s or other specials the bar has to offer.  So now you can get extra drinks any time of day.  Just remember, you only have an hour.  On your marks… get set… DRINK!

Fallen Arches

We have a McDonald’s in the middle of our small Colorado town.  The restaurant has been expanded over the years, to include double wrap-around drive-thru lanes and a “PlayPlace” for the kids.  At some point in time, demand pushed the hours of operation to 7/24.  So imagine my surprise last Saturday night around 6:30pm, when I passed by and didn’t see a single car – not one! – in either of the drive-thru lanes.  Apparently my town is not “lovin’ it” so much these days.

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The truth is, the fast food times they are a-changin’ and McDonald’s is struggling to move on from its burger-n-fries roots.  It’s hard enough to compete with the Panera’s and Chipotle’s and other “healthy” alternatives.  In this game, McDonald’s is either venerable or outdated – take your pick.

Growing up in California, the go-to fast-food restaurants were McDonald’s, Jack-in-the-Box, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Not many weeks went by where my family didn’t make it to at least one of the three.  In high school, my brother and I worked in a McDonald’s that drew busloads of patrons from the nearby interstate, and hundreds more from the adjacent movie theater.  The lines to the counter would stretch into the seating area; a fury of a demand for fast-food.  But my how times have changed.  A few weeks ago I was shocked to discover another neighborhood McDonald’s had closed down completely.  That’s no one-off; McDonald’s is shutting down hundreds of restaurants across the globe as part of a renewed corporate strategy.

I never thought I’d see the day where I question the long-term future of McDonald’s.  Health magazine recently published a list of “America’s Top Ten Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants” – http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20435301,00.html – and McDonald’s lands comfortably at #8.  Dig deeper however and you’ll find the telling comment: “although McDonald’s made our list, this is still the land of supersizing and giant sodas.”

McDonald’s is trying new approaches to gain market share, and I’m not just talking new menu items (although “garlic fries” are fighting for a spot).  In several of its Texas restaurants, McDonald’s is testing “fresh beef” instead of the “flash frozen” it has used for decades.  McDonald’s also sponsored a nutrition push in schools, but their message of portion control couldn’t overcome their burger-and-fries stereotype, so they cancelled the program.  McDonald’s latest proposed slogan is “The Simpler the Better”, but that’s more about a streamlined menu and faster service.  It’s makeup instead of the face lift they really need.

I have a soft spot for McDonald’s because it was my first formal paycheck.  I worked the grill and dressed the burgers and wore the uniform with pride.  But I can’t tell you the last time I hit a McDonald’s drive-thru, let alone walked into the restaurant.  Even the recent “all-day breakfast” campaign isn’t bringing me back.  Yes, we all still “deserve a break today”, but it may be time to finally dim the lights on the golden arches.

 

 

The Meal of Champions

Last weekend my family and I had breakfast at a small place in downtown Denver called “Syrup”. Syrup’s menu includes breakfast and lunch, but make no mistake; breakfast is king here. I chose the Eggs Benedict with corned beef hash, and all of us shared the Cinnamon Roll Waffle flight – a delight to the senses.  It was a breakfast to savor.

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Breakfast has always been my favorite meal, or should I say breakfast “out”.  People always say “really?”, but I never hear them go on to say whether lunch or dinner is their favorite.  Lunch is the neglected and oft overlooked meal of the three – perhaps a topic of its own for a future blog.  Dinner represents 95% of what people mean when they recommend a restaurant.  Maybe that’s what makes breakfast so endearing to me.  It’s the most compact of the meals.  Breakfast has its essentials and therefore creativity can only go so far.  Dinner has no boundaries, but breakfast can go very wrong if you stray from the expected.

I’ve sampled several of the more exotic approaches to breakfast.  I’ve been to the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans for the famous coffee au lait and French-style beignets (fried dough topped with enough powdered sugar to sneeze at).  I’ve been to the little Danish town of Solvang, California for aebleskivers (pancake balls with fruit in the middle).  I’ve even toured the Kellogg’s factory in Michigan, and to this day I still can resurrect the smell of cooked corn flakes.  Put all that aside though, because breakfast for me comes down to just a few essentials on the plate.  Eggs any style.  Bacon or sausage (the requisite “protein”).  And toast or some other form of carb load.  At breakfast “out” the eggs may become an omelet or a skillet or a scramble.  The bacon may be applewood-smoked and the sausage will have a hint of sage.  The toast usually runs a distant second to a freshly-made waffle or fruit-topped pancake.  But dress it down and the plate looks pretty much the same as what I prepare for myself at home.

I like breakfast because I’m a morning person (though not one of those restless souls who make it to 5am yoga).  I also like breakfast because virtually everything on the menu appeals to me.  Except bananas.  If I ever opened a breakfast place you’d have to bring your own bananas.

Sunday brunch is not only a favorite meal but a favorite activity.  I associate Sunday brunch with family and with special occasions like Easter and Mother’s Day.  I love dressing up for church and going to brunch after the service.  I love the serve-yourself aspect of brunch – the more options to savor the better.  But the “unch” in brunch gets no love from me.  As my family will attest to, my plate is always 100% breakfast.

I never understood the term “American breakfast” until college, when I spent a year abroad in Rome.  I love the Italians and their “dolce vita” way of life.  They perfected the coffee bar concept long before it became a staple in America.  But they never gave breakfast it’s proper due.  Indeed, “breakfast” in Italy is a small cup of espresso and a hard, barely-sweet roll, downed hastily at the counter before rushing off to wherever it is one is going.  No eggs or bacon or pancakes.  What’s the fun in that?

In Ireland breakfast essentials include tomatoes and blood sausage.  I can’t come to terms with vegetables for breakfast, and blood sausage shouldn’t even be mentioned in a post about breakfast.  Again, no fun on that plate.

Here’s an example of breakfast fun.  In the classic movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang my favorite scene is with the breakfast machine.  Dick Van Dyke’s character creates the magical car of course, but he also creates a contraption that cooks and distributes eggs, sausage, and toast, all while the breakfast plate moves along a heated track, eventually rolling down to the table ready to eat.  Genius.

Breakfast places – at least in Colorado – are a born-again trend these days.  Rather than Denny’s or Waffle House we now choose from “Over Easy” or “Snooze” or “The Egg & I”.  And in the ultimate nod to my favorite meal, McDonald’s recently changed their menu to include All Day Breakfast.  I think McDonald’s gets my drift.  Breakfast is not just “the most important meal of the day”.  It’s the one that should be on the menu morning, noon, and night.