Eating out–like a Bon Vivant

5 Oct

Know your fast food energy per dollar

A lot of things were hopscotching through my mind today. I had posted a tweet to an article about how the slow food movement (that’s two slow food movement links for the price of one) stacked up against fast food, dollarwise, and that brought to mind a recent conversation with a friend who had read about how, calorie-wise, a typical fast food meal provided more energy per dollar than many slow foods. I wanted to address this subject, but it became tricky for me–especially after hearing @cbnickras’s warning that slow food discussions often mark one with a jerkish, self-righteous martyr stamp, or even crankishness. My angle? To combine bon vivant tastes–and in food, that means good-tasting food, preferably with entertaining conversation and attractive surroundings–with cost consciousness.

In principle, fast food has no place in this equation. It’s reason for being is counter to the bon vivant credo! Or is it? I am not someone who is a daily or weekly or often even monthly eater of fast food; part of that is that it’s car-oriented and mall-oriented, and I don’t drive. Do I disdain it? Not entirely. I like the Burger King Whopper (but only with onion and ketchup). I love the  Chik-fil-a chicken sandwich–that pickle makes all the difference! And I would like to try Church’s spicy tender strips. Just none on the regular. Much as my ideal is a relaxed meal, sometimes life doesn’t allow it, and better fast food than no food. In short, I have no beef (or chicken) with the existence of fast food, I just don’t have it on the regular. Nutrition? No one forces you to eat your hamburger with fries (I never do–of course, I can’t stand fries). No reason you can’t have an apple in your pocket and eat it with your hamburger! If you aren’t eating ONLY fast food, an occasional quickburger isn’t going to send you to dietary perdition, or break your purse either.

Watermelon and lemon sorbet, chocolate seeds! mmmmmm

I lean toward the pragmatic, rather than the doctrinaire. But on the regular, eating out–healthy or not, slow cooked (let me not pretend to understand all the global ramifications of this movement) or fast–is not good for your pocket. Period. It may or may not be good for your waistline–that depends on choices. That doesn’t mean any bon vivant will absent herself from ever eating out! There’s no denying that eating out habits have changed radically in the past 35 years. When I was a child, parents might go out for their anniversary, but getting hamburgers out (not from a chain, either) was a special thing. Eating out was really for road trips (I have fond memories of Howard Johnson’s hot dogs on the PA Turnpike; their special bun and flavor was duplicated by Friendly’s, now heading for Chapter 11. So sad. I cannot do without a Wattamelon sorbet delicacy in the summer. Chocolate seeds!). Today children are crammed into restaurants at every price level. Why? Working moms, that’s why. Working non-moms like to eat out, too. You can’t expect two people who have had rough workplace days to come home with a joy of cooking in their bosoms. But when I look at friends and relatives who are feeling the pinch of the New Depression, feeding themselves out of the house leaves the biggest bruise (drinks and vending machines are big pinchers, as well as restaurants). In the Old Depression, those who stayed rich might dine out, but restaurants (diners and small joints) were for shift workers or the wifeless. It’s alarming to think how much our economy depends on the food service industry. How common is it elsewhere?

Europe has plenty of restaurants, slow and fast. Street vendors dish out in India, China, Brazil, West Africa. Italy used to have (does it still?) a three-tier system: the tavola calda, a kind of cafeteria; the bar or hosteria, where snacks and coffee prevail; humble but tasty neighborhood trattoria, where you might meet friends for an inexpensive meal and a chat; and the ristorante, a full-service spot for an occasion. Prices here in Cleveland–as well as atmospheres–aren’t so clearly defined. Food trucks are making a big splash. In my home town of Philadelphia, we have every ethnic variety of truck, from Jamaican to Korean to Mexican, but the typical truck has cheesesteaks and pizzasteaks, all made right on the spot on the grill, potentially served with a can of soda and some chips. Not pricy, but our signature sandwich. Cleveland’s going in for upscale, restaurant-run trucks. Not a bad idea–result of a local ordinance change last summer, allows innovative entrepreneurs a chance to establish their abilities; those with restaurants and trucks might lure new customers in by a trial this way. While overhead might be low, what are the prices like–for no service except a hand-over and a paper napkin, and no place to sit? Dare I suggest the prices will be higher than the Polish Boy bought from the hot dog man on Public Square, not just because of the relative cost of ingredients, but because of self-valuation?

Clean, modern lines of Elements on Euclid Ave., CSU campus

Where’s all this going? We eat out too much. It drains our pockets. We should keep eating out “for special”–special circumstances where speed is of the essence, special occasions where a convivial, mood-establishing atmosphere makes it worth our while, as does the food. I haven’t reached my brother’s level, where a rant about the “$10 hamburger” is right around the corner–in fact, I was delighted to host three other colleagues at CSU’s attractive Elements restaurant and come away with only a $45 lunch bill (three had delicious sirloinburgers with side dishes, and drank tap water). I miss it when I don’t eat out at least three times a month–but that’s different from three or four times a week.

This leads me to a slow self-challenge: to find Cleveland restaurants that deliver taste and atmosphere without overly damaging the budget. More than just a neighborhood joint or a chain place, but somewhere where you can have a bon vivant experience for under $10. So you can step out now and again.

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