Sunday, October 29, 2006

Suburban Dining in Style.

Tonight M. and I went out to dinner to celebrate our close friend's birthday. We went to a new restaurant located in a a nearby shopping plaza. The name of the place- Walnut Grove- seemed to me to be especially ironic, because there is no grove nor walnut tree within miles of its location. Nonetheless I have stopped looking for a rational reason behind the naming of commercial eateries. Sometimes a business like this will try to incorporate some interior design elements that at least make some minimal effort to justify their title... but not in this case. Evidently it is a takeoff on the location of another establishment owned by the same folks... in a business district with a main throughfare called "Walnut Street". It appears that they are attempting to appeal to a clientele that would make a positive association with that other business district... an inner-city, upper-middle class haven with a certain cache for yuppies.

Anyway... Walnut Grove is like a hundred other places popping up on the fringes of urban areas. Just a hint of minimalist sophistication, coupled with a trendy whitebread vibe, and inflated prices for food with swell names. You can get a basic salad at a basic price, but if you want anything to distinguish it... you pay a few bucks extra for each ingredient. They have a list of accentuation options, so that you can feel like you are blazing your own trail to a discerning palette. Choose the spinach leaves... the chevre or the pea snaps... Go bold! Be your own master! Everything is pan seared... fashionably burnt! Get the "cowboy steak", and show your affinity with our Texan president. Eat simply while surrounding yourself with urbane suburbanites. Grab a fancy martini... get decadent! You're not "vanilla"... you're French Vanilla!

Why does it bother me so much? It's the complete and utter lack of any semblance of authenticity. The chicken salad that I ordered was about the same as a chicken salad at any large franchise. Why didn't I just go to Chili's and pay half the price? Because at Walnut Grove you get waffle fries in the "Pittsburgh Salad". And the honey mustard dressing is spicy. But they are still throwing it over iceberg lettuce. Perhaps I'm being too harsh. The Sauteed Wild mushrooms were good... the artichoke-spinach dip was artichokey. The bathrooms were clean and fashionably uni-sexed. You can sit at the bar and watch the Steeler game on the variety of big-screened televisions, just like anywhere else.

I'm not a foodie, but goddamn... if exceptional prices are being paid, then I want an exceptional experience. I want a first-generation grandmother to waddle out of the kitchen (with an apron stained with cooking grease) and pinch my f'n cheeks. I don't need to hear approval forom the wait staff for my tasteful selections. I want them to tell me what is actually good that day. Because it really shouldn't be the same all the time. The selections should be based on the mood of the chef. I'd like to feel like I got a special invitation to join them in their own little idiosyncratic kingdom. And for god's sake, call the food what it is. I'm not ordering it from a fashion catalogue. I can go to a chain if I want branding.



Having said all that... if you are with the right company, any dining experience is going to be worthwhile. I feel fortunate to have the friends I have. They make up for any material deficiencies I may encounter.

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