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Cheap Cheap

April 2, 2013

Often the comments section on Table Hopping is infuriating. However, sometimes it’s simply fascinating.

Take, for example, the recent post Steve wrote where he took a stand against oversized portions and rallied for better quality ingredients. There were some people who supported his argument while others disagreed. The opponents of his stance apparently cherish their restaurant leftovers and see nothing wrong with reheating leftover pasta.

If Steve is reading this, this might be a good subject to tackle next.

However, blog comments, much like interpersonal conversations, tend to evolve and progress. And as they do, they reveal underlying truths and shine a light on personal prejudices.

Do you remember how I was amazed to hear our region’s restaurant patrons described as “cheap”? Well, it looks like the wind blows both ways.

Here are snippets from a couple of responses to Steve’s post. In the following quotations, I’ve added bold for emphasis:

“I love having the left-overs and most times they taste wonderful the next day. I refuse to go to restaurants that won’t give you your money’s worth when you order. That is just cheap on the restaurant’s part.

“If I paid for a meal that was made with the finest ingredients, artfully presented and was delicious but was a dinky little portion, I would not be back. Bring me a dish with 4 scallops on it (which I’ve had done) and I call it cheap.

So now we have restaurant owners and employees calling paying customers cheap, when they are dissatisfied with the quality of their meals and think the restaurant should try to make it right. But we also have restaurant customers calling restaurants that use premium ingredients sparingly cheap, because they can’t make two meals out of their dinner.

I have to say, this situation doesn’t cast the Capital Region dining public in the best possible light.

But that’s not to say I’m letting restaurant owners off the hook either. While it may be a tough sell, it’s the restaurant’s job to show the value in what they put on a plate. If that’s four scallops, then it’s important to talk about where the scallops come from, and why these are magnificent. It’s also critical to make sure quality standards stay high, so that those four scallops are the best four scallops your patrons have ever tasted.

Also if you are the kind of restaurant that puts four scallops on a dinner plate, you should also be the kind of restaurant that has amazing passed breads, plenty of high quality butter, and a bountiful supply of aromatic high-quality olive oil for dipping. Because it’s fair for people to want to leave un-hungry. Bread may feel like cheating, but truly great bread goes a long way.

Surely, efforts to increase perceptions of value have led to the more widespread use of the amuse-bouche. But I’ve seen some really half-hearted attempts at this welcoming treat in local restaurants. So if you are going to do it, make it special. There’s also another opportunity to add value at the end of the meal with mignardises. I still recall the box of French macarons that came with the bill at The French Laundry. They helped to take the sting out of the four figure meal.

Waiters can play a role here as well. They shouldn’t be just the messengers to the kitchen and the delivery people to the table. It’s these folks who are on the front line and can shape the diner’s experience. A good waiter can read the table, and guide his or her guests to meals they will find more than just satisfying.

But that doesn’t happen in a culture where diners are uncomfortable in letting the service staff at a restaurant actually do its job.

The roots of these behaviors would seem to run very deep into the history of the region. What confuses me however, is how they manage to stick around with a continual influx of people from around the country and around the world populating our universities, hospitals, and businesses.

Perhaps it’s that for some reason or another the interlopers don’t stay. Or perhaps they migrate up to Saratoga Springs. Not many of us start food blogs to shine a light on the missed opportunities to improve food here in Albany.

I think it’s time to get some more people writing. How about you?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2013 11:50 am

    That was my thought about the portion discussion, too — I’m okay with a big portion of good food, but I’m also okay with a smaller portion of phenomenal food, or a smaller portion of good food at a smaller price. Basically, if you’re going to charge me a high price for a small amount of food, the quality better be worth it (and yes, good bread, etc., will go a long way toward people not feeling ripped off, ’cause even if the food’s spectacular, if you leave hungry, that’s not right).

  2. April 2, 2013 1:29 pm

    Hello from Saratoga! Up here I can’t think of a single restaurant I’ve been to that put too much food on the plate. Unfortunately, I also can’t remember more than a handful of meals that approached the level of quality and thoughtfulness you describe. Up here we have small portions of average food, at high prices geared toward the tourist trade. That’s only my perspective, of course, and it could be I’m just cheap.

  3. Ellie permalink
    April 2, 2013 3:05 pm

    It’s the J Crew syndrome. People see a button up for $150 and start to complain. They don’t know the Liberty mills or the cotton used. They don’t know the history. They don’t spend the time trying to understand.

    It’s the same with good beer. Yeah, Duval is pricier than Bud lite but there is a quality and a history there. If you don’t know it or want to know it, you will never understand.

  4. Kate D. permalink
    April 2, 2013 4:08 pm

    I am not originally from the Capital region and have lived in a few different parts of New England and the Midwest. I find the Capital region slant (discussions/comments) on portions, well, interesting.

    Me? I would much rather have a smaller portion of amazing food (that I eat in the restaurant) than a trough full of food that is not going to be any better heated up in the microwave the next day.

    But then, I also enjoy the whole dining experience (service, atmosphere, location), not just the food served. Could that be one of the reasons behind the Capital region obsession with huge portions = value? If you only judge your dining experience by how many meals you can get out of a serving, then an amazing (smaller) portion is not going to make you happy.

    I have to agree with @Ellie – if you do not understand the difference between the best ingredients vs canned/mass produced ingredients in a dish (or why some better quality beers/clothes, etc are more expensive), then you will never understand a smaller plate of amazing food. I’m not sure you will ever be able to convince many Capital region folks to give up their love of huge portions.

  5. caravan70 permalink
    April 2, 2013 5:55 pm

    I think your hypothesis is a good one, Daniel… the big portion thing is something I’ve noticed since moving to this area. But I don’t think it’s limited to this region… I suspect that due to the downturn in the economy, people are trying to maximize value in every way, and that includes how much they can stick in the refrigerator after having dined out.

    But this place does not have an abundance of “whales” who can afford to dine out on a frequent basis, other than the lobbyists who work at the Capitol. So “fine dining” is somewhat limited. There’s Angelo’s 677 Prime, Jack’s, and a few others. What I’ve noticed about the restaurant scene here is that it’s pretty middlebrow… you get your Thai, your Chinese, your Vietnamese, and not a lot of experimentation. I don’t think Danny Bowden is going to open his next Mission Chinese Food anywhere in this area, for example…. unfortunately.

    Big portions are not a bad thing, but they suggest that people get more because they expect less from smaller portions that might be better for their health and sanity. I’d simply prefer that people frequent places that prize their palates over their guts.

  6. April 2, 2013 11:12 pm

    When I was a college student, large portions at a small price were a boon; twenty-something years later, the criteria is that if I am going to drag my self out to a restaurant the quality of the food has to be worth the calories & the price. If those three things are line up, then I am satisfied.

    Definitely would rather have a reasonable portion of something done well than a lot of something done not-so-well. If I didn’t like it in the restaurant, I am certainly not lugging it home with me. (Seriously, why would I want to bring home a half pound of overcooked pasta in poorly seasoned tomato sauce? Ewww)

  7. Awesomedude permalink
    April 3, 2013 1:10 pm

    Not only do customers, especially of the Albany persuasion expect restaurants meals to cover 2-3 extra meals, restaurants are more than ever encouraging this. A few weeks ago I saw an Olive Garden ad where the promotion was you buy a dinner and they give you another dinner in a box to take home for the next day. Sad.

    The idea that the capital district can’t support non-chain dining is simply incorrect. There is no good reason why this area has so many chain/terrible restaurants, few restaurants in the range of mid-priced but with quality and so many overpriced and terrible restaurants ie everything Angelo Mazzone touches.

    I’m not sure if the comment thread over at table hopping shows symptoms or causes…but…its terrible nonetheless

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