Friday, February 24, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #9a


I was getting a bit bored with all that navigation business, so I thought I'd take a little diversion into food and return to that other stuff later.

Traveling can be a very disorienting experience. Some comfort of the familiar might be gained by spreading personal belongings from home all over one's hotel room. Beyond that, it's all new environments, new people, new cultures, new customs, new sights. For someone from a slower-paced town, New York amplifies that disorientation by hitting visitors non-stop with new experiences like machine gun fire.

The common sense of "do things you can't do at home," to which most people subscribe at least initially, at least in theory, only goes so far. Even for the more adventurous traveler, there often comes a point where the gamble of finding palatable and reasonably-priced food out of all the countless thousands of one-off restaurants becomes just one more hassle added to an exhausting day. The common mistake is to resort to the familiarity of a fast food or chain restaurant that can also be found at home. The easiest example is McDonald's.

While the menu might look exactly the same as at home, the food and service is not. Keep in mind that I have never been a fan of fast food anyway. Most of it I find disgusting. Outside the city, though, there are a few fast food places I will patronize without a scowl on my face and enjoy a little junk just for its ease and entertainment value. Those same chains in New York City are noticeably inferior.

It's worthwhile to consider how the food gets to these establishments. Fast food is produced in a factory, dried, packaged and frozen, and loaded onto trucks. Most franchises are located in strip malls or similar roadside locations that are easily accessed by truck, or in indoor malls with efficient means of unloading and distributing products to stores.

In contrast, a circle of probably a hundred miles of residential, suburban communities rings New York City before the very idea of having a food production and packaging facility is even plausible. Getting a huge supply truck into the heart of Manhattan is quite a chore indeed. Once the truck gets here, the food is set out onto the sidewalk, where it sits baking in the hot summer sun.

Then it encounters the employees. A job at a fast food restaurant in a smaller town, relatively speaking, is basically like working at a neighborhood community center. It's really not such a horrible job for kids after school or over the summer. While the traffic is certainly heavy, it's a lot of familiar faces and nothing compared to the relentless tidal wave of demanding lunchtime customers that barrages the girl behind the counter at Burger King in Times Square.

The point of all of this is that the primary casualty is the food quality. These employees are frazzled, overworked, and underpaid. Getting the food off the sidewalk and into the walk-in freezer is something they only barely care about. The kid who started three weeks ago just had to clean the restroom after someone had a diarrhea explosion all over it. Mice, rats, cockroaches, and other pests are just a fact of life.

The finest restaurants will take every possible measure to get a high rating from the health inspector. Do you really think that kid at Taco Bell cares all that much? You may as well just eat a big box full of e-coli with a side of salmonella for lunch. And yes, I have gotten food poisoning from fast food places here. Not fun, and even less so if you're on vacation and tethered to the toilet in your hotel room for an entire afternoon.

The icing on this foul cake is that rents are so ridiculously high in the city, especially in the tourist areas where one would likely choose a fast food place. So while it might seem a cheap and easy solution to an empty stomach, the prices are likely to be a lot higher than at home for what you're getting. At this price level, you're really much better off going to a diner.

At the next tier up, the table-service restaurant chains (Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, Applebee's, etc.) are admittedly a little bit better, but not by much. Again, I have had entirely pleasant meals at these types of places outside of the city, but in the city, no. The employees here are just as disgruntled, but for different reasons. They are also overworked, but you basically have to assume that every one of them is an out-of-work actor waiting for his or her big break on Broadway, and would rather be any place else in the world besides serving your food. Restaurant jobs tend to have flexible hours which is conducive to going on auditions. Plus, it's a job which requires you to "act" friendly and happy through an entire shift.

The food suffers for all the same reasons as at the fast food chains. The whole point of the chain is that the menu should be more or less the same at every franchise. To a slightly lesser degree, the food must be prepackaged and delivered by truck. Here one presumes the food is prepared by a relatively trained chef. Since the menu is set by the corporate office, there is little or no opportunity for creativity or invention that might make the chef's job rewarding. So the food is generally acceptable but has no heart or soul to it. The chef would likely rather be working in a third-world sweat shop. A lot of them probably feel like they are now.

The theme restaurants are a whole different animal altogether. I find them awful, but I have been to a few of them over the years. The food quality is about the same as at the table-service chains, but it's often "themed" as well. It can occasionally be gross. I would go for the entertainment value of the place and not for a particularly good meal.

Where it concerns the purpose of this series--getting a true New York experience--no real New Yorker would ever eat at a theme restaurant unless at the insistence of an out-of-town guest or some other strange circumstance. The wait staff at these places deals almost exclusively with loud, obnoxious tourists and often enormous groups of them at a time. They're even more likely to be out-of-work actors because the restaurant often employs them to perform some kind of tacky floor show.

In case you're thinking no one would ever really want to be a career waiter, bear in mind that the wait staff at the extremely expensive, five-star restaurants are often exactly that. Their resumes include restaurants with the most impeccable requirements for knowledge and service excellence. They can literally bring in six figures a year working full time and bringing in considerable tips. This is not the case at the Hard Rock Cafe.

©2012, Ryan Witte

9b. The Food Solution

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