Perhaps it's an old reporter habit — hold on... can I make that "a reporter's old habit"? — but when something goes wrong, I look for patterns. Those patterns often turn out to be the story.
As I've read through the many e-mails and notes I've gotten since I wrote about restaurants last week and have taken a closer look at who's making it and who isn't, I've noticed something of a pattern.
The small, home-grown, strictly ethnic restaurants seem to be doing okay, while many of the small, down-home, meat-and-potatoes places seem to be struggling.
I've talked with patrons, servers, owners, friends and colleagues and have come up with a theory.
(The big chains are an entirely different story I'll leave for a future rumination.)
The theory is that because of the economy, dining out has gone back to being something of a special event, and when people go out, they often want stuff that they can't make for themselves at home.
Like sushi and sashimi.
Asian (who has the patience to make kimchi?).
Cuban. Greek (especially gyros — who owns a vertical spit to make the meat?). Specialty Chinese and Italian (not run-of-the-mill stuff, please). Slow-cooked barbecued ribs and pork.
Many people have stopped going out for a steak because they can grill a great steak for themselves at home, even on a stove top, no charcoal needed.
If you've watched the meat specials in the grocery fliers lately, you've noticed the cheaper prices on primo steaks, reportedly because of the shrinking market for steaks in restaurants. (I recently paid $6.99 a pound for some delicious sirloins at Publix.)
It's telling that two of the most prominent restaurant closings in west Pasco County lately have been Outback Steakhouse and Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse.
It's also telling that Kazu's Sushi & Japanese Cuisine in Port Richey has expanded to seven days a week, now opening from noon to 8 p.m. on Sundays and 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Mondays, in addition to the other five days they've been open since 2004, almost entirely because of customer demand.
Owner/chef Kazunobu Miyazato has wisely kept his place small — 32 seats at tables, plus eight or 10 more at the bar — so he could maintain tight control over quality, and there simply weren't enough hours in five days to accommodate the people who wanted to go there. (Hint: Early weekday afternoons are best; prepare to wait on the weekends.)
Kazu's has always had a loyal clientele, so the closing of the nearby Circuit City and Target didn't hurt, but the quest for "special" dining experiences has brought even more people to the small restaurant in recent months. Where else can you get Azuki Bean or Green Tea ice cream?
As a recent healthy food convert, I'm grateful for the edamame (cooked soybeans), miso soup, the seaweed, avocado, crab and tofu salad, and Japanese green tea or mugichi (barley tea), which read like a list of the things I should have been eating all along.
On the cultural front
It was heartening and plain ol' lots of fun to squeeze into the Town Ground Espresso Cafe in Longleaf last week with more than 50 other poetry buffs for the fourth annual Jacaranda Poetry Festival.
The Pasco Arts Council's contest drew more than 100 entries, and the audience sat with rapt attention as the eight top winners read their entries, followed by readings by several other writers.
There's something very special about hearing a poet read his or her own work. The council's resident poet, Bob Zappacosta, is already working on several projects to be held or presented during National Poetry Month in April.
Some tragic sadness
I've been covering theater in Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando counties for almost two decades and have watched many child actors grow into adults right before my eyes.
As I've sat in the darkness watching them create characters on a lighted stage; I've often felt I've gotten to know them. But I learned this week that this is really just part of the theater's illusion; the characters an actor plays tell very little about the actor himself.
The realization came during a memorial service for George Germann Jr., who inexplicably died in his sleep sometime during the night of May 18, at the age of only 28 years.
I'd watched Georgie since 1993, when he played one of the orphan kids in Stage West Community Playhouse's Oliver! at Springstead Theatre, before the theater's current building was even built. He played in many shows since then, but I most remember him as the dour young member of Hitler Youth in Cabaret, the groveling Renfield in Dracula, and the happy-go-lucky Jack in the musical Into the Woods.
These are three markedly different characters, but young Germann gave each his all, earning three HAMI awards in the process.
I hope the other actors will forgive me if I say that Georgie was the only saving grace in the otherwise, well, pretty awful Dracula.
"...the script's potential comes through only in the performances of young George Germann as sanatorium resident R.M. Renfield..." I wrote back in September 1999.
"Germann understands how this play should be played: straight on, with feeling. He is animated, expressive and convincing as he wrestles with his conscience over whether to betray Dracula, the master who promised him eternal life in the flesh, or betray God, who holds his immortal soul.
"If all the players could infuse their characters with the same sincerity and sense of urgency as Germann, this play could work."
By what many people said during a memorial gathering for him at Stage West on Monday evening, Georgie also gave his all to nurturing his friendships. One after another, they came forward with wonderful stories about how he helped them in their times of need, what a fine young man he had become, what a funny and lovable fellow he was, how loyal and devoted he was, what a terrific son, brother, husband and friend he had always been.
I've been to many memorials, but I can't recall one where so much love, admiration and gratitude was expressed.
My heart goes out to his mom Leanne, dad George Sr., brother Jeff, sister Amy, lovely young widow, Connie, and the many, many friends who agreed that Georgie was one of a kind — the kind you always want in your life.