When neighborhood restaurants are chains, good taste suffers

I can't imagine anyone being dissatisfied with the dinner I ordered Friday night at Thai Cuisine: fresh-tasting shrimp in a sauce colored and flavored by crushed basil and green peppers; cold Tsingtao beers that proved with every swallow that China exports at least some first-rate merchandise.

I can't imagine anyone balking at the price of the entree, $10.95, or failing to be amazed by its size — big enough to fill the ceramic tureen it arrived in and to stuff a diner who doesn't stuff easily.

And, yet, when our plates were taken away at 7:45 p.m. — on what should have been one of the busiest nights of the week — our party of four was the only one in the restaurant on Spring Hill Drive just west of Mariner Boulevard.

Our server, while anxiously scanning the parking lot for incoming customers, assured us that Friday nights are usually far busier.

But considering that the last time my wife and I went to Carrabba's we waited more than an hour for a table, it seemed tremendously unfair.

For Carrabba's, while not bad, is still a chain. The meals there are never surprising. They never display a cook's warmth or passion. You may leave full, but never fulfilled.

That's not to say every locally owned restaurant in the county is great or even, considering our size, that we have our share of good ones.

But I bet we would have more if we didn't have so many chain outlets and weren't so easily swayed by their advertising campaigns.

Step back and look at Hernando as a prospective restaurant owner.

You'd see people who would rather wait an hour for the chance to order from the same menu they've seen in Tampa, Orlando or Ohio, than to try a new restaurant, especially if its food is slightly unfamiliar.

Good, independently owned Italian restaurants, for example, usually pack 'em in. Thai Cuisine, on the other hand, has long struck me as the most unfairly shunned restaurant in the county. I'm almost certain that a solid Indian restaurant, my fondest culinary wish, would be doomed.

This lack of adventure saps life from the community, depriving us of what restaurants are at their best: expressions of cultural and individual creativity.

It seems to me this also hurts the local economy. Yes, chains invest in our community. But the profits don't go to our neighbors. They go to corporations pretending to be our neighbors.

Which brings me to the true inspiration for this column: The county's third Applebee's will open Monday on County Line Road near Spring Hill Regional Hospital.

To me, it is about as welcome as another Wal-Mart.

It means one more space in our market will be taken up by a restaurant serving exactly the same food as two others and pretty much the same as a dozen more.

Its versions of buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks and other standards have always seemed especially drab and flavorless, manufactured rather than cooked.

And, as I mentioned before in this column, they are flogged by a marketing campaign that is not just nonsense but insidious nonsense.

Remember, your nearest Applebee's was conceived in a Kansas office building. It is not, and never can be, a "Neighborhood Grill and Bar.''

And if you and I continue to thoughtlessly patronize it, chances are good we'll never see the real thing.

When neighborhood restaurants are chains, good taste suffers 04/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 1:46pm]

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