When dining out on Formica beats white tablecloths

Published: Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 7AANDE

The last time I ate in a four-star white-tablecloth restaurant, I was frustrated and unhappy. (Bear with me; I'm not asking for sympathy.) This wasn't an isolated incident: It simply isn't what I want anymore.

It's become painful, not in the visiting-the-dentist sense, but in the "you have to go to synagogue; it's Yom Kippur" sense, a long, drawn-out affair in which even the obviously beautiful and enjoyable parts – the $10,000-a-week flower arrangements, the custom glassware and china and sometimes even the carefully prepared if almost always overly subtle (to my taste) food – were overwhelmed by the sheer tedium.

These are temples of ceremony, with (normally absent) chefs as priests; they're circuses without clowns or trapezes.

Start with the obligatory greeting. Even done well, it can feel white-tooth phony; done badly, you feel slighted. Move on to the choices of water. Really? We have to talk about that? The drink order. The presentation of the menus and then the wine list. The visit of the wine guy, if you appear as if you'll open your wallet even further. The discussion of the menu. The waiting to order. The opening of the wine, the flourish, the tasting, the nod, the waiting for the wine guy to leave.

The waiting for the amuse-bouches, which were originally meant to keep you happy while you were waiting for those first few things to happen and now usually happen long after you've already become grumpy because, after all, it's a restaurant and you're hungry.

Three hours later, there is no sense of wonder or excitement or even an attack on your hunger; your appetite simply diminishes and then gives up. Nor is there a single conversation between you and your companion(s) that is left uninterrupted for more than five minutes. All this for $200.

There are, I think, better entertainments. If the food isn't mind-blowing, what's the point? Shame on me, I know, for failing to enjoy something so luxurious. But this isn't the Grand Canyon; unless each time somehow surpasses the time before, it loses its luster.

It's not just white-tablecloth restaurants, either. There is the general unpleasantness of the uber-hip places that I had once enjoyed and that, like marijuana, I eventually pretended to. The standing in line, the loud music and the impossibility of conversation, the intentionally horrible seats and (I'm sorry to say, but this is my experience) the declining quality of the food. I have an alternative: I can cook. Most times I choose to do so.

What does impress? What do I really like? A place that does something well and doesn't mess with it. A place where I might get a bowl of pasta with pesto or, God forbid, a steak frites or a hot ginger-laced stir-fry over real rice at a price that doesn't make me laugh. A place that will make me think I didn't waste my time leaving the house.

The question is, what remains? What works in a restaurant? Obviously if the food isn't delicious, everything else will just seem annoying, and that happens quite a lot.

But it takes more. Personalization helps: I recently visited a Madrid restaurant called La Tasquitas de Enfrente. The food was terrific, but equally impressive was that the chef took three to five minutes to get each table's order, even at the tables of first-timers.

This meant he was spending less time on the line. But he was coaching people, trying to figure out what they might like, engaging. He gave everyone a sense of "this is your place"-ness.

I want "my" place, don't you? A place with a working chef, not a cookie-cutter spinoff and certainly not a circus. A place where the food is at least as good as what I can do at home and preferably better, and consistently so; one that's pleasant; one where I'm vaguely known as a repeat customer but not falsely fawned over; one where I can pay without thinking about what that chunk of money might have gone to instead.

My place right now is a Japanese hole in the wall. (I'm keeping it that way by not naming it. Sorry.) There's no celebrity chef, no publicity, no hipness other than that exuded by the young servers. It couldn't be less trendy and to prove it, I'll tell you that: a) it's in midtown, and b) it's populated almost exclusively by expat and visiting Japanese.

How did I find it? It's across the street from the back door of what was once my building. It's ugly: The tables are Formica, with standard cafe chairs; the napkins are paper; and the cash register, which is at the back of the kitchen, is wrapped in plastic to keep the grease off the keys.

But I've never taken or sent anyone there who didn't leave happy. The food is quite good (I can't cook it nearly so well), although you wouldn't call it mind-blowing.

The servers know me as the non-Japanese guy who comes in often and doesn't like to sit in the front; they say hello and send me to the back. The chef and cooks nod. They cook their fine food. The servers bring it. I eat it. A server comes and refills the water glass; she might ask if I want more sake. (They never ask how things "are tasting.") Eventually I pay the bill, without regret ($29 for two the other day, and that was four dishes), and I go home happy, satisfied and full.

What more do you want, really?

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Read more articles by Mark Bittman



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