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  • Diana Schneidman

A Tale of Two Restaurants

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”

--Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The economy is the worst it has ever been. No wonder business stinks.”

--Some people I know

Quick! Someone please tell Red Lobster we’re having a recession. It takes entirely too long to find a parking space there.

We went to the Schaumburg (IL) Red Lobster late on a cold, snowy Saturday evening in January. I drove up and down the entire parking lot looking for a space but no luck. So I found myself facing the deep question that dogs mankind in such circumstances: Does the furniture store next door really tow cars if they catch nonpatrons parking there?

Then a stroke of luck. Someone pulled out of a handicapped space. Since I had a handicapped car placard (accompanied by a disabled passenger), I was able to claim it honestly.

Meanwhile, other family members beat us to the restaurant and got us on the waiting list. All the driving around proved to be a blessing as we walked past the waiting hordes with their beepers in hand to claim our table.

The place was pretty good. Excellent food, cheery waitress. The alcoholic beverage we all shared tasted like semi-thawed lemonade concentrate but it was so pretty we didn’t care. Food excellent but not cheap; the crowds weren’t here for the bargains.

Restaurant Number 2 is a family-owned, single-location restaurant in the next town over from us. Open nearly round the clock. A comprehensive menu of American, Italian and Greek entrees plus sandwiches. Breakfast served any time. A revolving case of sinfully rich desserts. Plus many of the meals are cheaper than Red Lobster’s.

We last visited the restaurant on a cold December evening. We arrived after the dinner rush, but as we glanced around at mostly empty tables, we readily equated the slow business with the economy. The server confirmed our impression. The elderly gentleman who owns the place sat at a large table gabbing with his equally elderly cronies, strolling over to the cash register when a departing customer was ready to pay.

The most convincing evidence that something was off was the vegetable of the day, a pallid mix of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots that automatically accompanied each entrée. The broccoli was a faded shade of green, like it had set out in the sun for a month. The other veggies weren’t quite as color challenged but they were equally soft.

Now I’m not the greatest chef in the world and I’ve never cooked in commercial quantities, but even I know that cooked vegetables, whether fresh or frozen, are tastier when cooked for the right amount of time instead of just left cooking in a pot on the stove till they are needed.

And even I know that it costs no more to do them right than to do them poorly.

I ate all my vegetables because that’s how I was raised. And we will go back to that restaurant eventually. (After all, that’s where Wayne and I met up on our first date after finding each other on

I’d guess Restaurant Number 2 attributes the business slowdown to the recession. It’s the economy, stupid.

But I’d also guess that business is slow because the food simply ain’t that great lately.

Cause and effect can be a vicious cycle. I believe the mediocre vegetables and similar turnoffs are cause. But I’d also guess that the owner, if we had called him over to our table to complain, would have muttered some kind of apology and then confided to his cronies that the veggies are the effect. They are the way they are because business is slow.

I’m the customer and I believe that at least this time, I’m right. If he’d start by fixing the little things, those customers who haven’t sworn they’ll never go in that pit again would be more pleased the next time they eat there and would find themselves returning more frequently.

There’s not much that we as individuals can do about the economy. We can’t reverse foreign outsourcing, shrink trade deficits or revitalize the manufacturing sector.

But we can manage the details of our own businesses, one broccoli spear at a time.

Originally posted 1-26-10

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