Wednesday, December 3, 2008

In praise of local restaurants (or how I learned to stop going to chains and love eating out again)

The earlier post I wrote mocking the Tulsa World for reviewing a chain restaurant like Western Sizzlin' has prompted me to lay out my argument in favor of eating locally.

I'm sure a lot of people really do enjoy going to Applebee's. It's easy, it's cheap, and the service and food are safe and predictable. It's the same quality of service and food you'll get at Chili's, and at TGI Fridays, at the Olive Garden, and any number of the other chain restaurants dotting the city. Waiters and waitresses are bubbly and friendly, they wear cute outfits, and they always have an extensive menu of easily recognizable and non-threatening food.

The problem is that none of it is actually good food. The food lies there, limply on the plate, telling you, "Some kid making $8 an hour has made 100 of me during today's shift, assembling products from a menu designed by a corporation hundreds of miles away." Sure, the food is fine, and it won't kill you, and it'll fill your belly, but does it really excite you? Are you positively engaged in the dining experience, or are you just eating food?

It's been my experience that local restaurants, like the Brook, or Arizona Mexican Restaurant, or White River Fish Market, or Mario's Pizzeria, or Mekong River, or Lanna Thai, all offer a higher quality, more delicious, and frankly more personal dining experience, for the same price or cheaper than the national chains. Maybe it's because the owners are close by, and the employees have more of a stake in what they're cooking and presenting to the customers. Maybe it's because family-owned restaurants by their very nature take more pride in what they serve. I don't know what it is, but I have yet to eat at a chain restaurant that can match the quality and innovation of service and food that I've found at local restaurants.

A few weeks ago, my partner and I were down in the 71st and Memorial area, and we decided to check out this steak restaurant we saw. As soon as we walked up, we knew we were at a chain. We walked in, and we were greeted by a bubbly hostess who handed us one of those vibrating coasters. We asked to see a menu, and we were presented with one that, had I not known the name of the restaurant, would have looked identical to a million menus I'd seen at chain restaurants all over the country. And yet, people were lining up to eat there. I wanted to ask them all - what makes this restaurant any different or better than any of the other chains? What makes it unique? We handed back our vibrating coaster and menu, and we left. We ended up having an absolutely delicious dinner at Mekong River, a locally owned Vietnamese restaurant with delicious food and wonderful service at prices significantly lower than they were at that steak restaurant. And yet Mekong River was nearly empty. Why, Tulsa? Why would you rather go to a soulless, unidentifiable chain, than an absolutely delicious local restaurant where the food is prepared with care, and it's cheaper than the chain?

I'd like everyone reading this to try an experiment for me. Go to any one of the myriad chain restaurants in town and have a meal. Pay attention to the service, to the food, and ask yourself whether you're actually enjoying your meal because it's tasty and interesting in your mouth, or whether you're just enjoying the meal because it's filling your belly. Ask yourself what makes this particular chain restaurant unique and different and better than any other chain restaurant. It can't just be superficial stuff like, "Well, this one has southwestern eggrolls, and that other one doesn't," because that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the overall experience. I think you'll find that where it counts, your dining experience will be basically identical at any given chain restaurant.

The next night, I'd like you to go to a local restaurant. I will define a local restaurant as one based in Oklahoma with fewer than, say, 10 locations in the city. Ideally, I'd like you to go to a restaurant with no other locations, but there are a few local chains that are quite tasty.

Earlier in this post, I named a few local restaurants that I enjoy. I'll give you some more details on those:

The Brook - a Tulsa institution - delicious burgers, sandwiches, and a full bar. On Brookside between 41st and 31st and Peoria.

Arizona Mexican Restaurant - Several locations throughout the city. Serves authentic homestyle Mexican food in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. The staff is friendly, the food is delicious, and the margaritas are huge. My favorite location is at 66th and Lewis.

White River Fish Market - this local fish joint is in North Tulsa, and it has actually been reviewed nationally as one of the best places for fish in the country. Cheaper than Bodean's and just as delicious, in a relaxed and casual atmosphere, White River offers broiled, fried, and grilled fish and the best gumbo you can get in the city.

Mario's Pizzeria - authentic New York style pizza and sandwiches. Quite possibly some of the best pizza in the city. Also try the pepper & sausage hot sub.

Mekong River - Vietnamese restaurant at 71st and Memorial behind Toys R Us. Dishes you won't find anywhere else. Try the French style steak - you won't find a better, more delicious, or more uniquely prepared steak dish somewhere like Outback.

Lanna Thai - Just south of 71st and Memorial, this Thai restaurant also offers live music and great cocktails. Their curries are hard to beat, and the service is superb.

Kolam- Indian restaurant just north of 51st and Memorial. It's a small location, but the dishes are an innovative and unique blend of North and South Indian, and Indo-Chinese food. Their lunch buffet is quite possibly the best in the city, and their dinner menu is superb, and not that expensive.