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An Updated Guide to What’s Wrong With Restaurants Today

A rant about the annoyances of eating out in NYC from Eater's senior critic

Yes, there are many things right with modern restaurants. Here are the things that are wrong. Some have continued for years, others are new problems that may go away if we all complain. (Yeah, dream on!)

1. Noise level: Despite multiple complaints from critics and the general public, noisy restaurants where you can’t carry on a conversation at anything like normal volume levels remain the rule rather than the exception. Reflective surfaces used as building materials are partly to blame, but so are thumping soundtracks, storefronts open to the street, and drunken knots of patrons by the bar shouting for more booze.

2. Preponderance of Poke: Every year brings its faddish dish that you may be initially delighted by, but by the end of the year can’t stand. Last year it was kale salad, a fad that hasn’t abated. This year it’s poke. Every food court or fast casual restaurant that opens has to have it, usually presented as a chef’s salad with — instead of ham — smooshed and sloppy C-grade raw fish cloaked in mayo.

Their function is obvious – to make you eat your meal fast and get the hell out of there!

3. Uncomfortable Furniture: Remember when restaurant chairs had backs with padding, and padding on the seats, too? You could really sink into them and enjoy your meal in comfort. Nowadays, you go into a restaurant and the first thing you see is short metal stools with no backs and no padding that might have been stolen from a high-security penal institution. Their function is obvious — to make you eat your meal fast and get the hell out of there! (And secondarily, to save space.)

4. Gaming the Customers: Once upon a time, waiters existed to serve food to you in the most pleasant and efficient manner possible. Now, they’re often sales agents intent on separating you from maximum cash. Everyone is tired of "The Lecture," wherein the waiter explains how many small dishes you must order to be a real person and how you must share them. Then there’s the upselling of wine, bar snacks, side dishes, desserts, and other menu features you might have been inclined to ignore, and a cloying familiarity that sometimes includes touching the customers reassuringly. Hands off me, please!

[Le District. by Krieger]

5. Food Courts: Over the last two years, it’s gradually become obvious that food courts may represent the future of dining out for most of us. No longer will you have your favorite neighborhood spot where you’re known to the staff and have your familiar dishes. From now on, you’ll step into a drafty airplane hangar packed with counters, labor to put together a meal out of small dishes by fidgeting in a series of lines, and then fight for a spot at a crowded table surrounded by small hard stools (see above). And pay more for it.

These new systems turn out to be profoundly anti-consumer.

6. Pared-Down Payment Systems: Okay, we’ve all become accustomed to iPads standing in for cash registers. Fine. But what characterizes these new payment systems is often a cessation of conveniences we’ve come to expect. Some of these systems require a credit card and don’t accept cash. (What about people who don’t have credit cards?) Others don’t provide paper receipts but will send one inside an email, which is often not downloadable and is too big for a screen dump. (How do you do your expense report?) Others suggest tips that go from 15 percent to 25 percent, even for just a cup of coffee at a counter and no service to speak of. You’ll look like a jerk if you don’t check off one of those boxes. In other words, these new systems turn out to be profoundly anti-consumer.

7. Restaurant Class System: It used to be that there were cheap restaurants and expensive restaurants, and even the people who ate at cheap restaurants could afford an expensive restaurant once in a while. Now the gap between cheap and expensive has grown in a way not entirely attributable to inflation, so that the top tier of restaurants is way beyond the reach of mere monetary mortals, even for a splurge. So if one wants to try BlancaBrooklyn Fare, MasaMomofuku Ko, or even Del Posto, the cost can be $500 per person or more. What are we foodie peasants to do? Perhaps storming the barricades by going in twos or threes, sharing a small hard stool, and splitting a single prix fixe meal among several diners?

8. Empty Restaurant Storefronts: The West Village, for example, is littered with dozens of empty storefronts that used to be restaurants, some vacant for years as landlords wait to receive top dollar for their properties from new tenants. Many of these spaces become dangerous decaying eyesores. Perhaps the city government can step in and insist that they be rented to restaurants willing to engage in a profit sharing arrangement, because lines of empty restaurants have made parts of New York City look like the Rust Belt, despite a supposedly favorable economy.

Top Photo: Gelso & Grand by Krieger

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