Philly’s a great ‘food city,’ but you can keep your fancy restaurants

    The crispy ahi tuna taco at Suga

    The crispy ahi tuna taco at Suga

    What’s a food city? What’s a “great” food city? I prefer culinary destinations with less ego, fewer hidden components, and lower price tags.

    Item from WHYY:

    “Philadelphia has become one of the great food cities in the country.”

    Item from Visit Philadelphia:

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    “Philadelphia, long known for … cheesesteaks, continues to emerge as one of the country’s finest culinary destinations. More than a decade of development has transformed the region’s dining scene from merely memorable to absolutely abundant.”

    Reaction: What’s a food city? What’s a “great” food city?

    ‘I’m not buying it’

    Judging from local restaurants less than 10 years old, the primary development seems to be the altitude of the price. Certainly it’s not the abundance of the portions, which might sustain a diner who has eaten a complete meal within the last 30 minutes. I am not a fan of the local food scene. Call me low-class, call me cheap or call me old: I’m not buying it. I submit my top complaints.

    First, I dislike show-offs, and today’s celebrity chefs do preen like peacocks. They present cookery advice on talk shows and in interviews as Matthew, Mark, and John spouted the gospel. And show-offs produce portions too small to feed a 3-year-old. To camouflage the dearth of food, they switch to dwarf-sized dishes, an attempted optical illusion. They expect us to choose three or four “small plates” from the menu, adding up to towering prices.

    Elegant, trendy restaurants make me nervous. Someone asks for my coat, it’ll cost me. Two someones say, “Good evening, Ma’am,” and that’s gonna cost. (Besides, I prefer to think of myself as Miss.)

    Hotshot proponents of “the region’s dining scene” spawn combinations of sauces that make me want to brush my teeth just contemplating the ingredients. I like clean, unadulterated food, un-sauced. Goat cheese with boysenberry vinaigrette and farm-sourced bacon over double-steamed nearly rare sea bream sounds over-the-top.

    As a young teen, I attended summer camp on the Maine coast, where the culinary highlight was lobster, cooked in 20-gallon drums on the rocks at low tide. Before we received our lobster, we scouted for stones to hammer open the hard shells. Never can drawn butter enhance the flavor of fresh lobster.

    Just give it to me straight

    Switching from chefs to servers — recently I ordered an appetizer of octopus, accompanied by almond skordalia, which the server defined as garlic sauce, but which actually contained cod stock, fennel, and heavy cream. It tasted worse than it smelled. I converted my glass of water into an octopus bath, dipping until the offensive gunk thinned. Cleansed my taste buds with bread. Had the menu — or the server — been more thorough or honest, I could have ordered my sea creature sauce-free, or chosen something else altogether.

    I propose we revert to a more traditional, less luxurious style of restaurant. Turn down the music so I can hear the waitress call me “Hon.” Don’t say, “Hi, I’m Randy, and I’ll be your server this evening.” Just open with a simple “Ya ready ta order?” If I want to know her name, I’ll read the tag on her breast pocket (with half-hanky sewed in) or — here’s a novel idea — ask her.

    In ambiance-free bistros, we can eliminate the frills. Did I say “tacky”? Did I say “dive”? No, just simple. In my favorite spots, sometimes we chat for so long with the people at the next table, that, by the time the main courses arrive, we have rearranged the furniture so we are actually a foursome.

    In an honest-to-goodness restaurant, murals of the Old Country, hand-cut Mexican doilies, or empty Chianti bottles serve as decor. Paper placemats match the oilcloth. Acoustic-tile ceilings muffle sound.

    One established restaurant owner captures the ambiance-free mood when he says: “If you’re with someone you love, the food always tastes great. It can be a hotdog, Honey.” I prefer culinary destinations with less ego, fewer hidden components, and lower price tags.

    Because restaurant meals relieve me from cooking and washing pots, I love to eat out — but only when the price is right.

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