The experience of eating out

January 18, 2011 · 42 comments

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Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally (no, not that one) when Carrie Fisher’s character quotes Harry’s best friend (a journalist) saying something about how “Restaurants are to people in the 80s what theater was to people in the 60s?” I wasn’t around to know what theater was to people in the 60s, but I’m guessing it was something about shared entertainment. And I can’t remember the point being made in the movie, but I do know that, 25 years later in 2011, restaurants are about a lot of things, and most of the time it’s not food.

About a month or two after we moved to Indianapolis, Tim and I were in dire need of a date. He asked around at school, and people kept making the same recommendation: you must eat at Mama Carolla’s, it’s an Indianapolis landmark. So for our first night out in this city, we got a sitter, arrived to a packed restaurant, and sat outside in an admittedly quaint patio atmosphere. But I must say that $65 later we had not been wowed by our dinner. I don’t remember what we ate; but the adjectives that come to mind are over-sauced, over-seasoned, over-cooked pasta dishes. I think our “mixed green” salad was nothing but iceburg, our olives tasted canned, and our server didn’t have a clue (you know when all of their recommendations are the most expensive items on the menu). In short, we had paid for the privilege of eating dinner in a quaint outdoor setting; what we had not paid for was good food. I’ve not yet been to Italy, but I’m betting that when I do go, the food will most certainly not resemble that of Mama Carolla’s. We were disheartened, afraid that this was the best our new city had to offer.

Then last night, we had a taste of another quintessential Indianapolis mainstay: Hollyhock Hill. Tim’s parents came through town and took us to dinner; and since we had heard that this was comfort food at its best, we reasoned it would be a great place to share dinner with them. Hollyhock Hill is nothing if not ripe with tradition — it began in 1929 as a rural, intimate dining destination, serving family-style dinners. And much of that feeling is still evident — when you walk in the door you almost instantly feel warm and comfortable, and it seems the servers have been at the restaurant since day one (I could venture to believe that they all live there as well, as I couldn’t imagine my server in anything other than her blue, 1930’s serving dress carrying a 1960’s coffee pot). In short, the place is predictably quirky — and not in an altogether negative way.

We were handed menus with five or six main-course options: fried chicken, beef tenderloin, and various fish entrees. A huge lazy susan in the middle of the table allowed our kids a full hour of dangerous, food-splattering exercises in centrifugal force, and the rest of us to pick pieces of sugar-vinegar dressed iceburg lettuce from a big salad bowl. When our entrees came, we were each brought a dinner plate with our selected protein, a huge pile of mashed potatoes, a matching heap of green beans, and a bright red baked apple ring.

At this point, let me take a deep breath and report that, had we not been seated during the “Early Bird” hour (4:30 – 5:30), our plates would have each cost $18.95. Because we were early, they cost only $11.95.

I had the fried chicken. And, you know, it was what it was. I don’t order fried chicken very often, so I didn’t have much to compare it to. It was better than mine simply because it was thoroughly cooked. And while it wasn’t much to write home about, it was, by far, the best thing on my plate.

Because I would put a full $18.95 on a hunch that my mashed potatoes were instant, and my green beans were from a giant can (this, or pressure-cooked to the point of death). My 7-year old was right on the money when, after I told her she had to eat 5 more green beans, she looked at me and whispered, “But Mom, they don’t taste like anything!” I wish I could’ve argued with her.

And this is where I hit my head up against a wall.

Because this restaurant is packed most evenings I drive by. I have been told by more than one person that this is their favorite restaurant in Indianapolis. And I am just trying to figure out why.

The thing is, I get it. I get nostalgia. I get comfort food. I get slathering biscuits with apple butter. I even get sitting at a table with a center that spins. But what I cannot, will not, ever get, is spending $19 on a plate of food that tastes about like what cafeteria food might taste like. And I’m not trying to think of the worst possible comparison just to be cantankerous; I really think it’s the same food.

So what are the reasons that these are the restaurants at the top of so many lists, not just in Indianapolis, but many other cities across America?

Every reason I float comes back to experience, and not much, if anything, to do with food. It’s the fact that someone else will cook, and serve up a big enough portion to bring home leftovers. It’s that I won’t have to do dishes (the number of ways I understand this one are countless). It’s even sitting at a table with other people, which is often a way of eating that is foregone at home (guilty as charged). It’s being waited on by women wearing blue apron dresses, and eating at a table that reminds us of our grandmother’s house. It’s biscuits and apple butter, which many people don’t make at home. It’s not having to take a risk.

In short, it’s Disney World. But it’s not the food.

I don’t really know why this bothers me. It’s silly; people can spend their money however they choose. Some people are into car racing, some are into music, some are into Pillow Pets, some are into restaurants that serve mediocre food. I think I get frustrated because there’s nothing separating what I consider to be a veritable realm of very different food establishments. It’s hard for me to swallow, when Hollyhock Hill is considered a “premier dining destination” of the Midwest. Because that title suggests something other than canned beans and instant mashed potatoes. I would be typing a little less frantically, utilizing a smaller number of italics right now if it was called something else entirely — something like a “premier food-product comfort emporium” of the Midwest. Because the Midwest? It really does have some premier dining destinations — right here in this fair city, even*. But they won’t stay in business if the cars in town are all lined up for Hollyhock Hill and Mama Carolla’s on a weekly basis.**

C.S. Lewis has a quote that I have always loved, and while the original context concerned human desire compared with a heavenly joy, I think the analogy works here: “We are half-hearted creatures… like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

From where I sit today, I believe that changing the restaurant culture of this city actually starts at home. There’s no point in trying to convince people that they are paying for food of low quality until they begin to cook their own quality food at home and can taste the difference. That making really good food doesn’t have to be difficult, and in fact becomes more natural with every meal (of course, just when you get comfortable with it you begin to try more difficult things, but usually by then it’s something you desire to do). I know I’m guilty of shaming teasing people who refuse to eat whole food groups of edibles, telling them simply, “you’ve just not had well-prepared tomatoes/greens/fish.” But as a person who grew up not liking soup, vegetables, tomatoes, stews, un-fried fish, or birthday cake, I now know that my dislikes had everything to do with the source of said food (can/out-of-season/box) and not the food itself.

I want more for the people of Indianapolis. Nice people live here, and they should eat well. We live in a part of the country that should be the very heart of good food culture — we live in the middle of fertile farmland, surrounded by a growing number of sustainable farms which can provide almost everything we need to eat in a way that continuously amazes us all. We are better than Disney food.

At least, I believe we can be.


* I am not suggesting that really expensive, high-end dining is our only option. I love comfort food — and wish there was a place in Indianapolis that served well-prepared food in this genre. If you know of a place that does, and you feel like I’ve missed it, let me know!

** I’m also not suggesting that we boycott these places. I have eaten at them now three times, and I’m sure I will again (though not on my dime). I’m much more concerned with the perceived idea that these are the best places Indianapolis has to offer. Or, that the food itself is what’s good about them.

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