Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why Mediocre Is Worse Than Bad

The Who--"Naked Eye" (mp3)

Let's say you're in Florida, on vacation, you don't feel like cooking, the kids want Italian, so you think about this little place you've driven or walked past numerous times, always intrigued because the menu offers some things different from the standard Italian fare. So, you check it out on the Internet, read some reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp and what have you, just to reassure yourself about this new place, because you do have stand-bys and old favorites, but the kids don't want to go there.

So, off you go, drive downtown. You walk in on a Thursday night. It isn't too crowded, but there's energy, a vibe. You are seated. Your waitress has an intriguing accent. You are charmed. You like the vibe.

The menu prices are probably 1 1/2 times what you expect to pay at an Italian place, but you shrug that off, expecting a special meal and pleased that you have pleased your girls. You look for something mid-range and find something intriguing: Chicken Scallopini with Tomatoes and Smoked Mozzarella. The girls order a variation of their usual pasta. You attempt to confirm the waitress' Russian accent, only to find out that she is Brazilian, with a German father. Not what you expected.

You and the girls work through a small loaf of homemade bread while you wait.

When the food comes, you don't think it's for your table, because one of the entrees is a stacked tower and you know that no one ordered that. But, it is placed down in front of you, layers of cheese, and tomatoes, and chicken, skewered by a sprig of rosemary and surrounding by julienned vegetables and a light sauce. Wow, you think.

Your first reaction is to take a picture of it. This, you think, is going to be something. And you pick up your knife and fork with pride.

But that's where it ends. As you cut into it, you discover that it is cheese, layer of tomato, another layer of tomato, smallish piece of chicken, layer of tomato, slightly larger piece of chicken, layer of tomato, julienned vegetables. Ah, you figure, so maybe they should have named it Tomatoes and Smoked Mozzarella with Scallops of Chicken. Or scallop-sized. But, what the heck, you like tomatoes, it will be fine. The girls are enjoying their pasta. But when you finally put the tomato in your mouth, you think, wait a second, this tomato is barely ripe. In fact, as you deconstruct your tower, you realize that all of the tomatoes are no better than a washed-out pink. In the middle of the summer in the Sunshine State, a state where you bragged about the tomatoes just days before.

And, at that point, you are stuck with a mediocre meal. See, the problem is that if it were truly bad, you would be motivated to do something about it. If the chicken wasn't cooked through, if the taste was off, you'd call the waitress over and send it back. But not as much chicken as you'd expect, tomatoes not as ripe as what you are used to, what are you going to do? The restaurants of America are full of unripe tomatoes. We take them for granted.

You think, hey, if you're making to make tomatoes the star of your dish, they better be damn good tomatoes! Right? Well, maybe not. That's your vision. You know that great chefs search out the best ingredients they can find. But you are in Venice, Florida, where the thinking may be to get the biggest tomatoes they can find so that they can build their tower.

Because here's the problem: mediocre is somebody's vision of good or good enough or acceptable.

Believe it. I saw the owner or chef out in the room chatting with other customers that he knew, relaxed, comfortable about his place. There's no way he originally set up shop thinking 'I'm going start a mediocre upscale Italian restaurant.' It just ended up that way. The girls' pasta--perfectly fine, but uninspired. Maybe the best the place or the current chef can conceive. Maybe it's what the "locals" like to eat. Maybe because he's a local himself, he gets enough compliments about his food that he believes it.

If you find yourself sitting in the middle of it, you begin to question yourself. Am I a snob? Everyone around me seems perfectly satisfied with their food. Even though you know, just from the decisions made about the food at your table that it's decent at best. But you do question yourself.

And that's why mediocre is worse than bad. Bad demands action; mediocre inspires complacency. Maybe no one acts on the bad, but at least they know it exists. The mediocre, though, well, they just blend in. Here's my theory: if you ever want to bring down an empire, a country, an institution, a team, or even a restaurant, get its loyal people to accept mediocrity. They will lose their standards. They will lose their way. They will pay and leave and forget about it.


Anonymous said...

(q) Am I a snob? Everyone around me seems perfectly satisfied with their food. Even though you know, just from the decisions made about the food at your table that it's decent at best. But you do question yourself.(q)
That sums up me & wife's predicament too many times - for example we are happy to eat at upscale 5 star places, pubs & chippies in UK,roadside stands in Costa Rica or from food trucks in Mexico City so no snobbery involved, just an appreciation of what stands out as food made with care, skill & love, what passes as acceptable*** given price/establishment, and what is plain uninspired, pedestrian & a rip-off. But, yes, you do feel like the snobby sore thumb & squeaky wheel when friends consistently invite to eat out in mid-range but mediocre places & having to say no, would rather spend my money elsewhere or cook at home.
Cheers for the blog
anwe Miami Fl

*** by this I mean somewhere that you don't go only for the food & accept the trade off, a tapas bar in Seville that has good wine & one killer dish but the rest are just so-so, or a joint that mixes stellar mojitos but the chicken wings plain suck.

cinderkeys said...

Years ago, Dave Barry declared that he was going to start a chain restaurant called Mr. Mediocre. People don't want to go somewhere and wonder if it's going to be bad or excellent. They want to go somewhere OK, but know that it will always be OK.

At least with restaurants, the people who demand better will take action. They won't send back their food or complain, but they will take their business elsewhere next time. It's more insidious for other realms -- a country, an institution, a relationship. Without an option to simply go elsewhere, without any fuss or inconvenience, complacency happens and complacency grows.

Billy said...

Rough fact: If I don't go to a Chattanooga restaurant at least twice in its first 18 months of business, it either costs $30+/head, or it will soon fail.

I'm cheap, and I'm relatively easy to please, so if I don't like it, it ain't gonna last.

The one exception: the Cheeburger Cheeburger downtown, which is the sorriest POS excuse for a restaurant that has ever survived this long in the history of mankind. They should pay the Chattanooga Aquarium at least 70% of their profits.

Bob said...

Anwe, could not agree more. "Food made with care" about sums it all up, and, as you suggest, that often means making it yourself.

Cinderkeys and Billy, if the people I know are any indication, people will return (more than once) to a mediocre restaurant. As a default among competing opinions, if nothing else. And Billy, as you might guess, my discussion of mediocrity is allegorical as much as anything.

Anonymous said...

Good thing our Congress is truly horrible. Maybe now we'll get some change up in here!

Oh yeah I see where you're going with this. A little closer to home.

troutking said...

Oops, that was my comment.