You could pretty much sum up the restaurant scene in America in one sentence: Hamburgers are dead; and beef itself is losing some appeal. The kind of restaurant that is making a name for itself these days is the one that gets a cult following rather than marketing to a general broad appeal. Consider this as an open letter to the food service managers of America. For pity's sake, do something different!
We might as well face it: only the young care about general appeal any more. A ten year old kid is the most conservative diner you could imagine. Take them to any restaurant offering a menu of wonders and delights, and they'll head straight for the hot dog. No chili, no cheese, just ketchup, thank you. Pizza parlors are about as exciting as their culinary explorations get, but they'd better offer plain pepperoni or there's going to be trouble.
But the grown-ups think in terms mostly of ethnic categories. And speaking of ethnicity, Mexican, Italian, and Chinese are fine... but isn't it time that we acknowledged that there's more than three countries that make food? Treat yourself to a Mediterranean restaurant some time and you'll get a feel for what you've been missing. Falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, fresh wet green tea leaves, sweetening with honey instead of sugar, and ways to cook lamb you've never thought of. Pita bread baked fresh on the premises, so it shows up at your table in a puffed-up balloon and slowly deflates to the flat pancake shape.
America, the melting pot of international culture, and yet unless you're in one of the five biggest cities you're out of luck finding international foods outside of pizzas, and tacos. the bowl of chop suey if you're lucky. South American cuisine that is farther south than Mexico is unheard of. An Argentinian or Brazilian restaurant perhaps? And when's the last time you found a Russian deli outside of New York? America has made two gains in Russian cuisine - Pirozhki and Baklava, and Baklava is more Baltic than Russian. I bet if you're a typical American, you've never seen Shashlyk. It's a Russian-style shish-kebab usually made with marinated lamb and some favorably sweet grilled onions. How hard is that to make? To take another example, France gets praised for it's wonderful cultural food, but by reputation only. Let's see a few more French restaurants and perhaps we'll get a chance to see what all the fuss is about.
America has a hard time dealing with it's own native cultural diversity, it seems. You get cheese curds in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and in the rest of the States cheese is yellow and in the form of flat slices. Cajun cuisine got rave reviews on all of the cooking shows on Food network, but the craze seems to have come and gone without more than a few Cajun-themed restaurants popping up. Nobody east of Utah seems to have heard of a Denver omelet, nobody west of New England seems able to understand how to cook a lobster. I guess Indian cuisine within driving distance is a faint hope when you can't even get all of America into one food court.
And as if the lack of international diversity and interstate diversity weren't enough, it seems that even the methods of preparing food are stuck in a rut. Why must all chicken be breaded and deep-fat fried? Travel the planet if you have to, but find a place serving broasted chicken and grab a plate of that. There, now, wasn't it nice to have chicken that isn't drowning in grease for a change?
Consider the other food varieties largely missing from the American plate. Did you know pasta can be made from something besides wheat, bread can actually be something besides bleached and white, pickles aren't always sliced and sour, and they've invented varieties of pepper which can be served whole besides the Jalepeno? That kielbasa sausage tastes just as good on a bun as a hot dog? That sweeteners can be based on something besides corn? That you can put condiments on a sandwich that aren't yellow and red? That tortillas can be made from something besides bleached wheat flour? Listen, if only I never have to look at another "French fry" as long as I live, it will be too soon; enough with the damn deep-fried potatoes already!
American cuisine draws a heavy dose of criticism abroad, and for good reason. We simply do not offer substantial variety. The usually noble American ethic of being practical and down-to-Earth takes on an edge when you ask for something besides fried cow. What, are you some kind of elitist? Fried potatoes not good enough for you, you want fried mushrooms or zucchini instead, eh? Yeah, you must be an Imperialist to be making demands like that! No, actually, we're not Imperialist, we just saw that food pyramid that the USDA put out and thought that it might make a good idea to support it.
Of course, the food industry feels a huge economic impact. Cost measures are everywhere; it's difficult to get Americans to try something new, tough to find a supplier that offers a diverse stock who is also economical, and especially hard to hire trained staff that knows how to make dishes not usually found in the average homogenized restaurant. But with a small amount of effort, this can all be overcome. And the reward potential is outstanding. The restaurant business being competitive as it is, the one best way to draw a customer base is to offer something unique that you can't get anywhere else.
Because you don't want to be just another grill. You want to be that fantastic place that people drive miles out of the way to get to and tell all their friends about. You want to be the kind of place that serves the food people get an irresistible craving for. Irresistible cravings, after all, aren't just a matter of taste - nutritionists have indicated that they're your bodies way of telling you that you need certain nutrients that only the craved-for food can provide. But most of all, you want to be recognized as the food service manager with an edge, somebody who thinks out of the box and makes their business crazy successful by being better than all the others.
Freelance writer for over eleven years.