Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What's good about bad restaurants?

I’ve always had a thing about eating in bad restaurants. Over the years, I’ve dragged friends and family alike to justifiably-defunct chain establishments like Sambo’s, Steak ‘N Egg Kitchen and Toddle House with gleeful abandon, not to mention downright creepy local restaurants with water-stained drop ceilings and vinyl booths covered in duct tape.

When some well-meaning soul tries to point me toward an alternative with better food, more attentive service and nicer surroundings, I’ll often insist on mediocrity even when I have no rational defense for it. I’ve never been able to explain why this is, but Salon TV columnist Heather Havrilesky comes pretty close. In setting up what is ostensibly a review of “Flipping Out” and “Weeds,” Havrilesky describes why she continues to patronize a bad local coffee shop instead of a superior corporate place nearby.

As repellent and deeply wrong as the local cafe is, the overpriced, meticulously designed corporate eatery seems certain to transform you, slowly but surely, into the kind of person who pays too much for haircuts and shoes, the kind of person who experiences gazpacho that doesn't have a little dab of pesto in it the way the rest of us experience a herd of middle-of-the-room flies. And therein lies the paradox of American upward mobility: The higher you climb, the thinner the air gets, until you can barely breathe. You become like Julianne Moore in "Safe," suffering from a nervous breakdown when the delivery guys bring a black couch instead of the white one she ordered. You become the kind of hothouse flower who only feels comfortable in perfectly calibrated, beautiful spaces, the kind of person who's never satisfied and can't play nicely with others.

So there’s the elusive voice of reason behind this unspoken gut instinct I’ve always had. If a dollop of pesto in my gazpacho is the best thing the next rung on the social ladder has to offer, I’d rather just sleep in and miss the breakfast rush at Denny’s.

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