Sunday, June 07, 2009

Making Dining Out "In" Again

In the wine and food business we are a little like social anthropologists. There is something about the search for the best pizza, the ripest peaches, the home cured salumi and the perfect little café in the neighborhood. When it really gets down to it, the fancy wine list and the latest trend, from molecular gastronomy to collision cuisine, what I really want is a great bowl of pasta with a bottle of wine that I can enjoy and afford to drink regularly.

Easy enough to find in Italy. But we live in America. Ok, so we take it home and do it there. Yes, we can. But, but, but we all want to go out and have a nice time. A little recreation time at the table. Maybe that is what’s wrong with the way we look at dining in America. It started out as a special occasion and chefs and restaurateurs just keep trying to outdo the next guy. I see it all the time. Out in the suburbs a shopping center has erected a building to look like a gambling casino, complete with the fancy limo in front. The message is, “You cannot get this at home. Don’t even try. Sit back let us take care of you. Relax. You deserve it.”

Is that the direction Americans are going these days?

So where are we going? Everywhere you look, you see the words local and sustainable and organic and artisanal. Good ideas that have become buzz words to bandy about in building a brand that has no center. What good is it to get grass fed beef if the line cook over salts it? Organic peaches that find themselves in a perverse ménage à trois with blood oranges and jalapeno chutney? Why?

Talking with a couple of food journalists recently and the idea of the young chef came up. And the question was, “Does the young chef have anything to say with their food if they haven’t gotten enough life experience to be interesting with their creations?” Dining out wasn’t intended to be a reality show (unless it’s Hell’s Kitchen). The little CAFÉ sign I found on the street at midnight in Old East Dallas, oh how I would have loved to go back in time and see what was going on in that kitchen. This time, culinary archeology. And I find in the conversations around the table with friends, here and in Italy, we are looking for that wonderful Carbonara, that simply perfect Margherita, the espresso that one finds so easily in gas stations in Italy. Why is it so darn hard?

Wine lists. Working with several clients over the last few weeks, and really finding some very different opinions. But more and more I am seeing restaurant people rethinking the way they serve wine in their places. Less popular is buying a wine for $17 and reselling it for $65. The wave I have been seeing, in Houston, in Dallas and Austin, is that same wine on a blackboard for $39. You know at $39 a party of four will buy two bottles. At $65 they might nurse that bottle of wine. So the establishment sells one bottle and had $48 in gross profit. Selling two bottle for $39 and they have $44 to work with. A smaller profit? Yes. A happier clientele? Most assuredly. And most likely to return sooner. This is a wave that is coming from San Francisco, from Southern California, New York, and Texas is right there, too, with these ideas. This is exciting stuff for the wine producers back in Italy who have a storeroom full of wine right now.

Maybe that young couple who bought beer with their pizza or took it to-go to have with their Chianti at home can now have a reason to sit down in their neighborhood café and have wine instead of beer, dine-out instead of take-out. Maybe dining out might just come back in.


Anonymous said...

Carbonara? Heck, I'd be happy with penne pomodoro - a really good one - or margherita pizza. Why is it so hard to find simple, fresh ingredients in un-tarted-up dishes? L'il me.

Mattie John Bamman said...

Dear Alfonso,

I've been following the blog for a long time and thanks for keeping it real. I appreciate the post cause I'm in Apulia right now perfecting the simple Italian meal and hoping to share it with as many friends as possible. Of course, the inexpensive wines of this region help out too. Cantele or Candido for five euro a bottle go very nicely with a orecchiette and broccoli Raab. The total cost of the ingredients for the latter running around 2 euro... I know my friends and I are on this bandwagon.

Tracie P. said...

you keep on on preachin' ace! don't mind those who can't handle a difference of opinion. you have your very own fan club right here in the ATX :)

Amy Atwood said...

Great job at giving positive reinforcement to the on trade in regard to markups! It will be a game changer if they will follow suit.

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