Monday, September 29, 2008

The Icy Scythe of Bureaucracy

Restaurants fail for lots of reasons. Location. Concept. Overhead. Arrogance. Incompetence. General crappiness. Or just good old fashioned shitty luck.

Or some restaurants could just fail from good old fashioned retarded hubris.

Last week saw the collapse of two restaurants due to run-ins with our friends at the ABC.

For those of you unfamiliar, the Alcoholic Beverage Control issues and regulates liquor licenses in the state of California. When opening a restaurant in California, your best hope is to buy an establishment with an already existing liquor license. Woe be to the restaurant that seeks to start from scratch in an un-licensed space.

For you see, the ABC is a massive self-perpetuating bureaucracy that needs all the hoops it puts in place to survive. The more hoops, the more opportunities for fines and processing fees. And all because we're a nation founded by Puritans, went through a dozen or so years sans-hooch in the 1920's, and then nobody stopped and said, "Hey wait a minute, this is irrelevant and pointless now."

So what brought down Vinoteque and Goa? Underage drinking? Unchecked sex? Nope. Simple flagrant violations of simple rules.

Vinoteque had use restrictions on their license, including limitations on how late they could serve alcohol outside and how late they could have live music. They violated these restrictions. They were warned. They again violated them. So they lost their license.

I'm not sure what the owners expected. The ABC isn't in business to make it easy to have a liquor license, but I suppose anyone who decorates a space in the style of 1993 must be okay playing fast and loose with the regulatory body that secures their livelihood.

In Goa's case, they were operating under a type "47" liquor license. A 47 is a license for eating establishments that serve alcohol. Which means restaurants and pubs, not trendy nightclubs open to all hours with celebutantes and swarthy douchebags vomiting on each other on Wednesday nights. Apparently Goa never did get their food program in order. Another restriction on 47 licenses has to do with dancing. An eating establishment with live music (a "cabaret") needs to have a clearly delineated dance floor. This might sound like an irrelevant nuance, except that it's put in place so that restaurants can't use the more easily-obtained 47 license to backdoor themselves into becoming a nightclub.

When there is so much at stake financially, why the hell wouldn't you obey the rules? I'm all for anti-authoritarianism but I'm also all for profit and flaunting your lack of conformity at the risk of your livelihood seems ridiculously silly. What point are you trying to make besides "fuck you ABC?"

It could very well be that these establishments were doomed to fail anyway. There was always something off about Vinoteque and nightclubs in Hollywood have a history of disappearing after a year or two, but why hasten the demise by being an arrogant prick?

Play by the rules, get people liquored up, and close when you're supposed to. And then make money. If you want business without regulation, go to Somalia.

Or open an investment bank on Wall Street.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fucking Sliders Motherfuck Ballsack

I'm fucking tired of sliders. I cannae think of a more pretentiously ridiculous and retardedly annoying trend in the history of dining since the Romans stuffed a llama inside a bear inside a grapefruit.

The only good sliders is the mid-90's Jerry O'Connell vehicle on Fox.

Sliders are that rare instance of cuisine sliding "up" on the class scale. This is a phenomenon normally reserved for Italian food and drink where the wretched waste-cuisine of the underclass becomes luxury cuisine in America because we decide that anyone with an accent and wearing a suit sans-tie must know something we don't. In this manner we get grappa, the skin-melting distilled remnants of wine and brandy production, that costs a hundred dollars a bottle.

Here's the usual process by which food finds its way to the masses. Thomas Keller at the French Laundry goes (between blowjobs from Vestal Virgins) "Hey, you know what would be good with these mixed greens? Some fresh peaches and candied pecans." Once that happens, all the court and retainers of the Cal Cuisine palace have seasonal fruit and nut salads on their menus. Then it trickles downhill to TGI Friday's and Chili's before finally finding its place on the menus at McDonald's' worldwide.

The slider took the reverse path, starting as a novelty pre-fast food fast food gimmick, remaining there for most of a century, and then entering the national public consciousness thanks to an epic movie from 2004.

As an aside, on a fraternity-related trip to Minneapolis I ended up at an all-black strip club with several prominent alumni brothers, after indulging in a venti cafe mocha (as it were) one of the brothers decided it'd be a good idea to take a taxi cab to the White Castle drive through at last call. That cab ride cost about $200.

There's a reason that tiny hamburgers remained the bastion of a medium-sized fast food restaurant chain for so long and didn't cross the blood-brain barrier into the mainstream until about 2005.

They fucking suck.

Is this a case similar to that of Miller High Life, PBR, trucker hats, moustaches, or Dickie's? Where a proud symbol of blue collar America and/or homosexuality becomes an ironic emblem of hipster douchebaggery?


I don't care if it's lamb, or pork, or Kobe beef, or Wagyu beef, or fucking beef massaged by fucking strippers with fucking gold-plated areolae--IT'S STILL A TINY FUCKING HAMBURGER FOR LIKE WAY TOO MUCH MONEY!

In one instance, a restaurant served a single slider, a small pile of french fries, and a 2oz. milkshake on a plate and called it haute cuisine. I call it bullshit with a cherry on top.

Recently I had a "chicken and waffle" slider. It sucked. It was dry and gross. It was cute to be sure, but so is oleander and oleander will kill you.

"Oh look Harold, isnt' that cute? It's a tiny hamburger! That's darling! I want a dozen of them! Isn't that great? Ooooh! It's like I can eat a hamburger in just one little bite. That means it's not a real burger! It's like negative calories! What? You're sleeping with your secretary! I can't belive you Harold!"

And that's how sliders break up your family.

I hereby call for a boycott of all slider-serving restaurants nationwide, except for White Castle.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Concept vs. Conceptual: An Analysis

Before I dive into what will surely be a dry and whimsical observational discussion peppered with profanity and/or sexual allusions, I must pour a little out for the late David Foster Wallace.

I haven't read Infinite Jest, and probably won't as my patience with novels ends at about the 300 page mark, but I've read much of The Girl with Curious Hair and am a big fan of Wallace's reporting and essays.

I guess as a writer I like to think that the madness and brilliance of those I admire is something crafted, reasoned, and assembled on the page. Yet what should just be the literary artifice of a master craftsman is so often revealed (at least in part) to be the shouts in the dark of a tortured mind.

That was far too serious, wasn't it?

Moving on....

I'm not going to say this is an uniquely LA problem with restaurants, but it's definitely most clearly manifested in Los Angeles. The restaurant with a concept versus the conceptual restaurant.

Every successful restaurant has a concept. Hell, every successful THING has a concept, whether that thing is an electric sports car with a practical range, gimmicky frozen "yogurt," or a tv show about philandering ad executives in the 1960's.

If you don't have a healthy concept you're doomed to failure. Bacaro is a Venetian-styled wine bar. Ford's Filling Station is a gastropub for the power lunching set. Bar Pintxo is, well, a bar that serves pintxos.

Restaurants run into trouble when the conceptual aspect of the restaurant is the master of the restaurant aspect of the restaurant. All concept no execution can be a restaurant's greatest failing.

I ate recently at South on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. Everything about how that restaurant/bar markets itself iis "southern" themed. They force all sorts of kitschy southern lingo and references on you, yet you step inside and all you get is another characterless douche-y Brentwood bar. And the chicken and waffle sliders (a concept I loved) ended right at the conceptual. Dry, flavorless fried chicken between a pair of serviceable mini-waffles served with syrup and "gravy" on the side. Lame.

Fraiche conceptualizes itself as an organic Cal-Cuisine haven when in fact it's just another uninspired expense-account draining lunch spot.

And then there's Table 8 which declares itself to be a celebrity chef-driven trendsetter despite having a chef that nobody really cares about, a menu steeped in overplayed drivel, and a strong reputation for not paying their bills. I mean seriously, I keep pretty close tabs on the food world and Govind Armstrong is a legend purely in his own mind.

Conceptual restaurants, like conceptual art, are best enjoyed while stoned and wearing a beret. Maybe then I can come to understand why I'm privileged to bay $16 for a shitty hamburger or $12 for a glass of grocery store wine simply because it's served on a plate once owned by Richard Pryor or wrapped in a map of Armenian brothels.

A good concept can (and probably should) be as simple as "a comfortable place to eat good fresh food and enjoy well-priced wine" or "a neighborhood pizzeria offering an alternative to delivery chains" or even "mediocre vegetarian food served by Hare Krishnas." These are all solid concepts that often yield successful restaurants

But here on the spendfree shores of Los Angeles everybody needs to stick their finger in the pie, so we end up with places like Rush Street Grill, which has the concept of "Chicago," yet with no fat poorly facial-haired cab drivers in Bears jerseys to be found, or Gyenari whose concept is basically "Koren bbq for a lot money."

If you spend all your money on bells and whistles to the neglect of the actual food, you might find that people will stop coming back. But I don't know how true that holds in Los Angeles where people will spend incomprehensible amounts of money just to be seen in the right place.

Everything else is secondary.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

HFF On The Road: I-5

I drive a lot. I drive a whole helluva lot. Primarily for work, though for a few other reasons too. Sometimes when I'm out on the road I don't have time to sit down and eat in a restaurant. I try to make sandwiches and bring snack bars with me but inevitably some days I need to get food quickly and cheaply on the road. And it usually needs to be portable enough to eat one-handed while I drive.

In short, I'm rediscovering fast food.

First thing's first though. Trader Joe's has some excellent inexpensive on-the-road food. For instance the little prepackaged containers of celery and peanut butter. Classy Handi-Snaks. Trader Joe's bread, particularly the California-Style Complete Protein Bread and the Whole Wheat with Soy & Flax make sandwiches with excellent structural integrity. Add dill sandwich pickles, organic mayo and yellow mustard, and a hefty handful of baby spinach or arugula, slice on the diagonal and you've got yourself a freakin' great sandwich.

In the world of snack bars, Odwalla Bars are tops for balanced nutrition (Berries GoMega and Chocolate Chip Peanut are both excellent) while Clif Builder's Bars are great for caloric density. Odwalla Bars have the added bonus of remaining relatively intact in a hot car. The primarily palm oil based chocolate on the Builder's Bars starts melting into a soup once your car hits 75 degrees.

On to fast food.

Fries and a grilled cheese. Add a milkshake and I actually have enough food to get me through the day. Only problems? Usually very long lines at peak lunch hours and you can't eat an animal style sandwich in the car.

Del Taco:
What can I say about Del Taco? Del Taco's simply the best fast food value out there. Cheap, portable, and much of their ingredients made from scratch daily. I think of Del Taco as the In-n-Out of Cal-Mex fast food. The best thing at Del Taco are their Tacos al Carbon, a reasonable approximation of Mexican "street" tacos with meat, cilantro, and onions. These aren't too portable for the drive so I'll usually opt for a Chicken Mole Burrito or the old Bean & Cheese standby.

Taco Bell:
Mediocre even by mediocre standards, Taco Bell nevertheless can provide quick and portable nutrition. Stick to bean & cheese or chicken & rice burritos. Remarkably good for you if you forget about the sodium content.

Carl's Jr.:
Tried these guys out for the first time in a long time on my last I-5 drive. The chicken sandwich was bland and not very portable, but I do appreciate their "natural cut" (i.e. skin-on) french fries and the excellent fried zucchini.

Long John Silver's:
Great if you can ever find one. Perfect road trip food as much of it is offered in "popcorn" size.

Another good bet if you stick with either the snack wraps or the popcorn chicken option. Potato wedges are a nicely greasy alternative to french fries. Don't try to eat a bucket of chicken wings on the highway though. Your upholstery and your colon will thank you.

Jack in the Box:
Jalapeno poppers. That's it.

McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's:

I would include smoothie places in the mix here but I can't find many Jamba Juices in LA and I don't trust anything named "Robek's." I'm curious to try the protein smoothies that Starbuck's is offering now. Seem to be pretty good for you and pretty cheap.

When it comes to road food it's all about nutritional density. A burger or chicken sandwich on a bun with a bunch of nutrient void lettuce and tomato isn't all that great (or easy to eat). But a chicken, bean, and rice burrito offers a pretty well balanced meal that's pretty good for you. Always skip the soft drink, even if you opt for iced tea or Diet Coke, both are shitty. Bring a reusable bottle of water with you, or swing by the drive-thru Starbucks for a real iced tea or coffee. Also, skip fries unless you really need the simple carbs. Better to get two burritos then to waste your calories on monotonous and (mostly) bland french fries.

And of course, when in doubt skip the fast food altogether, plan ahead, and bring a couple sandwiches and some trail mix. You'll be better off.

Plus if you bring a couple empty milk jugs and you won't have any reason to stop until you run out of gas.