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On Mid-Range Restaurants

by Nick

When I started Macheesmo almost two years ago, I really liked cooking but I was far from good at it. I worried about every recipe and every technique. I was afraid that if I bombed a dish my friends and family would disown me and my cat would pee on my pillow.

Of course, now I know that to be far from the truth and these days I even take some sort of sick pleasure in my failures because I know that I’ll learn from them.

All of this has led to me being a much better cook than I was two years ago and hopefully I’m giving all you lovely readers something to look forward to every day. In fact, the site has kind of shifted focuses over the last year and now I’m focusing a lot more on ways to teach and inspire rather than just cook some dish I want to make.

Here’s a big fat warning for you though. If you learn to be even a halfway decent home cook, it will completely destroy mid-range restaurants for you.

The Restaurant Ranges. In general, I think you can put a restaurant into one of three categories and get a pretty good idea of what kind of food is going to be coming out of the kitchen. One important thing to remember is that price isn’t the only characteristic that goes into categorizing for me although it’s a big one as I think it tells a lot about a place.

Low Range Restaurants – These are the burrito carts, empanada stands and New York hot dog vendors. This is street food and it’s almost always delicious. In my opinion, most low range restaurants provide a huge value and still make really awesome food.

You know why? Because they have to! Most of them live or die by the food they make. They have no gimmicks to fall back on or marketing teams to deploy. If their food is good, they will maybe succeed. If it isn’t good they will fail. So most likely if you hear about a place it’s going to be good.

A secondary characteristic of 99% of low range restaurants is that they produce a very small range of dishes. They usually have just a few options and if you don’t like it, you can hit the road. They can keep their costs low and quality surprisingly high by just minimizing the number of things they have to produce.

Upper Range Restaurants – These are your primo places. They don’t have to be super-expensive, but they almost always have executive chefs with years of training and success under their belt. Sure, they always have some marketing, but a good amount of the money the restaurant brings in goes right back into providing exceptional service and food.

If these places aren’t doing something fantastic then they almost always go out of business. In fact, sometimes even the ones with excellent food still go out of business for other reasons.

One thing that most upper range places have in common with low range restaurants is a limited scope of dishes. If you go to an upper range steakhouse, you won’t find any Indian food on the menu.

Mid Range Restaurants – Basically these are what’s left and it’s a huge number of places unfortunately. Almost all fast food falls under this category. Chain restaurants are definitely in this category. Any place where the fries come free but if you add on a salad they charge you extra is almost for sure in this category.

Mid range restaurants usually employ a team of under-paid, poorly trained cooks and rely on gimmicks and marketing to sell food. These restaurants almost always have a huge list of food options that cover a wide range of cuisines. Ten page laminated menus are a good sign that you’re at a mid range restaurant.

For almost everything at a mid range restaurant, you could reproduce the same dish at home for half the price and twice the quality. That can’t be said for the other two categories.

A Recent Example. I spent the last weekend in Atlantic City with ten guys for a double bachelor party. In short, it was mayhem, but there was one piece of the trip that I just have to write about:

We all ate at the exact same mid range sports bar every single night we were there.

I think by the last night we were all definitely sick of it, but ate there a third night in a row mainly for the novelty of saying we ate at the same crappy place three nights in a row.

It made sense to go there at least one night. After all, they have cheap 40’s of beer (gimmick, but also hey… it’s 40 ounces of beer and we were at a bachelor party).

We all had a general idea of what we were in for at this place. We were all on the same page about ordering some beers and some wings or a few burgers and fries and hitting the road. Except one guy. He apparently didn’t get the “Crappy sports bar vibe” and instead got a “This is a place of impeccable quality” vibe.

He ordered, and I kid you not, a glass of bourbon and the clams linguine.

Guess how good the clams linguine were? Shockingly, the dish wasn’t anywhere close to this good and it cost a whopping $20.

My Point (and I have one). My point is that if you learn even a few basics about cooking, you’ll start to see most restaurants for what they are: Marketing used to sell really low quality food at average prices.

So take that as a warning or a blessing, but be ready for it if you start cooking at home on a regular basis. Betsy has already proclaimed that I’ve ruined these places for her and I always just reply that she can thank me later!

The upside of all of this is that when you know some cooking basics and see a restaurant that produces amazing food, you can really start to respect the amount of time and effort that goes into it.

What are your feelings on mid range restaurants? Do I have them categorized correctly? What do you order when you find yourself at one?

Photo by NataschaM.

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31 comments on “On Mid-Range Restaurants

  1. i have totally ruined my husband for restaurants. Every time we go out he tells me my food is so much better. great post and i totally agree with you. what i have noticed lately is that most restaurants can serve their food within 30min or even much less. for me to make a real good dish usually takes quite more time.

  2. I definitely agree with everything you've stated here! My friends call me a food snob because I won't eat at chain restaurants anymore, but seriously… when there are so many local restaurant that produce exceptional food that I could be supporting instead… why go get a C-rate meal at a chain restaurant? And I do blame it on my cooking ability, but I think it's a positive knowledge to have!

  3. YES! I completely agree with your categorization, and Adam says the same thing – I've ruined him for mid-level chain restaurants. I don't care if my friends mock me for snobbery, I still hate Olive Garden.

    I will say there are some specialty foods I don't often make at home that we get at mid-level restaurants (barbecue, sushi, burgers) but we have a few local favorites that we go to when we want those foods (in case anyone from Boston/Somerville is reading: Red Bones, Snappy Sushi, PJ Ryan's). The food at those places costs more than it does at lunch trucks and hot dog stands, so I have a hard time lumping them into that category, but they also don't fit my enterpretation of mid-range. Would you lump local mid-price restaurants in your mid-range category, even if they dont' charge to sub salad for fries?

  4. Nick is not only an inspirational culinary wizard, he is hilarious. Convince him to come to your bachelor (or bachelorette) party – guaranteed your cheeks will hurt from laughter! He failed to mention that clam linguine guy just refused to learn… He decided that the dried-out 11-inch soft pork chop platter might be a good idea too… Aye yie yie!

    1. I don't think you even need to be a decent cook to know some of this. I mean really, is that spaghetti at Olive Garden really better than the Muellers with Prego that you can make at home? Not even mentioning making your own sauce (which is almost as easy as opening the jar of Prego). We can feed a family of 4 spaghetti for the price of one dinner at OG. No brainer.

  5. My wife and I are unable to eat out at mid range chain restaurants. They always leave me feeling unsatisfied and usually too much sodium. I rather knock a dish out at home with cocktails.

  6. Hear hear! Nick, you are preaching to the choir! I totally agree with this -in our house they're refered to as one of 2 categories: "cafes" (smaller, home made, often ethnic-based menu) and "frozen to fryers" (commercial, untrained & unloved production line). Stadium food (aka street food) gets a free pass as a hotdog & dish of poutine at a hockey game is more of a cultural experience then culinary…I don't get why anyone would pay good money to get some apathetic 19 year old to plop a grey or brown lump on a plate instead of going somewhere to get interesting & tasty food made with passion. Clam linguine guy makes me sad… poor undeveloped tastebuds!

  7. I have to agree with you – and it's so frustrating when the mid-range places seem to abound where I live (sorry, San Diego!). If there's a burger on the menu that's what I tend to order and usually I'm happy. But I stay away from most other dishes – I've just become pretty particular about how I want food to be!

  8. I have to be the dissenter here i think… Adrienne touched on it a bit, I think you are confusing mid range, with just "chain" or "bad" restaurants. In a city (like AC, DC where you are, or Boston, where I am) There are tons of mid range places that are awesome! I can make a curry any color of the rainbow, but I get the red one down the street for 7.99 almost once a week.

    1. And Chicago! As far as chain restaurants go, I would have to agree, but for the local mid range restaurants, I feel that many these places have to work just as hard as the cart vendors to remain in business. I see your point though – and sports bars aren't meant for "great food". :)

  9. I couldn't agree with you more! It is so disappointing to go out to dinner at some restaurant only to leave feeling cheated and knowing that you could have done better at home for half the price. And what is even worse is getting bad food *and* bad service.

  10. Linguine with Clams??!?!? The only thing dumber would be to go back the next night and order pork chops. What an IDIOT. Ya know you get 4 hot dogs and two fries for that much. Or three hot dogs and four sliders. Or one fries and like 5-1/2 hot dogs. Or for like another dollar, you could get eight hot dogs. You do the math.

  11. Hi Nick,

    You've nailed it pretty good, When I go out to eat I will not pay for substandard food – then I will rather wait until I can spend more and go to a restaurant that serves something I cannot make at home. I absolutely hate chain restaurants that are so-called child friendly and then serve crappy food, and I fail to understand how people can go there just to have their kids occupied so they can sit and have terrible food.

  12. Come on, what's wrong with a frozen piece of salmon defrosted in a microwave and slapped on a bed of iceberg lettuce for 15 bucks?

    This post is spot on. Those chain restaurants are a massive waste of money. And most people forget that the family styles places like PF Chang's and Montana's are often more nutritionally corrupt than the fast-food joints like Mickey D's.

  13. This is so funny — I was just having this conversation with Mr. Nervous the other day. Our "regular joint" is straight up, 100% a mid-range restaurant. The food is unadventuresome and, if we're honest with ourselves, pretty plainly mediocre. The atmosphere is entirely run-of-the-mill. The beers on tap? A little disappointing. And yet we go to this restaurant somewhere between once and three times a week.

    Why? Why do we like it so much? Is it the service? (In part, absolutely — we adore the hostess and have become good friends with many of the servers and busboys.) Is it that knowing-exactly-what-I'm-getting feeling? (In part, again, absolutely — predictably, we both get exactly the same thing every time, even if we come several times a week, which has happened.)

    We also salivate weeks in advance over reservations to high-end restaurants, and we also eat about 85% of our regular weekly meals at home. So all I can think is that it's a Third Place phenomenon, and that in our case this Third Place happens to be a completely run-of-the-mill American-style bar with food that we eat with relish even if it's, you know, just "okay."

    I love this post — it gets my gears turning again!

  14. Being vegetarian has especially ruined mid-range restaurants for me. I accept that some food carts won't have a veggie option. I know that an upscale restaurant might only have one or two, but they've probably put a lot of thought into them. (And sometimes they have more, which makes me feel loved.) But mid-ranged restaurants usually don't even try. Sometimes there's just one vegetarian option, and it's always spaghetti with sauce. Sometimes there are no vegetarian options at all, and I have to brave a debate with the waitress to get something meatless. (These places put meat on their salads.)

    That being said, there are definitely exceptions to the mid-range restaurant rule, especially mid-priced restaurants that have an ethnic or regional focus. Some local chains are pretty good. It's the large chains and the all-American type restaurants that I think are the worst.

    1. Oh yea… good point. Vegetarian options are hard to come by which is strange. I've never understood why restaurants aren't more open to that. It seems like an easy way to attract a new audience…

  15. I am very fortunate to live in a place where there are no chain restaurants (except Dunkin' Donuts but I don't think that counts) in my town and only one fast food place (McDonalds) in the next town over (actually a small city). That doesn't mean all our restaurants are good, especially since my town is seasonal so it is hard for restaurants to survive, however, it does mean that we get a pretty decent selection of good restaurants close by that aren't too pricey. It also means that I rarely eat at a chain restaurant, another good thing!

  16. Crappy sports bar with 40s? Sounds like Adam Good Sports Bar at the Tropicana. The 40s are the best part about that place.

    You should have gone to Tony's Baltimore Grill to really get the essence of Atlantic City.

  17. So true! My kids and hubby are food snobs because we eat at home 95% of the time and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to cook healthy real food. (That’s why I blog about it.) So for us, it’s the poor quality of the food, and all the processed ingredients that are a huge turn-off. There are a few mom-n-pop places that we really like, such as our local pizza place that even has a GF crust and a special oven for it – love those people! And our local sushi restaurant that totally ROCKS. But other than that, we eat at home. And P.S. I don’t leave a lot of comments because I’m always cooking and chasing kids around the house, but I do want to say that your blog is one of my favorites and I love all the inspiration, humor and good eats you share here. Blessings to you!!! :) Kelly

  18. I order something I haven’t made at home. And, usually ask my husband to try a bite. If he likes it, then I make it at home. AND, it is SO MUCH BETTER!
    If he doesn’t and I do like it, I have a safe usual that I won’t be reproducing at home.

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