Confident home cooking

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.