When it comes to dining out, I have a lot of beefs. It took some work, but I was able to eventually whittle my list down to just the top 10. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. "Grilled to Perfection."
Is there any restaurant in this country where meat that came into close proximity to a hot flame isn't described on the menu as "grilled to perfection?" In theory, foods could be "fried to perfection" or "roasted to perfection," but in practice they never seem to be. It's not just a cliché but a hollow, meaningless expression. If every diner can order a steak to their own preferred level of doneness, how can they all be grilled "to perfection?" The phrase has become so entrenched in our collective vocabulary that writers are now starting to make plays upon it, like promoting air conditioners that leave you "chilled to perfection." Perhaps we could just call that chicken breast "grilled" and leave it at that?
2. Entrées on upscale menus where you pick your own sides.
I love a good meat-and-three, especially when you get to choose from things like macaroni and cheese and hashbrown casserole. But when the restaurant starts moving up the price scale, I expect the decision-making to move back into the kitchen. When you're shelling out 20 bucks for a duck breast or seared halibut, shouldn't a qualified chef match the accompaniment to the meat?
3. "Tucked away in a strip mall."
If you were to judge by the collected works of restaurant reviewers, it appears that no fewer than two-thirds of the restaurants in America are "tucked away in a strip mall." What is it about strip malls that make them such convenient places for tucking away cute little eateries? While we're at it, what's so remarkable about a decent restaurant being located in a strip mall in the first place? Something must be, because restaurant reviewers are regularly amazed by the fact that they actually found something edible in such a humble environment: "You might find it surprising from a little café tucked away in a strip mall off of Highway 43, but Alfonso Junction actually has some remarkably tasty sandwiches." This is 2010. Strip malls are where the great majority of our businesses are located, especially in the suburbs. The odds are that many of those businesses will be restaurants and that many of those won't be completely awful. So let's stop making a big deal about it, OK?
4. Restaurant websites that play music in the background.
I like to listen to my own music while I surf the web. I don't want to listen to yours. Save the atmosphere-setting for when I walk through the front door. Or at least make it easy for me to find the button to turn off that darn racket.
5. Bad cloth napkins.
Have you ever sloshed water onto a restaurant table and grabbed one of those polyester linen-service napkins to mop it up only to find that it is completely non-liquid absorbing and simply pushes water around like a squeegee? Those fluffy, absorbent-looking washcloths they substitute for napkins at barbecue and wing joints frequently turn out to be washed in so much fabric softener that they are equally impenetrable by liquids. These things are no better at removing stray barbecue sauce from your hands or chocolate from around a child's mouth. If real linen is too expensive, I understand. But, for Pete's sake, just give me a big stack of paper napkins!
6. Servers who sit down uninvited in an empty chair at your table.
I'm all for friendly service, but plopping down to chat or take my order crosses the line. Legally, I think one is entitled to dump a drink on a server if they do that.
7. Eggs make it breakfast.
Apparently, all you have to do to turn an ordinary crappy fast food lunch item into a crappy fast food breakfast item is add scrambled eggs to it. Thus the breakfast burrito, which is pretty much the same as any other burrito (shredded beef, cheese, and salsa wrapped in a tortilla) except that scrambled eggs are mixed in. And breakfast pizza? That's just a regular sausage and onion pizza with clumps of scrambled egg scattered over top. This is particularly egregious in airports, where eggifying the menu allows fast food joints to extract revenue from their captive customers for several additional hours each day, but it's starting to spread to Main Street, too. I've yet to see a "breakfast hotdog" topped with chili, cheddar cheese, and scrambled eggs, but I figure it's only a matter of time.
Sandwich toppings rolled in a tortilla. Who likes those things?
9. Food service brands of ketchup.
It's awful. Shell out an extra 32 cents for Heinz. Please.
10. Ordering food through a speaker at a fast food drive-thru.
I have a modest proposal: Could we take the computer the drive-thru clerk is using, turn it into a touch screen, and put it out on the big sign where you currently scream at the crackling speaker? We can now check-out our own groceries, pump our own gas, and withdraw cash from the bank through computers. Why can't we punch in our fast food order on a little screen and cut out the error-prone middleman and that maddeningly disjointed exchange: "Did you hear me? I can't understand a word you're saying! Is anyone there?" Bring back the Automat, I say!