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Apr 2, 2001 11:58 PM

Is There Any Difference Between a "Fine Dining" Experience and a "True Chowhound" Experience?

  • g

Two remarks I read recently here on Chowhound have stuck in my mind. One was by Jim Leff, who reminisced that over the years in his quest to find the best foods and meals he had eaten in some scary places, places where in some cases he had to overcome overt initial hostility when he arrived. I took his point to be that some of the best real chowhound-type experiences may be found at times and in places that might defy the norm.

The other remark was by Joy, who posted her thoughts about eating at MarkJoseph, the new steakhouse in Manhattan, and compared it very favorably to Peter Luger's. She said that while Luger undoubtedly serves up a great steak, she "...was always under the assumption that an enjoyeable dining experience included the service and ambiance as well."

I got to thinking about both these remarks, and one thought I had was that in my younger years I was a lot more adventuruous and would get great pleasure out of Jim's approach to seeking out the great, the unusual, the best. And if the food lived up to expectations, the challenge of overcoming distance, ethnic differences, and attitudes often actually enhanced the meal for me.

But now, as my past begins to grow longer than my future, I am more inclined to agree with Joy's remark, that food is only one element in a meal, and that service and ambiance do count.

So I'm wondering what others think. Are there meals out there that transcend everything else, including service and ambiance? Or would an otherwise great meal be ruined by miserable service and/or terrible ambiance.

Could it be an age thing?

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  1. George--first, a quick abashed reminder that our highly inadequate message board software makes super-long titles snake and spider confusingly in the board indexes.

    Ambiance and service are fine. But most chowhounds would prefer superb, inspiring food on a cinder block in a cold musty warehouse to nearly-great food in sumptuous splendor. Of course, all things being equal, we'll take the splendor. Splendor's fine. No problem with splendor. But the food comes first, right up to the tippy top of the curve of declining results.

    But, speaking of ambiance, there are as many kinds of great ambiance as there are kinds of great food. I dare anyone to tell me that the ambiance in Kabab Cafe, a hole-in-wall Egyptian cafe in Queens, with Louie Armstrong blaring out of the boombox and food engulfed in flames four feet from your table and Ali bantering and offering tastes of different stuff and all the customers interacting, is somehow "inferior" to dining off fine china in plusheterias. It's as absurd as saying one food (or class or style of foods) is inferior to another. Of course the people who believe the latter also believe the former. Me? I appreciate and respect the good stuff on its own terms, wherever it lies on whatever range. Different experiences in different places at different prices.

    And, yes, the quest is half the fun. But the quest needn't mean ducking into semi-private Bosnian joints in Astoria (see my dinner diary's most recent entry). The quest might just mean finding the off-menu special stuff you can get (if you know to ask) at a midtown four-star. Or going two blocks out of your way for a slightly better muffin. it's about exerting your free will and not settling.


    3 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff
      yvonne johnson

      someone posted here recently raising the idea of eating superb food off a cardboard box in a warehouse. As it's now becoming fashionable (tho'probably very uncomfortable) to eat on beds in restaurants, maybe minimalism will become even sparser. I'm up for it (tho it must be a clean warehouse). hey, what about chowhound raves (food-based of course) at warehouse locations known only to 'hounds?!

      1. re: Jim Leff

        "But most chowhounds would prefer superb, inspiring food on a cinder block in a cold musty warehouse to nearly-great food in sumptuous splendor."

        I don't agree with Jim's above statement. Eating superb food in warehouse is like driving a Porsche 911 in traffic. Being cold and smelling mustiness would automaticly reduce superb to nearly great. I don't believe you can seperate the two.

        1. re: Shoeman

          While I can't disagree with you on specifics like "cold and smelling mustiness", superb food has a contextual aspect imo. Sure you don't eat burre blanc in a warehouse - but you don't eat a hot dog off china either. Same for a serving of anything that is *really* "just like Mom made", regardless of whose mom we're talking about.

          I'm not entirely sure why this is, though. Is our appreciation of food really so strongly colored by the surroundings where the food is served - i.e. would truly good food taste worse in poor/inappropriate context? Or is it more a case that the people who create hound-worthy food for us also create (or at least choose) an appropriate context as best they can. Great diner food _will_ be served in a diner - but the diner will probably be clean and well kept.

      2. Hi George,
        For me a 'fine dining' experience is just part of a 'true Chowhound experience.' If I'm in a total mood for a great hot dog or down-home meat loaf, the swankiest restaurant will not satisfy. Deluxe dining is wonderful too as well as great service, food, ambiance etc. Who I'm having the meal with is also important.

        A big kick for me is the element of discovery - finding a new cafe/bistro/restaurant that hasn't been "corrupted" by hordes of people and hyped to death. I like walking around the city and finding a restaurant that hasn't even opened yet; talking to the owners and then eating there with friends before it's been written up and critiqued by the trendy NY magazines.

        I won't eat in a "joint" that's uncomfortable, dirty, overly loud, smoky or with rude patrons/waitstaff/attitude no matter how supposedly good the food is. I'm at the stage in life where I like my comfort and won't subject myself to restaurant "abuse" if I can help it. Luckily, my chowhound radar is on track and this doesn't happen very often.

        So I guess my own point is that there's no black & white answer. To paraphrase: Chowhound dining lies in the mouth of the beholder." (Yikes, sorry for sounding corny!) Ruby

        1. j
          Janet A. Zimmerman

          Is it really possible to divorce food from ambiance? It seems to me that the two are inextricably linked; we can never experience food in a psychological vacuum, after all. For me, being uncomfortable will always detract from the food I'm eating, will, in fact, lessen my pleasure in the food, regardless of how good it is.

          Which is not to say the surroundings have to opulent, but they must be enjoyable in some way. Thankfully, there are scads of ways in which a place can be enjoyable.

          Even more important than the surroundings, though, is the company I'm eating with. I have absolutely no problem eating by myself in restaurants, but if I'm eating with other people, I want them to be the right sort. Nothing ruins a dinner faster for me than lousy company, e.g., loud, impatient, rude or boorish people. Which is why I've always hated "business" lunches -- there you are, trying to enjoy your food, and not only do you have to discuss business matters with your mouth full, but you have to do it with people you don't necessarily even like.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman

            "Is it really possible to divorce food from ambiance?"

            Yes. Very easily. And that may be my sole contribution to this thread.

            1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
              yvonne johnson

              Hi Janet, i agree with you that eating never exists in a psychological vacuum (associations/memories play a part except in cases of coma etc I guess). However, i think that a lot of people (unlike you) speak about the "psychological aspects" of dining out as being synonymous with "ambiance". And i'm unsure what this really refers to. I think it usually means "beautiful place". Maybe a new thread should be on psychological associations, if not already done.Maybe we are going over old chowhound territory in a way here. It just seems obvious (to me) that you can have a wonderful meal whilst ignoring the surroundings; e.g., I had the best fish & chips in my life in a real dump by a harbor, tho that said, I was in good company (your important point). I’m not saying either that the surroundings do not affect your judgement. I believe that we can hold them in abeyance.

              Other examples:
              I was invited to a "Morris dancing event" (say no more) in subzero temps in a village hall in the middle of nowhere. Weird folks, and freezing place, but I tasted the best venison in my life. I kind of had to steal myself away from the grotty surroundings to enjoy it. But it was incredible. (but to add another factor to the argument, I knew i would dine out on this story for years to come-- more happened in terms of snow. Does this add to enjoyment of food? Yes. An aside: No doubt the mental notes chowhounds take when eating add to the pleasure.)

              I'm sure as adolescents we went to good places with our parents. despite the pouting and arguing we could still appreciate great food. (example of hating the company at that moment, but liking the food)

              The idea that prompted this thread was George’s question--if I understood correctly--about whether a "total dining experience" (that included excellent food, service and ambiance) was the top chowhound experience. I agree that such a combination if all fine tuned makes for a good experience. But, extremes excepted (e.g., eating in hell), in my view the service and surroundings are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for a chowhound experience.

              my point? I think Micheal L said this more succinctly than I have. Maybe good food does speak for itself.

              1. re: yvonne johnson
                yvonne johnson

                this is a ps really, but i saw this after i'd written above. Asimov who always gets overshadowed (by Grimes) on the board describes a Manhattan restaurant, "Inside", today. he writes:

                '[the restaurant] has the stripped-down appearance and simplified approach of a place ready for leaner times...Three seasonal and simple ..ingredients..."

                Not everything works at Inside, but if this is the way of the future, i'm for it. Let's get rid of ambiance (though stark white walls can constitute ambiance of a sort I know). But if food has an essence to be grasped lets go for the white walls. maybe a recession will have its upside.

                1. re: yvonne johnson
                  Janet A. Zimmerman

                  Rereading what I wrote regarding ambiance, I can see I wasn’t clear on my definition. By ambiance, I don’t mean lush, expensive or opulent surroundings. I simply mean surroundings or environment. By my definition, not only do Asimov’s “white walls” constitute ambiance, but so does an open air taco stand, or a noodle shop in a train station, or the counter at a greasy spoon diner.

                  And maybe I overstated my point – I’m sure one can divorce the food one eats from the ambiance, at least theoretically. That is, the discerning, thoughtful diner can say, “Yes, this food is delicious, even though the surroundings are less than pleasant,” or “this food really is not all that good, but the atmosphere makes it more enjoyable than it would otherwise be.” It’s the same sort of analysis that lets us say, for example, “this crème brulee has a delicious flavor, but the texture is grainy.” But when it comes to the overall experience of eating, I still am not convinced that we can ignore ambiance, anymore than we can ignore texture.

                  I’m not saying that, for instance, being cold and miserable will necessarily worsen the dining experience; sometimes, in fact, it will increase one’s enjoyment. But what I am saying is that it will affect it.

            2. I've never eaten on a cinderblock in a warehouse, but I've had plenty of great meals in the driver's seat of my car (back in the day--I'm a New Yorker now--no car). In true chowhound spirit, I've had many occasions of tearing into BBQ from Flints, many a burrito and tacos, donuts, burgers, just to name a few things, savoring each morsel that entered my mouth. After hearing so much about La Super Rica and Santa Maria BBQ here on the CH boards, I'll likely do the same on my drive from LA to SF next month. I've also had occasions to eat on the hood of my car, as many do at Tommy's in LA. Here in NY, I've had some great meals walking around the city. Most recently got a bagel with caviar cream cheese at Russ and Daughters which I nibbled on while walking around the lower east side.

              In Japan, I've had some great meals standing up at counters near train stations. These were some great chowhound experiences with little to no ambiance to speak of, and I think that as I get older, I'm not apt to stop eating this way, but I think I'll appreciate it all more.

              1. Just like pairing the right wine with food can make them both taste better, the setting can create or distroy a dining experience.
                Hots dogs never taste better then at the ballpark. Duck Chow Fun hits the spot at that windowless basement Chinese restaurant on Mott St.