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Jun 21, 2011 02:40 PM

Signs your local hole in the wall has been found by mainstream audience

I was visiting a local haunt I haven't been to in a while ever since they got a lot of acclaim. When they first started, they catered mainly to a Mexican clientele. No English translations on the menu, no frill place, bare booths and tables, dinged up flatware and plates. Faded but clean walls. They specialized in seafood mainly shrimp, no quesdillas, burritos or bean and cheese sides with combo dishes. But the shrimp was absolutely wonderful, very fresh, cooked just right and a dozen different preparations that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere close. The shrimp came with their heads on and the whiskers all over the place. It was decadent to pluck the head off and suck all the juices out. They fried their chips fresh and it was served with this spicy homemade green salsa that was completely different from your more popular red salsa.

Service was very relaxed, they didn't rush you out, you could stay there for hours after your meal, sipping a beer and watching futbol on the big screen. But you'd also have to flag down someone if you wanted more beer or the fresh made chips because they sure as heck weren't watching you at all. Place was dark and unlit until later in the evening when some fluorescent overheads would come on casting weird shadows. They actually got complaints about the darkness and inattentive service. Me, I loved it, the people were always friendly, never hovered but would bring a fresh cold beer as soon as I caught their eye and waved my empty bottle at them. You walked in, were given a menu and that was it. Nothing else on the table except a napkin dispenser and 4 or 5 kinds of hot sauce.

This weekend I was amused to observe the following:

* a party asking for straws to go with the water glass that was just dropped off.
* someone wanting their shrimp dishes to be served with no tails and heads
* noses being turned up at the green salsa and asking if there was a regular red salsa that wasn't so spicy
* overhead lamps had been installed above each booth and it was brightly lit
* garishly brightly painted walls with caricatures of seafood

The food was still pretty good and I was happy they had more customers. But somehow I couldn't help feeling it just wasn't quite the same place for me to sit and hang out sipping my beer any more.

This isn't meant as a "hipper than thou" attitude and post, more of an observation as to how things get changed when a niche place gets more mainstream attention. Do they change? Do they stay the same and just ride out the wave of mainstream people? But will their old audience return if they don't change and the mainstream leave? If not they can't survive. Just thoughts running through my mind.

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  1. A very small sandwich place I used to go to get a caprese sandwich became number 1 on yelp's front page. The lady who is the lone sandwich maker became overwhelmed and flustered, but tried hard to please everyone of her customers. She just rode out the sudden exposure. I haven't been back since the line and long wait time started, but this post reminded me it's time to get that caprese sandwich again. From the last time I talked to the owner, she appreciated the increased business, but did not plan to expand or want a yelp sticker on her door.

    1. I think you've notice what is just the inevitable evolution of a restaurant.

      I think all you can do is be happy you were there when it was starting out and be happy for the staff and owners for their success.

      The only part that really upsets me is when they start to give up on the ingredients and techniques that I loved (e.g. stop frying their own chips, get rid of what sound like great shrimp for a cheaper frozen supply of shelled shrimp with no taste). I would expect that if they were making enough to stay afloat in the beginning then they should be able to keep those things and still make more money with the changes to service to accommodate more customers.

      Keep enjoying it while you can. What you've mentioned so far are just minor changes in the larger scheme of things.

      1 Reply
      1. re: thimes

        Yeah, happy if they're good people and getting success. I can't ever fault someone for wanting to make more money. There's nothing inherently evil about someone wanting to make more money. Scratching out a living in a thin margin business like a restaurant is tough especially if they're a family run place doing everything themselves.

        They hadn't changed the shrimp yet. What amused me was that customers asking the kitchen to take the heads and tails off before cooking and serving the dish. They got accommodated. But how long before the owner thinks it is easier to get pre-shelled shrimp of slightly lesser quality because the majority of customers don't notice the difference and want it that way anyway? Why go through the trouble of customizing each order?

        I don't know if it's an inevitable evolution of a restaurant though. Just a choice to be made. Neither one exactly right or wrong.

      2. It doesn't really bother me unless the quality of the food declines or the wait is too long. The owners of those restaurants are there to make a living. If they can get more business, more power to them. They'll be able to afford better things for themselves and their families.

        5 Replies
        1. re: raytamsgv

          Oh it doesn't bother me too. But I was wondering about the balance the owners have to strike if they fear the old customers won't come and the new customers aren't as understanding of the idiosyncrasies. Will they have to make compromises in order to survive.

          I completely support them having more business and thriving. Just hopefully not at the expense of quality of food. If they get super busy and I have a longer wait, I may not be thrilled. But if they're good people, I'm happy for their success. As long as the quality is still there.

          1. re: Jase

            My family used to be in the restaurant business, and we always gave the customer what they wanted even though it may have been absolutely hideous. One customer insisted on ordering only a plate of white rice and used half a bottle of soy sauce to flavor it.

            The difficulty lies in trying to figure out which customers will come back. This group must be appeased. If they guess correctly, they'll be in business for a long time. Otherwise, they'll probably shut down.

            1. re: raytamsgv

              Reminds me of the scene from Big Night where the customer wanted a side of spaghetti with her risotto.


              1. re: 2roadsdiverge

                perhaps a cross link to the table manners posting about customizing orders.

              2. re: raytamsgv

                The difficulty lies in trying to figure out which customers will come back.

                Isn't the difficulty figuring out how to make sure all customers come back?

                Chicken or egg, I suppose.

          2. If you favorite restaurant shows up as a Groupon, your local hole in the wall has been found by mainstream audience

            1 Reply
            1. re: LorenM

              Or any feature, mention or spotlight from Food TV (any channel, take your pick). We've had 7 nice, local places hit the airwaves over the last few years. All of them become a mob scene, the owners and staffs are overwhelmed and things never return to "normal"

            2. Eater and Grub Street start blogging about it.

              Your hole-in-the-wall's cover is blown, totally.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ipsedixit

                And the owner upgrades his or her ride to a high end German brand automotive, or Lexus.