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What restaurant foods have declined over the years and why?

There are certain foods prepared in restaurants (generally--not in every instance) that are no longer as delicious as they used to be, often due to laziness, the cooks' preference for a preparation which takes less time, is less expensive to make, where the ingredients required to make the dish are difficult or near impossible to find (but were not before), or due to supposed health considerations.

A few examples of these sorts of decline are pizza, gyros, and McDonald's french fries. Pizza has declined because cooks used to incorporate spices into the pizza. Then people started asking for them to (for example) leave out the oregano, or garlic, or basil . . . Pretty soon cooks decided to omit all these spices and others from a pizza and just leave oregano and garlic powder on the table to be added afterward. Hence, in your average pizza place, you now get an incredibly bland pizza. And, no, adding garlic powder later does not cut it.

Gyros used to be marketed (by the Parthenon Restaurant in Chicago which set up a separate corporation to do so) with a gadget that played a gas flame along the entire rotating length of the spicy formed pork/lamb/beef(?) cylinder.

This was essential to the preparation of the dish because its essence required that the dish be prepared from thinly sliced pieces of CHARRED AND CARMELIZED meat about two to three inches wide, sawed off the very edge of the rotating cylinder of meat. By design, the gas jet supplied an endless amount of charred and carmelized meat. Now, restaurants just order the meat cylinder and warm up the meat in an oven (I am guessing) or microwave it, resulting in no charring or carmelization. It tastes like glorified meat loaf.

The famed McDonald's fries are a shadow of their former selves. They are no longer anywhere near as crunchy on the outside and tender-soft on the inside as they used to be, since McDonald's stopped frying them in beef fat.

I attribute the pizza and gyros declines to laziness, speed and cost. The McDonald's fries decline is primarily a chimeric quest for health. Whoever heard of a "healthy" French fry? But I will bet you that the liquid oil now used is cheaper than beef tallow, as well.

Can you think of other restaurant foods which have declined over the years and cannot generally be found in their once superior forms?

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  1. Regarding gyros, they are a Middle Eastern dish and are cooked thusly:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyro_(food)

    Regarding pizza, I think they are gazillions times better than they used to be. The restaurants I frequent are making great dough, Italian wood fired ovens, top notch sauces, cheeses, meats, etc. I'm sorry you're not having these experiences with these dishes.

    2 Replies
    1. re: c oliver

      I agree about the pizza. I hate a spiced sauce, please no oregano or garlic powder. Most high end pizza restaurants, ie pizzeria Mozza, use uncooked sauce, good quality drained canned tomatoes passed through a food mill mixed with olive oil and salt, some add garlic, basil or grated onion. Too many restaurants use a marinara sauce with tons of tomato paste garlic and oregano which is cooked for a long time.

      1. re: c oliver

        I agree about the pizza! Growing up we had two places with decent albeit basic pies. I have not romantic nostalgia about them.

        Give me my local brick oven pizzeria with homemade sauce and fresh, delicious toppings any day.

        In regards to gyros-if you are buying them in food courts or chains, yes those are pretty bad. But if you can find a good middle eastern restaurant or even greek diner you would rejoice. Thick and chewy house made pitas, fresh veggies, flavorful lamb and house made tzatziki.

        Honestly if you can't find good pizza or gyros I say it's not that the food is declined its about where you are living/eating. For generations there have been good and bad versions of all foods.

      2. Bacon in Mexico used to be thick, smoky, crunchy, and delicious. For decades. Now everywhere it is some sort of processed tasteless crap that seems to have been made in an Arby's plant. Growl.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Veggo

          <seems to have been made in an Arby's plant.>

          That is funny.

          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            A friend of mine hates any kind of "loaf cured" meat, and says the meat has gone through "bitter Arbytration."

          2. re: Veggo

            I also have thought about how hard it is to find bacon these days that seems anywhere near as good as when I was younger. I did find a local place recently that smokes their own, and it's quite good, but even still....

            Makes me wonder if aging tastebuds are a factor.

          3. When I saw the headline, my first thought was McD fries. Besides the fat, they used to be made with fresh potatoes, twice=fried in house. I know because it was once my job to par-fry the day's batches. Also the limited menu (hamburgers, cheeseburgers, doubles, big Macs, fries) along with strict timing limits meant that the food was served much fresher.

            4 Replies
            1. re: mwhitmore

              I agree about McD's freshness. The first time I had one of their high priced angus burgers with swiss cheese and mushrooms I must have got lucky with one right off the grill, and it was quite tasty. My next and last one, and I was quite hungry, was inedible.

              1. re: Veggo

                Actually, Veggo, when I was thinking through what I was going to write in the posting above, I considered skipping the French fry comment and talking about McDonald's burgers. When I was first introduced to McDonald's burgers in the early 1960s, the burgers were cooked to order. If it was lunch time, I imagine what they did was just start cooking burgers because the demand was greater than they could keep up with. The burgers, I agree, were superior.

                Sometime in the 1970s, McDonald's expanded its menu and, to maintain its fast food reputation, stopped cooking burgers to order so that it could continue to be fast. The quality of the burgers plunged.

                1. re: gfr1111

                  Actually in 1968, when I worked there, burgers were ordered up by the manager by the dozen ("One dozen ham, half dozen double cheese..."), them kept for a *very* limited time before being thrown away. AFAIK they were never cooked to order except for special orders. Some customers placed a special order simply to get freshly cooked food.

              2. re: mwhitmore

                I've worked at several McDonald's (admittedly long ago) and we never par cooked the fries.

                And burgers were cooked by the dozen on a flat top and the condiments were applied with these weird stainless steel gadgets.

                My favorite shift was fries and shakes

              3. Your basic premise is flawed. There are excellent pizzas and gyros to be had nationwide. You need to visit better restaurants.

                12 Replies
                1. re: ferret

                  Second this. If you're talking chain slop pies and gyros, yeah, Pizza Hut is a butter spray revolting mess. And zero-prep presliced gyro bologna strips are an abomination. But this site is a great help in finding coal fired/wood fired alternatives and Greek/Turkish/German places serving real gyros/doner kebabs.

                  1. re: ferret

                    I've had gyros at any number of north side Chicago hot dog/gyros stands. I've seen those premade strip things, but it's pretty darn rare!

                    1. re: ferret

                      Yeah, the OP is wrong on several levels.

                      Not even sure it merits a substantive response, or any response. But whatever.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        It's usually a more productive dialogue when the OP participates but I think most of us agree that, at least regarding gyros and pizzas, there's not been a decline. As for McDs fries, isn't that really a Chains discussion?

                        1. re: c oliver

                          They used to call the theater "the magnificent invalid" because it's been in a state of perpetual decline since Ancient Greece. I'm starting to think of cuisine in the same terms. Everything, everywhere was ALWAYS better "back in the day." And 30 years from now, they'll be saying the same thing about the lousy food they're serving today.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            C Oliver,

                            Okay, I'll participate. Re: gyros. I stand by my statement that once gyros were marketed widely and you could buy them at any diner selling hotdogs, hamburgers, taco, tostadas, the quality plummeted. The key here is whether they have the money, time and patience to char the meat and cut it thin. Bad gyros are so ubiquitous that I am surprised that there is even a debate about it.

                            Regarding pizzas, I will concede that there has been a parallel and contrary development of excellent pizzas in the big cities, mostly. Artisanal pizzas did not exist until 25 years ago and they have spread like wildfire. (I particularly love Wolfgang Puck's pizzas at Postrio in San Francisco.)

                            But if you move out of the big metro areas, the quality of pizza has declined, primarily from cooks eliminating even the hint of all herbs and spices and then telling you that you can replace these at the table.

                            Okay, further waffling: I may be wrong about the East Coast, primarily New York and New Jersey. I don't live there and they have a strong Italian population base, so maybe the spices have stayed in the pizzas there. But the midwest, the great plains states and the south are extremely disappointing, outside of some big cities.

                            1. re: gfr1111

                              Others have commented on good gyros so perhaps your experience(s) is different. That's fine.

                              Regarding pizzas, we live in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area which is small and probably NO Italian population to speak of, yet we have great pizza. Again, I wonder if your experience is different.

                              I'm sincerely sorry that you're having these experiences. I haven't looked to see if you've posted where you live. I hope it gets better.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                Hi, C Oliver:

                                Please see my comments to Ferret below. You asked where I live. I live in Tampa now, formerly Sarasota, Ft. Myers, and Naples, all in Florida. Before that, Bloomington, Indiana, and a half a dozen small towns 30-40 miles outside of Chicago. I mention all this to establish my small town bonafides.

                                Reno/Lake Tahoe is more like a big city because of the draw the area has, due to the beautiful Lake Tahoe. Don't many Italian East Coast people have summer homes in Lake Tahoe? Anyway, I will certainly make it a point to try some of the Reno/Lake Tahoe pizza! Thanks.

                                1. re: gfr1111

                                  I have two CH-friends who live in Bloomington and they seem to do fine. One became a vegan a couple of years ago and has found places to accommodate her.

                                  Unfortunately, no, East Coast Italians don't come here. Most of the second home owners are from CA and I call the food at Tahoe LCD food. Lowest common denominator, designed to feed the affluent but not scare them. Reno, however, outside the casinos, is turning into quite the vibrant scene, in food and other areas. Here's my fave place:

                                  http://www.camporeno.com/

                                  Their pizza is amazing and their burgers look great. (I don't order burgers in restaurants cause we grind our own meat and that's in another realm entirely.

                                  )

                                  I wish you well in your food quest :)

                              2. re: gfr1111

                                Again that's a really unbased generalization. CAN you come across some small-town pizza place that makes and sells lousy pizza? Of course. On teh other hand, my brother-in-law, who is as outside the "big metro area" as possible briefly owned a pizza place in his community and they made a hell of a good pizza. I've stopped at many places in my travels that are outside of urban areas and there are plenty of good pizzas out there. Plenty of bad pizzas in urban areas as well.

                                Again your premise is flawed (and a little condescending, as if only big metro area establishments can understand what good food is). I think, on the average, that more care goes into food preparation these days than decades ago, simply because people are more motivated and have greater exposure and access to good ingredients, recipes and methods.

                                There are good and bad examples of any food these days, but that was also true 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago (when the options were much more limited).

                                1. re: ferret

                                  Hi, Ferret:

                                  Thanks for your comments. (The auto gyro slicer in your comment above was really interesting to watch in action.)

                                  Here's the problem: sure, in any set of locations you can find small numbers of places that do pizza well. I understand that this is what the scientists call "anecdotal evidence." But I am talking about trends, about overall statistics, about the average pizza place that you stop in randomly when you are on the road. They just aren't making very good pizza anymore.

                                  I have nothing against small towns. I grew up in Highland, Indiana; lived in Ft. Myers, Florida; and worked in Elgin, Illinois. Small towns have much to recommend them, but their pizza places have stopped putting oregano, basil, garlic, and allspice on their pizzas. (And sure, I am certain that someone from these towns can name a pizza place--anecdotal evidence, again--that does still use these spices. But the number of pizza places that do is statistically insignificant, in my opinion.)

                                  1. re: gfr1111

                                    Your entire premise is based on anecdotal evidence. The issue is can you fairly generalise about the state of food these days from anecdotes? I don't believe so but you apparently do. I would never start a thread about how "restaurant food has improved over the years" because no matter how many great meals I've had, its hardly indicative of the general state of restaurants any more than the number of bad meals I've had.

                        2. I'll jump on the McDonalds fries comment and opine that most fast food has gotten much worse over the years. I remember when (I feel like a grandma telling stories about the war) Arby's roast beef was juicy, Wendy's burgers were the best fast food ever, and Burger King actually flame broiled the meat - and didn't put it in a microwave afterwards. Most fast food beef is kind of loose and bland now. Wendy's fries went from great to terrible to the worst. McDonalds fries not only don't taste as good, but they don't even seem to cook them anymore. The idea of healthier fast food, more cost-cutting measures, and time-savers have destroyed the flavors. And don't get me started on Wendy's "new and improved" nonsense - I miss the Dave Thomas days.

                          1. Definitely agree about McD's fries. They live, undeservedly, on a long half life of their formerly deserved reputation.

                            I would like to extend your query to cover bakeries. I would say bagels and hard rolls (in the NYC area usage of that word) and generally any bread that was designed to be eaten almost immediately and staled quickly. (Baguettes are a French example of this.) Americans want to buy ahead have have it *seem* fresh (seem, not actually *be* fresh). And they want them Big and Flabby. Parallel with the rise of artisinal sourdough breads is the decline of short-lived (pronounced short-LYVed, btw) breads that used to be commonly made well in corner bakeries, as they were made to be bought in the morning, at midday, and afternoon, just before each meal.

                            Beef, chicken and pork have generally declined in flavor/quality, and that has diminished restaurant dining; now, diminished ingredients need to be disguised by Bigger! Bolder! Flavors! (Chillies and cilantro - and extra added fat - being used in the worst way in this regard.)

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Karl S

                              So it sounds like you're saying that it's what Americans want that drives the market. And I agree with that. I'm starting to pay more for better quality meats and other food products, both at home and in restaurants. I get better by paying more.

                              1. re: Karl S

                                I understand your point about beef, chicken, pork declining in quality. But read this: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/din...
                                '"When I tasted it, I was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who plans to start incorporating the chickens into his ever-evolving menus. Witnesses say that after his first bite, Mr. Vongerichten was on the verge of tears; Daniel Humm, the chef at Eleven Madison Park, consumed an entire chicken in one sitting."'

                                Maybe there's hope.

                                1. re: drongo

                                  Well, that article struck me as, well, a silly response to the situation. It was almost as like a very dry Calvin Trillin take-down of the home-roost syndrome. (Disclosure: I have family that keep a quartet of chickens in their yard.)

                                  Here's what will improve the flavor of chickens: Chickens love *bugs*. They will eat scraps, but nearly kill each other for bugs. (They will also eat chicken, and chicken eggs, of course.)

                                  1. re: Karl S

                                    Repeat after Karl S: CHICKENS LOVE BUGS!!!!!!! I started eating eggs from pastured chickens about six or more months ago. The nutritional benefits are astounding. I bet the birds, when used for cooking, are wonderful also.

                              2. I've never once seen gyro meat not in a spit with either a gas or electric heat element charring it.

                                I have seen slices get charred on a grill if the meat isn't sufficiently brown when sliced.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: C. Hamster

                                  Every urban carryout I've been to in DC has traded in their Kronos gyro rotisserie for zero-prep "gyro" that they just slap on the flattop grill. It's pretty vile stuff.

                                  http://www.greekinternetmarket.com/mm...

                                  1. re: monkeyrotica

                                    That's what that garbage is? A new middle eastern restaurant opened up near my work and people were just RAVING about it. So the first time I went I had something served with a prune sauce and it was lovely with freshly carved tender meat. I went back the following week and the guy convinced to be get the gyro and raved they were the best in the city. I didn't look at it until I got back to the office and was horrified to see thin slices of what I now know to be the stuff in your link. Vile is too kind of a word.

                                    1. re: monkeyrotica

                                      That's gross!

                                      Haven't seen them in Boston or NYC.

                                      Wait... I think a pizza place down the block may do this since I don't recall seeing a cooker thingie there.

                                  2. The pizza, I suspect, depends on whether you grew up near a really good pizzeria or not. If you didn't, things are generally much better now.

                                    McD's fries - yeah, I'm with you there. Losing the beef tallow made them vegetarian, but not nearly as good.

                                    For some items, I find mass marketing of a food item decreases its quality. Bagels are one example - bagels are best when eaten from the store that bakes them, within a few hours of baking, and have a fairly complicated baking process. They were therefore a small-market item by necessity, and generally restricted to areas with high demand. Mass market bagels last much longer, and are ubiquitous, but aren't really bagels anymore.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                      So much truth regarding the bagels. I grew up on mass-market bagels and thought that's just what life was. Then I had one from a local bakery. It didn't need to be toasted, didn't need butter.... A piece of art.

                                    2. I can't eat Long John Silvers these days, as their batter is way too salty and loaded with MSG. I used to love that stuff as a kid but I think it's more that my palette has changed as I got older.

                                      Fast food fries got lousy when they started doctoring them up with all kinds of coatings and seasonings and crap like that. I think McDonalds fries are soaked in a sugar water mixture these days. Penn Station thankfully still makes fresh fries from scratch, and I think they even cook them in peanut oil.

                                      I also really dislike all the flavor enhancers and artificial scents they are adding to fast food. McDonalds and Burger King do this big time. I just want a hamburger, not a science experiment.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: Atomic76

                                        Coated fries are a pet peeve of mine. I wish they would just skip wasting the potato and serve fried coating. They'd save money and the sickos who like this stuff get their fried coating.

                                        1. re: monkeyrotica

                                          What are they coating them with? I only learned of this a few days ago, not that I was surprised.

                                        2. re: Atomic76

                                          I can't go near a Burger King because of the stench!

                                        3. I don't agree about pizza either. It depends where you go. Thankfully, where I live in Montréal, I have zero need to go to chain fastfood places as there are small, inexpensive restaurants that make much nicer food.

                                          I've almost never been to a McDonalds; I remember going there as a child, on road trips with my parents. There were few in Canada before the1970s, and none in Québec (first opened in Mtl in 1972). Would you consider fast food "restaurant food"? I'm not saying that as a putdown - I'd just put it in another category, closer to takeaways, or to local snack bars.

                                          And confess that my favourite frites here are made with beef tallow - from the local (sit-down) Frites Alors! chain.

                                          I do agree that there is a problem sourcing good "ordinary" ingredients - that aren't organic, small-farmed etc and that thus are affordable for inexpensive family restaurants. That leads to over-flavouring to cover up tasteless, flabby ingredients.

                                          1. I would agree about the McDs fries, altho if I can get a fresh, hot salty batch I'm still fine with them.

                                            The biggest thing I've noticed lately is with McD's hamburgers. Salt licks. I LOVE salt. If I'm saying, wow, this is too salty to eat, it might be too salty.

                                            I think we have more and better pizza than before.

                                            1. Since most of the OP's 3 items have been thouroughly discussed, I will go in a different direction.

                                              The first item I would like to present is Prime Rib. Prime Rib prepared the right way, slow and low, led to a beautifully flavored meat, with a crispy well seasoned skin. Today not only is it fairly hard to find it on a consistant basis, I assume the time involved in prepping and cooking one the right way, leads to many places serving bland chewy slabs of beef. (Or a grilled rib eye called prime rib on the menu)

                                              The other item(s) I offer are game meats. When is the last time you saw leg of lamb or duck on a regular menu? Lamb chops have hung in there, but most chef's try to out do themselves with lamb chops loli pops, carmalized fig, basalmic reductions, please just give me a nice leg of lamb and some mint jelly!

                                              Duck! (No not literally you can sit back up) Seriously there was a time 1 out of 4 restaurants had duck ala' orange on their menu. Now unless its a reputable Chinese restaurant you can't find, or would be a fool, to order it.

                                              Those are a few of my old favorites I would love to see make a comeback.

                                              13 Replies
                                              1. re: jrvedivici

                                                I don't eat out fancy often, but one can sometimes find a good braised lamb shank at a high quality Cuban restaurant, although sometimes only on weekends. Some really good Mexican restaurants- Mesa in Dallas comes to mind- serve an extraordinary duck with mole. If not mole, I like the crispy duck skin which I usually have to do at home, with duck hash the next morning.

                                                1. re: jrvedivici

                                                  I live in Montréal. Lots of lamb, duck and game on restaurant menus.

                                                  1. re: lagatta

                                                    It's a thing of the past here in the US, out of fashion. There are some places but you have to know where to find it.

                                                    1. re: jrvedivici

                                                      Where there's a Middle Eastern, Indian, or Pakistani community, there's lots of lamb dishes. Most steakhouses offer a few lamb dishes as well, but I never see mutton. Even the steakhouses that offer a "mutton chop" are just serving spring lamb.

                                                      1. re: monkeyrotica

                                                        I don't think mutton is even a thing in the US anymore. I've not seen it once.

                                                        1. re: Kontxesi

                                                          Not in Kentucky - it's the traditional meat for Western KY barbecue.

                                                          1. re: NonnieMuss

                                                            Interesting. I would surely like to try it.

                                                  2. re: jrvedivici

                                                    I don't ever consider lamb to be "game" as all I've ever had have been ranch raised. And 99% of the duck the same. And I don't have any problem finding them in restaurants. Sorry you do.

                                                    1. re: c oliver

                                                      Lamb is definitely not game.Duck can be, but almost all restaurant duck is farm-reared. That is why I said, lamb, duck and game. Though actually most, perhaps all, game meat served in restaurants here is farm-reared too, for legal reasons. I do occasionally get caribou hunted in the far North of Québec, but that is a gift from Native friends.

                                                      Any bison here is definitely ranched, as it isn't native to here.

                                                    2. re: jrvedivici

                                                      I love a good prime rib. So hard to find the way I want it. Even if a place has it they aren't cooking it right. I must learn how to make one. I have never seen Yorkshire pudding on any menu.

                                                      1. re: melpy

                                                        Ah, well then you just need to come to England, where the rubbery, reheated (or alternatively dehydrated, powdery) premade Yorkshire pud is de rigeur at Sunday roasts! (Along with the overcooked sprouts, rock-like roast potatoes, Bisto gravy...)

                                                        The difference between the American "prime rib" and the British "roast beef" is subtle but interesting when it comes to modes of ruination. British roast beef is cut thinly, unlike the American version which is invariably a half-cow slab. Which offers the obvious opportunity to pre-slice and reheat in a microwave (result: strips of grey leather). We also prefer cooking at high heat initially, then at medium (but not low) heat. The result is a much more thoroughly browned outside and a (theoretically) rarer inside. (The American prime rib is usually more uniform throughout). Predictably, you find many places with burnt, inedible outsides and tough, overcooked insides.

                                                        However the biggest modern failing is, we're not so demanding about *which* cut of meat goes into the roast as to put it in the name. Which leaves scope for restaurants to interpret the roast in question as almost anything. Sirloin, rump, topside, and (most dreaded of all) silverside - all in descending order of appeal, the last bearing a strange resemblance to a football in taste and texture.

                                                        There *are* restaurants here which keep up a good tradition and offer religiously every Sunday a cracking proper roast, but they are, it would seem, a dying breed. I share your lament.

                                                        1. re: AlexRast

                                                          Oh dear, some of those cuts should be braised or stewed, no?

                                                          1. re: lagatta

                                                            No, *none* of them should be used for that purpose.

                                                            Sirloin is actually OK for roasting, but it's better for steaks. The sirloin is the king of steaks.

                                                            Rump can be used for steaks, but is even better as kebabs, where it is sublime. (It will be admitted though that the kebab shop is another plague in England - and who knows what cuts a given one will use? Probably best not to know...)

                                                            Topside is better for sandwiches. It's a good joint if you want a cold roast - because it keeps its shape well and has good flavour, and is easy to carve, cold (doesn't fall apart). In sandwiches it's ideal.

                                                            Silverside though I might only use for mince, if that. You can use it, with care, sliced very thinly and deep-fried or flash-fried, but any misjudgement of the temperature results in instant plimsolls.

                                                    3. Egg rolls and won ton soup, as a result of cutting corners (relying on short cuts like soup base) and less attention to detail.

                                                      8 Replies
                                                      1. re: prima

                                                        I don't live in the most food-forward area (Reno/Lake Tahoe) but I can get very good Chinese food in all forms.

                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                          I can get good dim sum and regional Chinese foods where I live (Toronto), but the Chinese Cdn food in Toronto and London,Ontario, isn't as good as I remember it being in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. I thought it might be a result of the Chinese Cdn resto owners with the Chinese Cdn food knowhow retiring, and the new owners of some restaurants focusing on dishes that are sometimes less Canadianized, or less Chinese Cdn.

                                                          That being said, the western Chinese Cdn food I've had in Edmonton and Calgary, and the Chinese American food I had in Dublin, CA, seems to taste as good as ever. So maybe it's more of a regional problem in Toronto and London, ON. :)

                                                          1. re: prima

                                                            Prima,

                                                            It seemed to me that Chinese food that I ate in the Chicago and northwest Indiana area tasted better than what I can get now, so my experience agrees with yours.

                                                            1. re: gfr1111

                                                              Good Chinese in The Region? Who knew? :-)

                                                              1. re: gfr1111

                                                                Again, you're doing a "I liked food I had years ago better than what I have now."

                                                                The Chicago area (my home town) currently has many excellent Chinese spots as well as Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, etc. Not only that, but there are more regional Chinese restaurants than ever before.

                                                                Maybe you need to look a little more broadly.

                                                                Your post would make more sense if you were doing apples to apples comparisons(comparing the same establishments over the years), but just generalizing over your anecdotal experience isn't very helpful. It sort of comes across like my dad saying "all this new music sounds like noise" when I was a kid.

                                                                1. re: ferret

                                                                  The OP might be talking abt the Chinese food at old school westernized Chinese restos in Chicago and Indiana, since the OP was responding to my reply, and agreeing with me. That's the specific type of Chinese food that isn't done as well as it once was, where I live, in Toronto and in southwestern Ontario. The presence of great regional Chinese restos doesn't help if/when you're looking for a good old-fashioned Westernized egg roll!

                                                                  1. re: prima

                                                                    As I mentioned, I live in Chicago (and have for over 40 years). Some old-school westernized spots have closed, that's for sure (and not an especially bad thing), but many have stayed open and even the traditional spots in Chinatown know how to cater to Western tastes, so I'm puzzled again by the generalizations. I categorize myself as very adventurous but have coworkers who are far more conservative in their tastes. We have any number of Chinese spots nearby that will satisfy everyone's expectations (and more Westernized egg roll options than you could ever hope to consume).

                                                                    As I've pointed out ad nauseam, this thread is pretty nonsensical as it paints a fairly rosy and nostalgic view of the "old days" as somehow being based in a more principled form of cooking. There was plenty of bad food around 30-40 years ago and the options for better food have only increased over the years. There's a reason a lot of places closed, it's because customers' tastes and expectations changed.

                                                                    1. re: ferret

                                                                      I agree with everything you've written on this thread. I've probably not been to a Chinese restaurant that didn't offer some of those Chinese-American dishes. They try to cover as many bases as possible. I don't eat those dishes but I'm sure some people do.

                                                        2. Many baked goods, for a variety of reasons.

                                                          Bread. Paradoxically this is because of a movement towards "quality" bread. But somehow, at a critical point, somebody seems to have decided almost as a matter of canon, that Quality Bread Is Made Using a Sourdough Method. The result is that you now have 2 choices:

                                                          1) Ghastly industrial bread (Chorleywood process, usually)
                                                          2) Artisanal bread, with some degree of sour flavour.

                                                          It doesn't seem to be possible, any more, to get good quality "sweet dough" bread. This is NOT bread that is sweet as in with added sugar, but rather simply made using a yeasted method that leads to no "tanginess" WHATSOEVER in the flavour.

                                                          Pies and pastries (scones, American biscuits, etc.) . The culprit here is the substitution of solid vegetable fats for butter or lard. I suspect a combination of 2 reasons:
                                                          1) Cost. Vegetable fats are usually cheaper.
                                                          2) Desire to accomodate vegans. Many pies, e.g. fruit pies, would be suitable for vegans other than for the butter or lard that might be added to the crust. Rather than lose business, most places cave in.
                                                          But ultimately, pastries made with vegetable fats aren't as good (less flaky, bland flavour, slightly greasy mouthfeel)

                                                          Similarly, in England, the whole class of steamed puddings has been in decline because of the replacement of suet with vegetable fats of one form or another.

                                                          Cakes and muffins. Sugar is the principal culprit here, which seems to have been going up in each generation. Also the proportion of icing to cake. We now have cakes that are half icing. No one gets any prizes for figuring out why: more sugar lowers cost yet usually gets more enthusiastic immediate reaction. As for muffins, many of them are becoming more like cupcakes.

                                                          And another pair that affect not only restaurants, but in fact food in general:

                                                          Milk and everything based upon it. There are several factors.
                                                          1) Modern dairy cows have been bred for high production rather than good flavour, and often the milk is very low in fat
                                                          2) A general substitution of half-skimmed or non-fat milk for full-fat milk, usual citing health concerns, although the real reason seems to have more to do with diversion of the fat into making butter (and to some extent, cheese)
                                                          3) The replacement of glass bottles or paper cartons with plastic. Not only is this bad in itself, but the type of plastic that was chosen seems to be particularly aggressive in asserting its "plasticky" taste upon the milk.
                                                          4) High-heat pasteurisation. While raw milk maybe is nice but not essential, substitution of the faster HTST process for the LTLT process impairs the flavour of the milk.
                                                          5) Homogenisation. It used to be most milk came unhomogenised. The resulting fat distribution after shaking led to better flavour and texture. The extremely fine fat globules resulting from homogenisation mean a "thinner" mouthfeel and blander flavour.

                                                          Berries. The main problem here has been the systematic breeding of berry types to favour long shelf life over flavour, with results that are self-evident. For instance, we have strawberries that are virtually immortal - as if that mattered, because they're virtually flavourless as well. (Prime example: the "Elsanta" variety.)

                                                          All sorts of restaurant foods have collapsed in quality, *even in fine restaurants* as a result of these industry-wide changes. It will be noted that both milk and berries have a particularly negative impact on baked goods - so that, to take the most obvious case, the strawberry shortcake, once the epitome of late June loveliness (and Wimbledon), has declined into a sort of sad token gesture done more to invoke happy memories of childhood than to please in the present.

                                                          20 Replies
                                                          1. re: AlexRast

                                                            I almost don't even believe that there is such a thing as an "artisanal" style bread that isn't sourdough. There were some yummy Acme breads I had in SF that weren't sourdough but almost anywhere, if it's rustic looking, it's generally sourdough.

                                                            And I hate sourdough.

                                                            1. re: Violatp

                                                              Rustic looking bread in Boston is hardly ever sourdough , at least at the places I go to.

                                                              I used to make NyT no-knead bread every week but got busier on weekends. That bread's like crack.

                                                              1. re: C. Hamster

                                                                I've never been to Boston but if I go, I'll be sure to try some bread!

                                                            2. re: AlexRast

                                                              I agree that the avoidance of butter, lard and suet (and its rendered progeny, tallow) has had a profoundly negative effect on the quality of baked goods. Mincemeat without suet is a bland echo. (And you really can tell: tallow, when cold, is waxy - heh, cheap candles were typically made from tallow, duh! - but has an incredible mouth-feel when warm, which is how mincemeat should be served.)

                                                              1. re: Karl S

                                                                It should be remembered that mincemeat, should, in fact, have actual *beef mince* in it - in other words, lean meat as well as fat. The modern mutation of mincemeat into something fruity and meat-free is actually a complete transformation of the original substance. Mincemeat was originally designed as a form of preserved meat - added fruit was typical in a day when sweet and savoury were often combined; use of fruits with meats was commonplace. It seems to me that a new term really needs to be invented for the fruit-and-fat product now being used to create meat-free mince pies. Even a mince that only includes suet, no lean meat, is IMHO somewhat borderline.

                                                                Ironically, Acme bread makes the DEFINITIVE sourdough - and this is a bread that will convert even the strongest sourdough-disliker (such as myself). It really is true that in SF sourdough is different from elsewhere, and better. Notwithstanding, Acme's "non-sour" breads are still sour, from my perspective. It's just in this case I don't mind, because the sourdough is so unbelievable.

                                                                I've had a LOT of people say XYZ bread is not sourdough, only to be disappointed when I tried it (whoever XYZ happened to be) and found it to have a sour flavour. It seems as though a lot of people have become habituated to EXTREMELY sour breads indeed, such that one that is only mildly sour tastes not sour, to them. I'd have to try some of the breads C.Hamster's tried in Boston, to know (my previous, admittedly limited Boston experiences with bread have been disappointing) to determine if they genuinely were not, but again, we are talking about what seems to be a dying breed.

                                                                1. re: AlexRast

                                                                  The only sourdough I like anymore is Truckee Sourdough from, well, Truckee. For non-locals, Truckee is close to 200 miles away from SF but our SF daughter asks us to bring it to her.

                                                                  1. re: AlexRast

                                                                    Really? Re: Acme breads? That actually blows my mind a little because I really dislike sourdough, but I love the Acme breads I've had!

                                                                    Granted, I haven't had them all, but I'm thinking particularly of the pain-epi and the rolls they use to make their simple sandwiches. Are those really sourdough? Mind. Blown.

                                                                    1. re: Violatp

                                                                      Definitely sour. A true "sweet dough" bread really does taste almost sweet - no it's not because it has sugar in it, but the flavour is softer and more wheaty. Difficult to describe if you've never had it.

                                                                      Acme is so extraordinary as to convert even the most dedicated sourdough-hater, I'll wager. They're a San Francisco treasure. One of the very best bakeries in the world.

                                                                      1. re: AlexRast

                                                                        Wow. I guess I'll have to qualify my statement from now on. It is now "I hate sourdough...unless it's from Acme!"

                                                                    2. re: AlexRast

                                                                      Yes, I agree about the beef mince too, but I care more about the avoidance of suet than the avoidance of beef flesh itself. The avoidance of suet has more of an effect on critical mouthfeel.

                                                                  2. re: AlexRast

                                                                    With berries and the like, they also breed for insect resistance and yield. Both of these can actively go *against* flavour - bigger, blander berries, less sugars (so less tasty to insects).

                                                                    There's also the shipping. I used to think California strawberries were dreadful - white in the centre, bland, nothing compared to the local, in season strawberries. Then I moved to California and got to eat them locally, and the difference was amazing. I don't buy most berries anymore, because they don't taste good, due to being picked green and shipped. If I moved back to more temperate climes, I'd do the same with tropical fruit.

                                                                    With baked, one issue is freshness. Classic, home-made muffins, for example, should be eaten right after cooking - you make a batch, and eat while still warm. This is impractical for modern food distribution and sales, so the muffins you buy at the grocery store have all sorts of preservatives and stabilizers to keep them fresh until eaten. But you never get that fresh muffin taste and texture.

                                                                    1. re: AlexRast

                                                                      Wow! Thanks for the great analysis, Ålex Rast. I love it when someone sits down and thinks his/her answer through in great detail. And I agree with all the points you make, except that I do confess that I prefer the heavy use of icing, as I regard cake as only a delivery vehicle for frosting.

                                                                      1. re: gfr1111

                                                                        So considering all the replies about pizza and gyros, I'm wondering if you have any thoughts.

                                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                                          I had a very tasty gyro for lunch today!

                                                                      2. re: AlexRast

                                                                        As far as bakeries "caving in" to vegans by finding vegetable-based substitutes for lard, that's a little too simplistic. It's much more attributable to changing tastes, which, like it or not, address the preferences of the many over those of the few. It's not just vegans who disdain lard, but also Muslims, Hindus, semi-observant Jews, to name some other categories. Also people have moved away from lard in general. You'll still find plenty of bakeries that use butter, as well as those that use lard, so maybe you have to look around a little more, but the flavors you crave are still there.

                                                                        1. re: ferret

                                                                          The Muslim/Hindu/Jewish argument might hold in communities where such people are in the majority, with respect to "addressing the preferences of the many", but I doubt that the combined total of such people, and vegans, is enough by itself in otherwise ordinary Western communities to make dietary *restrictions* a consideration.

                                                                          I'll agree that dietary *preferences* - in the sense of a lot of people, abiding by modern dietary recommendations that suggest that excessive saturated animal fats are unhealthy, avoid products containing them - may have had an impact, but given that the evidence now is that solid vegetable fats are equally bad, I'm not sure that this holds true any more with respect to preferences.

                                                                          It seems to me, in any case, that the more rational solution to avoiding excessive saturated fats is to reduce the *amount* of fatty baked goods you eat generally. These things are supposed to be occasional.

                                                                          Meanwhile try and ask most bakeries - to say nothing of restaurants - what fats they use in their baked goods and you will almost invariably get completely puzzled looks. Usually they don't understand the question, and even if you explain it to them enough for them to grasp what you're asking, the typical response is either 1) they don't know; 2) they can't understand why this might matter to anyone (probably a way of saying 1) without actually saying it). Only a handful seem to be willing to provide a direct answer.

                                                                          1. re: AlexRast

                                                                            You're statement that bakeries and restaurants won't tell you what kinds of fats they use is a little puzzling. I can assure you that it is not the case here in my corner of the world.

                                                                            As for your statement that you need a vegan/Hindu/Jewish/Muslim "majority" to effect change is a little misguided. There are countless establishments that strive to be inclusive (all you need is to take a quick look at how many menus are now touting gluten-free items -- that's far from catering to a majority) and want to reflect the needs of a broader cross-section of the population.

                                                                            1. re: ferret

                                                                              Just as a clarification - note that with respect to ethnic identies what I was saying is that I think there probably needs to be a majority in order to make it *necessary* for a business to consider dietary restrictions, if they wish to survive as a business.

                                                                              Also it must be emphasised that neither a business' choice of fat nor any other persons' preference implies (or at least should imply) any sort of value judgement on the worth of a person belonging to given ethnic group. It's obvious that by virtue of your ethnic identity you may exclude yourself altogether from certain types of food (e.g. neither Muslims nor Jews would be able to eat tagliatelle alla Bolognese) but if an establishment opts for such foods it's not out of any malice to the groups in question.

                                                                              I do have to ask, though, if you've asked many bakeries about the types of fat they use, because I've done so routinely and while some are forthcoming, as I say, my experience, drawn from many parts of the world, is that most staff, at most bakeries, simply aren't equipped to deal with this sort of question and respond in bafflement.

                                                                              1. re: AlexRast

                                                                                Here in the states, I don't think that quaestion would surprise or stump anyone. I really have asked in the past and not only do people know they don't even blink at the question. Any place beyond a specialty bakery (such as the bakery department of a grocery) will already carry a label on all their goods. It's just not an issue.

                                                                                1. re: ferret

                                                                                  ...except that I've encountered the reaction I describe in the USA. New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle... I've seen it.

                                                                                  Now, places that bag or box things and put labels on them, yes, it's easy to determine things for yourself. But at a place that sells the "naked" item, unprepackaged, such as bakeries or restaurants, you can't instantly tell - and staff is frequently not in a position to be able to answer. As I mentioned, some can. But most can't (or don't).

                                                                                  One time, I even asked a lady at a farmer's market, who was the baker of the breads she had out, and far from giving a direct answer, my question invoked a long ideological polemic about the immateriality of what fats might have been used. I stood there sort of stunned before walking away. I guess she didn't want my business. Now, this particular case was an exception. Most times, people seem to want to help, they just don't have access to the information.

                                                                                  I think this is an example of the sort of question that you *might think* ought to be trivial for any bakery to be able to answer, but turns out *in practice* to be one of those bits of knowledge that only a tiny fraction of the staff actually has explicit knowledge of. I suspect that it may be that even the bakers themselves are just adding some fat from a generic packet or block, without knowing or much worrying about what it is - they just follow the directions. Possibly only the person ordering the ingredients actually knows for sure. This is all guessing about what goes on behind the scenes. But the difficulty of getting hold of this information is remarkable.

                                                                      3. How about the transition from restaurants being a place to cook and serve food, to being a place to warm up Sysco food before serving? It happens in restaurants at all cost points.

                                                                        I think bread now is a heck of a lot better than what was generally available when I was a kid. Also the sorts of vegetarian food that was all the rage (in some circles) when I was a kid, seems to be coming back but is at least being reborn with an attempt to make it palatable.

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: willownt

                                                                          We own a mom-and-pop restaurant and I agree that too many restaurants rely on pre-made food that only needs to be reheated. The vendors market these foods as labor-saving and therefore cost-saving in spite of their high prices. What is gained in convenience and consistency often is lost in flavor and quality.

                                                                          This trend isn't confined to either chains or mom-and-pop places. I've found that it's best to order whatever the restaurant is known for, and I seldom order from the "specials" board.

                                                                          If you are uncertain, ask intelligent questions of your server and if you don't get intelligent replies, ask for the manager.

                                                                          We prep and cook everything in-house so we know exactly what goes into it and whether or not it's good. No MSG, no trans fats, no preservatives. And I know there are lots of places out there that do the same, so when you find one you like, go there regularly and bring your friends.

                                                                        2. I want a Ceaser salad with croutons that did not come out of a box, a coddled egg, and whole romaine leaves. And made tableside.

                                                                          I have only found this lately in a Wisconsin supperclub.

                                                                          2 Replies
                                                                          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                                                            Why made tableside? And I understand the true way to eat it - agree with the whole leaves - is with one's hand.

                                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                                              On the same order of having your poached trout deboned in front of you. Adding to the theatre of the dining experience.

                                                                              Others will call it pretentious hoopla we are better off without.

                                                                              Like the flaming skewers at Palmer House in Chicago.

                                                                          2. Salad dressings. Now restaurants offer several sorts of sweet glop. I try generally to obtain vinegar and oil served on the side.

                                                                            I agree about the Sysco processed food at most chain restaurants.

                                                                            Pies. You cannot obtain a decent pie anywhere. Even the "better" pies are poor imitations of a home baked pie. Restaurant pies always have machine made piecrust and usually too sweet filling.

                                                                            I can obtain quite a nice pizza though. And I haven't had a gyro in a long while, so I can't evaluate those.

                                                                            Hamburgers. It is hard to get a good one. The meat is often tasteless.

                                                                            Chef's salad. This is an old favorite of mine that isn't usually worth ordering any more.

                                                                            2 Replies
                                                                            1. re: sueatmo

                                                                              I feel bad that you live in/eat in such a food wasteland!

                                                                              1. re: LeoLioness

                                                                                I live where most restaurants are chains. But I've had plenty of bad experiences at local places, especially as we've traveled. My lastest pie experience came highly recommended by an innkeeper. It was just so so pie filling in a machine made crust.

                                                                                I stand by what I said about the chef's salad. I like to try them from time to time when I travel. They aren't as nice as they used to be. They just aren't.

                                                                            2. One last comment. As for gyros, the technology is advancing well into the 21st century. Robotic shawarma/gyros/doner kebab slicers are starting to pop up in my area (Chicago) that sense the doneness of the meat and shave a layer off automatically.

                                                                              There's an Israeli spot around the corner from my office that has massive chicken shawarma cylinders running on these (well, similar) automated slicers.

                                                                              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wwvGW...

                                                                              There are Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian and, of course, Greek spots that all offer spit-roasted cylindrically formed meats, mostly lamb/beef and chicken.

                                                                              The robotechnology hasn't made it there yet, but it's just a matter of time:

                                                                              http://wgntv.com/2013/04/10/year-of-t...

                                                                              1 Reply
                                                                              1. re: ferret

                                                                                Fascinating, Ferret. Thanks.

                                                                                I read your comment about the machine sensing doneness, but neither the youtube nor the WGNTV segments mention sensing doneness. (I played the segments several times, listening for that.) And, by the way, the meat that they were slicing seemed a bit underdone to me, if you are looking for char and carmalization. But it is certainly a cool gadget.

                                                                                The reporter on WGNTV mentioned that the people he was interviewing did not use ground lamb or beef in forming their gyros.--Another way to screw up the taste of gyros. Maybe that's why so many gyros nowadays taste like meat loaf.

                                                                                It is also interesting to me that both segments for all three locations made their gyros from much shorter pieces of meat (say, a couple of inches long), the better to stuff them into pita bread and form a Greek taco.

                                                                                At the Parthenon in Chicago (where WGNTV and both gyro places are located), they carved off much longer strips of meat (say, four to five inches), laid them crusty side up on the plate, and covered them with a moderate amount of circular raw onion slices, like you might find on a hamburger. They served the Greek yogurt, mint, garlic, and cucumber Tszaziki sauce on the side.

                                                                                Also, apparently the meat used has not been pressed or cooked enough to allow it to be sliced in long strips. It looks like thin rounds of the meat have been stacked upon themselves and then sliced.

                                                                                Anyway, delicious either way and fascinating to watch!

                                                                              2. When was the last time you ordered Tournedos Rossini and it arrived without a slice of black truffle on top? Black OLIVE? WTF?

                                                                                1. Yeah. Restaurant food is worse now, aside from mom'n'pop ethnic places, because American food is worse now. It's no longer human food. It's corporate food, concocted by chemists, CPAs and MBAs and similar degenerates.

                                                                                  Anything could be an example, but here's one that's on my table right now:

                                                                                  So-called Greek yogurt, otherwise known all over the Balkans and Middle East as laban, labene or labneh. All it is is plain yogurt with the water strained off. a yogurt cheese, if you will. The good stuff is a fair substitute for American cream cheese (only better ... most U.S. cream cheese is full of thickeners and stuff).

                                                                                  Read the ingredient list on your package. Bet it's at least 10 or 12 items long, and that you can't pronounce the names of many of the "preservatives," "stabilizers" and "emulsifiers."

                                                                                  Then get some REAL labneh. Small-American-producer-made if you're lucky, but I get mine at a local Mideast grocery. It's made in Turkey. Fresh? You bet. We have jet planes and fast ships now, you know.

                                                                                  Here's the entire ingredient list of the stuff I eat (Ulker brand "100 percent fresh milk"): Pasteurized milk, milk fat, starter, salt.

                                                                                  In most countries, people won't eat the crap we eat. Look up how many countries ban how many American food products.

                                                                                  Corporate Amerika is destroying most of our food. Kind of like they're doing to our middle class. Coincidence?

                                                                                  4 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: emu48

                                                                                    So where are these "mom'n'pop ethnic places" getting there food, then?

                                                                                    As mentioned before, maybe you just need to eat in better restaurants? Plenty of places favor locally-sourced ingredients.

                                                                                    1. re: LeoLioness

                                                                                      I think it's interesting that some people think that Sysco-type food goes to chain restaurants. I'm guessing those places have their own sources and that those "mom-n-pop" spots are the ones getting it from Sysco et al. I do know that a former fave breakfast spot when we lived in Oregon had one of those big trucks pull up regularly. And we LOVED their breakfast.

                                                                                      And, yes, in our small city it's getting easier all the time to find locally sourced foods. Aren't we lucky?

                                                                                      1. re: c oliver

                                                                                        It's also worth remembering that Sysco has all different grades and quality levels depending upon they type of customer they have, so results really vary in the finished food.

                                                                                        1. re: Tripeler

                                                                                          Right. I learned that recently on CH.