Stuck as we are inside the hermetically sealed bubble of The Observatory, The Observer has been thinking a lot about restaurants recently. Mostly it’s about which ones of them we’re going to make a pig of ourselves in once the Invisible Enemy is vanquished and we can all get back to some semblance of normal. And, yeah, we know that might be awhile.
Your Old Pal reviewed restaurants for 16 years for the mighty Arkansas Times, including one joint situated aboard a floating barge on the North Little Rock side of the river where the food was vastly improved once the place sank maybe two months after we did our best to enjoy a meal there. Mostly, we did all the dives, catfish places, burger joints and greasy spoons. The more well-heeled folks always snatched up the white-tablecloth places with steaks, shrimp cocktails, wine lists and drinks with little umbrellas in ’em.
Given that, we’ve learned a thing or three about Arkansas restaurants, even if we’ve never donned a single hairnet nor spent one moment in a restaurant kitchen:
1) The quality of the food at a restaurant is almost always directly correlated to the number of dishes it has on the menu. It’s entirely possible to do 10 dishes to a uniform level of deliciousness. It is absolutely impossible to do 35 dishes with the same uniform level of deliciousness. The best place we ever reviewed in this mortal life — the late, great Georgetown One Stop on the White River — was so pure of mission that there was no menu. The waitress simply asked: “Y’all ready for some fish?” and that was what you got, served with raw onion and pickled green tomatoes, in portions so big it felt like you needed a double-wide wheelbarrow to haul you outta there when you were done. And the Lord saw that it was good, and smiled upon it.
2) A good eatery springs for good, solid silverware, coffee cups and plates. Not the Grand Duchess Pattern with the gold ivy leaves, but definitely stuff with some weight to it. It’s worth it, and people notice. Cloth napkins, however, are usually overkill. Also, when The Observer was reviewing, unless it was a barbecue shack or soul food joint where that “church dinner” feel was kind of part of the atmosphere, if somebody brought a paper plate or a plastic fork to our table at a sit-down restaurant, that was written in our mental “CONS” column with a fat black magic marker, and it took a bean-pot full of “PROS” to make up for it. Not only is throwaway cutlery cheap, it’s wasteful and insulting. Hire a dishwasher, pal.
3) Re the waitstaff: Don’t call us “Hon,” “Shug,” “Honey,” “Darling” or any of the other stuff that might weasel a few extra bucks outta the horny truckers just off the interstate. It’s not 1958 and you are not Flo from the TV show “Alice.” Be professional. NOTE: Actual truck stop waitresses who look like they’ve been slinging hash since “Alice” was on the air are exempt. The Observer will gladly kiss their grits. They’ve earned it.
4) The ambiance of an old-timey joint where the walls are hung with antique political bumper stickers, old license plates and photos of fish caught from a local river back in 1963 cannot be faked, and it’s just embarrassing when people try.
5) The tip for the waiter who comes up and asks, “Everything tasting OK?” immediately after The Observer has just taken a big bite of mashed potatoes and gravy instantly goes from 20 percent to 10 percent.
6) Catfish places in the boondocks are always delicious. For great barbecue, though, you usually gotta go to town. Not always, but usually.
7) Burgers from places that only offer picnic tables for seating are also uniformly good. Bonus points if the menu is a pegboard surrounded by colored light bulbs and looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1968. If the only way to order is either by phone or through a tiny sliding window with a screen, we’ll be there so often that we’ll know the fry cook on a first-name basis.
8) At breakfast, we need both the strawberry jam AND the grape jelly. And we’re judging your biscuits on heft, temperature and moistness. Harshly.
9) Buffets never don’t suck. The question, as always, is how much terribleness are you willing to accept in exchange for a potentially infinite amount of food for one money?
10) We prefer no music at all, but if you must play music, any song that includes the word “Jesus” is a sure-fire way to make The Observer put a cigarette butt in our tater salad and walk. And no, we don’t care if it’s Sunday. If you love the Lord that much, why ain’t you in church?