From time to time on this blog I’ve reviewed local restaurants. I hope to keep up that trend but right now I’d like to look at the operative word in that first sentence: local.
By and large I believe that, if you have the choice, it’s better to eat at a local restaurant. There’s a few reasons I believe this. First, there is the distinct possibility that the food will be better at a local place, and if it’s not it will still probably be unique. If you want a sandwich, for example, and decide to go to Subway, you know what you’re going to get. On the other hand, a local sandwich shop has the freedom to experiment with its menu and try new things. Those experiements may be delicious, but even if they aren’t better than Subway (which by the way isn’t bad), they’ll offer a one-of-a-kind eating experience. This idea seems to apply across the board; whether its local Italian verses The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, or the neighborhood diner verses McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., etc., my experience is that in each case the smarter culinary choice is to avoid the chains.
Besides the potential for better food, local restaurants almost always have a better environment. I always laugh/cringe when I walk into a Chili’s, Applebees, Red Robin, TGIFridays, take-your-pick-of-generic-Americana; they all look exactly the same (both from location to location, as well as from company to company). I remember ending up at one of these restaurants on my first visit to New York and wondering why it would be decorated exactly the same there as it was on the West Coast. How can there be so many restaurants filling the same bland niche? (Of course, the food at these places isn’t necessarily bad, they just tend to offer so much less in the way of environment than most local places. Also, the food at these restaurants isn’t particularly memorable.) Local restaurants, however, often have quirky environments that, if varying in their success at creating a desired ambiance, are usually much more stimulating than the props chosen by corporate headquarters to decorate chain restaurants.
My point here isn’t to argue for the complete elimination of chain restaurants but rather to suggest that when considering where to eat, thinking local should be the first response. Obviously there will be times when availability, price, or (bafflingly) even taste will lead people to choose chain restaurants. Also, most chain restaurants probably started out as local businesses and hopefully retain some of the spirit from their earlier days. Still, local eateries provide an experience that larger chains can only meagerly and unsuccessfully imitate. What’s more, eating local pumps more money into the community, which of course means more growth, opportunity, and progress locally.
Whether or not you believe in the “buy local” movements sweeping across the nation (and the world), eating at local restaurants is a way to have a rewarding culinary experience while supporting people who are probably your neighbors. I know that the next time I go out, I’ll be walking down the street to find a place instead of driving to the nearest chain.