In the past, I traveled a lot with clients whose means far exceeded mine, lifestyles that included chauffeurs, four- and five-star hotels and restaurants matching that level. Because I was there to chronicle their activities, I got a taste of their lifestyle by proxy, so I joked that I lived like a king while earning a pauper’s wages.
But it could become too much of a good thing, and after several days eating every meal out and living in hotel rooms nicer than my apartment, I longed for the comforts of a PB&J on the couch in front of the TV. I was ready for, as my boss would say, “a little slumming,” which meant food and drink we could afford, meals consumed hunched over a bar and served from a plastic basket lined with wax paper. I’ve never lost my love for such relaxed repasts.
I made a few stops in such places recently and found myself surprisingly refreshed when it came to my writing. I found new stories to tell, things I’d overlooked by focusing mostly on “the newest restaurant in town.” With so many places opening, the best way to keep up pace is to produce blow-by-blow recitations of what I ate or drank—a task that can become tedious to write and, I gather, read. But it’s news, so we do it.
Yet, perhaps most interesting is the reaction I’ve noticed to tweets and posts about those relaxed stops, compared to reactions received about higher-end places. Going to places like Kern’s Korner yielded a story of a first date that led to a marriage, others praised the burger or the club sandwich, while some included suggestions for similar spots. A post about The Back Door yielded similar results, especially about the big, affordable pours of spirits.
By comparison, posts about amazing meals (Bistro 1860’s recent Titanic dinner, St. Paddy’s Day feast at Harvest), openings of Chik’n & Mi and Fork & Barrel get far less response, and likely because 1. only a small number of readers get to attend such special dinners, and 2. few people have anything to say about brand-new restaurants because they haven’t visited yet.
But let’s face facts: Many of us are drawn to those lower-end spots because they’re affordable. When we settle in, take in the surroundings, food and drink, we realize how soul satisfying they can be. It soon becomes practically impossible not to return, especially when you start making friends with bartenders, servers and regulars. An extended family forms unexpectedly, and you’ve got a new draw.
Perhaps most surprising of all is how many restaurant industry folk frequent these less-heralded spots, the “joints” where good burgers, wings, beers and sturdy whiskey pours are found. Given their days spent cooking and serving finer-dining fare, perhaps they also are burned out on it and longing for the basics done well.
Last Sunday at The Back Door, I chatted with a bartender who’s been there since it opened 31 years ago. Monday, while at the Bob Evans on Hurstbourne Lane with a former client, I hardly got a word in before our meal because he was surrounded by staffers who’d worked there between 31 and 39 years. He, a man who’ll turn 95 next week, has frequented the restaurant since it opened, but he hasn’t been there as much since he relinquished the keys to his car. It was touching to see them have an impromptu extended family reunion.
Of course, such exchanges happen at upper-crust eateries, too. I participated in it when I worked in such restaurants, and I see it now on those infrequent occasions that I dine at local legends. I’ve seen owners beam when hosting special dinners for brides who they held as babies when their parents began dining there 25 years before. I’ve seen owners give backrubs to the ailing and the aged, and then say, “I’ll bring you some dinner by the house tomorrow, OK?” In short, there’s love at every level in this business. It’s how great restaurant folk are wired.
But as far as slumming—if you can even call it that since none of these places could be considered rundown (at Kern’s Korner, even the bottles on shelves appeared spotlessly dusted)—that’s where I think I want to be for a while, where I want some of my reporting to take me. There are new stories to tell, tales about people we all relate to, and anecdotes easily shared over burgers and beers.
Perhaps best of all is they won’t empty my wallet, and they’re free to you!
- And please send any suggestions for your favorite haunts (or restaurants of any kind for that matter) to firstname.lastname@example.org!