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America's restaurants offer a mirror on our culture

The Baltimore Sun

There we were, with an old friend who had come all the way from Canada, dining out and hoping to get caught up on all the news. We found ourselves in one of those franchise restaurants - his choice - where attempting a conversation is sort of like trying to hit a major-league fastball with a baguette. I looked around amid a boundless sea of chaos and noise; it was hopeless.

These days, restaurants almost scream at the patrons. How this came about I do not pretend to know, but it seems to me that many of them are designed to assault the senses. As we attempted to converse, music blared from speakers overhead, in competition with multiple televisions in the bar area. There was a total absence of sound-absorbing material, with bare ductwork overhead and hard wood under our feet. The pace was kinetic. Glasses bounced on tables, children screamed, and every decibel was magnified by metallic surfaces.

So many restaurants overdo everything. Besides noise, there is too much food, there is too much spice, and there are way too many silly objects adorning the walls in some weak attempt at a "concept." Many look like carbon copies of each other. In some ways, we have franchised the heart and soul right out of the dining experience.

It was not always so. Many years ago, one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago was a place called the Bakery. Its motto: "Make love at home. Eat here." An utter lack of pretentiousness was a sort of theme. The building was an old converted bakery, hence the name, and the owner had done little to make it more romantic. The dining rooms were weirdly configured, the tableware mismatched. I remember that in one small dining room, there was this huge refrigerator right out in plain sight.

The Bakery was not puttin' on the dog for anyone. You were there for the food, which was superb; if you came for something else - what was then called "atmosphere" - management had no interest in you.

The Bakery was wonderful. Chef Louis would mingle with the clientele, a grand figure in his tall chef's hat and a beguiling handlebar mustache. It was like dining among friends; it was like Europe. And another thing: It was quiet. As ragged as the premises might have been, the Bakery's presentation showed great respect for the food and for the conversation that was viewed as essential to a great meal.

Restaurants today surely reflect our changing attitude toward food - and maybe toward ourselves as well. As our consumption of food grows ever closer in style to our consumption of gasoline, we might ask: Why would we want to make the dining experience frazzled, rushed and loud, when much of the rest of our lives is already frazzled, rushed and loud? Is it just another item on the overworked list - drop off the dry cleaning; pick up the kids; fill the tank?

Once there was the sacrament of food; now, it's more like a video game with calories. Yet there is no denying the popularity of it all - de gustibus non est disputandum (there's no accounting for taste).

To some of us, though, this trend is not so appealing. The Bakery no longer exists, but there are other quiet places along the side of the road. There, you might find the tables ready, the candles lit and the chef plying his trade in an expression of artistic mastery.

I know of a few such places, but I'm not telling. Once popularity has set in, there is the risk of the Yogi Berra syndrome. About a popular St. Louis eatery, he is alleged once to have said: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Joseph Bauers is a freelance writer in Champaign, Ill. His e-mail is

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