Out To Dinner With Lynn Ashby

June 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

Order 34 is for one hamburger, medium-well, with onions chopped, not sliced, no mustard but lots of cherries. Order 22 is for meatloaf on a bun, toasted, heavy on the chocolate. Do we have any peanut butter and jellyfish? Table 10 just walked the check. The busboy spilled red wine on an angry, white male. I smell smoke. And I just got word that a tableful of international restaurant critics is in town.

There are three pursuits everyone thinks they can accomplish: Write a book, publish a newspaper and run a restaurant. Two out of three ain’t bad, but don’t try to run a restaurant. It’s long hours, constant standing and customers who think the price of a pizza gives them the right to insult your mother. Meanwhile, the hired help is running out the back door with booze from the bar and steaks from the freezer.

This cafe — catering to disciples of Joan of Arc called the Stake & Ail — is not my first restaurant rodeo. That one was a pub for redneck soldiers returning from Iraq called the Shucks & Aw. Then I opened a bar for Chinese drunks named the Taiwan On. My French café was invaded by the German biergarten next door. I founded a college for chefs, Fork U. It failed, as did my Kosher barbecue for Jewish cowboys, the Double Bar Mitzvah.

However, I knew Houston was the perfect place for restaurants, because if it seems as though we eat out a lot, it’s because we do, and don’t just take my word for it. The most recent Zagat Survey restaurant guide, which is the bible for us gourmets (pronounced gore-METS), says Houstonians eat out more than residents of any other American city: 4 times a week, compared to Los Angeles at 3.4 times per week and New York City at 3.0.

But even in Oil Town the recession has hit. Houstonians say that they are dining out less than they did two years ago – our current 4 times per week is down from 4.2 in 2008 and 4.6 a few years earlier. Around Texas, Dallas is at 3.6 per week (down from 4.0) and San Antonio is at 3.5 (down from 4.0). All are far more than the Zagat national average of 3.2 meals out weekly. Indeed, as states go in weekly eat-outs, Texans lead the restaurant rangers.

How about costs? Not to get bogged down in statistics, but these are warm fuzzy facts which makes us feel superior. Texans’ restaurants are a relative bargain, because the average cost of a meal in all four major Texas markets ranks below the national average of $35.10: Houston ($32.53), San Antonio ($31.34) and Austin ($30.76). Dallas/Ft. Worth is the most expensive dining area in Texas ($35.03).

What change – if any – has the recent economic challenge (some would say “gawdaful depression”) had on your dining habits? Among surveyed Texans, we are paying more attention to prices (35 percent), we are eating out less (32 percent), eating at less expensive places (26 percent), skipping appetizers and/or desserts (19 percent), and cutting back on booze (17 percent). Despite the recession, the cost of eating out is going up in Texas. Compared to two years ago, 37 percent of those surveyed report spending more when dining out, while 18 percent said less.

But every table has a silver ware. Is there any good news in our current economic challenge, besides finding a dry bridge to sleep under? When asked what positive effects the economic downturn has had on their dining habits, 49 percent reported finding better deals at restaurants, while 34 percent said that it’s easier for them to get a table at hard-to-get-in places.

Not only do we eat out a lot, Houston is among the national leaders in restaurants per capita, although the exact number of eateries around here is hard to pin down. One estimate puts the figure at 8,500 or so in the Houston area, with around 10,000 in the greater Harris County area. But does this include school cafeterias (I really like overcooked, soggy vegetables), hospitals (green meat anyone?) and your local Choke & Puke convenience store with month-old hotdog wieners slowly turning on a greasy tube? According to U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 count, the 10-county Houston metropolitan area had more than 7,660 restaurants and eating establishments and more than 600 bars and nightclubs.

For our purposes we shall take numbers provided by the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Resources. Annually – and sometimes more often – the city’s “sanitarians” inspect all our eateries, exactly 13,486 of them, including schools, nursing homes and those catering trucks serving tacos, lunches and cupcakes. Narrowing that figure to our daily bread, we have 2,555 full-service restaurants and 3,636 single-service restaurants. So what’s the difference? Simple. Full service eating places use returnable silverware. Single service places give you those little non-returnable plastic forks. A neat, commonsensical way to categorize. If this 13K number is correct, and it should be, you could eat and drink out every night for almost 40 years and still not hit them all. Get busy.

Where to eat? We have a choice, for Houston is a glutton’s smorgasbord (we have Scandinavian cafes, too), and it begins with the speed limit signs around Bush Intergalactic Airport & Terrorist Checkpoint. The signs have the speed limit in both mph and km – miles for us and kilometers for those who came here from everywhere else. So diverse is our population that we need both. We now have 87 foreign consulates, the third most in the nation. Various HISD students speak 83 different languages.

Next, check the Yellow Pages under “restaurants.” The listings cover 29 pages and range from Japanese to French, from Turkish to Tex-Mex — the El (fill in the blank) restaurants alone fill up two columns. We have at least 59 identifiable ethnic choices. Chinese, you say? Be specific. Hunan, Cantonese or Taiwanese? Give P’s a chance. We’ve got Persian, Peruvian, Polish, Polynesian, Portuguese, Puerto Rican and Pakistani.

Houston has beckoned people from around the world because of gold and geography. For gold: the “awl bidness,” the Texas Medical Center and the Port of Houston. Add to that the NASA program – some 25,000 Russians live here. As for geography, Houston is a cultural crossroads which is reflected in our food. From the south we have Tex-Mex and South American. From the west come Texas beef, barbecue and wild game. From the Gulf we catch our great seafood. And from Louisiana we host Cajun cooking – along with thousands of their chefs. Other cities have one or two of these culinary and cultural influences, only Houston has them all together in the same place.

Some of our eateries offer more than just food – music, views, poolside bars and history. The Taste of Texas not only has great steaks but is a Texanna museum. One day, I was guiding a grandson through the restaurant’s collection – the little creep corrected me once – and I asked the lady at the entrance if they had anything about Robert E. Lee.

“Me,” she said. She explained that she was originally from Savannah, Ga., was named Lee and was a direct descendant. I took her picture with Mister Know-It-All.

Right now you are thinking: “I can never get into any of the top joints, and I don’t get good service anywhere.” OK, call the restaurant ahead of time to make reservations. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest, so go on Sunday night, if they are open.

Another tip, so to speak: Tips should be given when we feel we were treated well. The norm would be 10 to 15 percent, but larger tips can be a great motivator for future service there. In Houston, and most other big cities in Texas, the meal has an 8.25 percent tax – I round it off to 10 percent. So when I tip according to the bottom line I am actually over-tipping. Check the total of only food and drink, not including what the tax man adds. Rule of thumb, take the tax and double it.

On the other hand, that person serving you is quite probably making a lot less than you, and could use that extra buck or so. Just remember, more than one out of four American adults got their first job in a restaurant, and nearly half of all Americans have worked in a restaurant at some point in their working careers. That busboy will remember your tip when figuring out your bonus for 2025.

Now, about making reservations, Zagat found that Texans are increasingly using the Internet to make restaurant reservations. Two years ago only 11 percent of Texans used the web for that. This figure has more than doubled to 23 percent. And 82 percent of those surveyed check restaurant websites before they head out.

While we’re still talking state-wide, the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) says the Texas restaurant industry is projected to post “measured gains” (read: up just a tad) in sales growth in 2011. The National Restaurant Association’s 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast says Texas should see sales of $36.6 billion, which is a 3.9 percent increase over 2010. That places Texas second only to California in restaurant sales. Employment in Texas restaurants will increase this year to 1,002,100. Texas is also projected to post the strongest growth in employment over the next decade, growing 17.3 percent to 1,175,000 employees. That’s as though every man, woman and child in Dallas worked in a Texas restaurant.

Richie Jackson, Texas Restaurant Association CEO, echoes the upbeat local predictions for a good 2011. In a press release, Jackson cites “the pent-up demand for dining out.” The trend began towards the end of last year and is continuing. Are you helping by eating out more? Nationally, restaurant industry sales are expected to reach $604 billion in 2011, a 3.6 percent increase over 2010, the first upswing in three years.

The big fad today is eating out of doors, or al fresco, named for Alfredo Fresco, a famed Italian chef who came up with the idea after the wind blew off the roof of his café in Milan. He proclaimed, “Mama mia, no lira roofimi Mafioso sleepa wit da pesce.” Which means, “My overhead’s killing me.” Fresco’s idea eventually caught on and today all the really spiffy joints have a porch or terrace or asphalt parking lot covered with bird droppings. That spot is hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Heretofore it was considered useless, but now can double the number of tables. As for Alfredo Fresco, although his open-air restaurant was a huge success, unfortunately, he stopped paying protection and ended up in the Tiber, sautéed with a sprig of rosemary and a slice of lemon. That recipe never caught on.

“What’s new,” you are asking. “How can I, too, make Big Bux in the restaurants by getting ahead of the crowd?” I, personally, thought a café based on Slumdog Millionaire would be a success. Every customer was given a bowl to go begging at all the other restaurants. It bombed.

For a peek into potential prosperity by getting on the cutting edge of gastronomy, we turn to the NRA—no, not that NRA, I mean the National Restaurant Association. Each year it asks more than 1,500 chefs who are members of American Culinary Federation to give their professional opinion of what will be a “hot trend,” “yesterday’s news” or “perennial favorite” on restaurant menus this year.

The envelope, please. The top menu trends will be locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce and especially hyper-local items, like the turnips growing in the men’s room and the goats in the kitchen. Then, there are nutritious kids’ dishes, children’s nutrition as a culinary theme, sustainable seafood, gluten-free food including allergy-conscious items, back-to-basics cuisine and farm-branded ingredients.

Rounding out the top menu trends are artisan liquor, locally produced wine and beer, smaller portions for a smaller price, organic produce, nutrition as a culinary theme, culinary cocktails – I’m not sure what that means — newly fabricated cuts of meat, fruit/vegetable children’s side items, ethnic-inspired breakfast items and artisan cheese.

Thirty percent of the chefs said that mobile food trucks and pop-up restaurants will be the hottest operational trend this year, and they are right. Notice all those little taco trucks around town? “We put the burro in burrito.” Eighteen percent said restaurants with gardens will be the top trend, reflecting the above-mentioned locally grown, and 17 percent said social media marketing. Indeed, 55 percent of the chefs said they are currently using social media on their jobs, and another 16 percent said they plan to start using such channels. Incidentally, all this “locally grown” food rage has got to give Drayton McLane indigestion. He made a fortune hauling California cabbages to Waco and Mexican mangoes to Tulsa.

One trend which caught my eye was smaller portions for a smaller price. Do you notice the huge portions our restaurants serve? I’m not griping. It sure beats the alternative, but when your waiter (excuse me, server or waitstaff are the PC terms these days) arrives at your table on a fork lift, you know that Houston’s reputation as America’s Fattest City is safe. Actually, we can retire the trophy.  I have so many doggy bags I’m entered in the Westminster Dog Show.

Finally, you should know that the word, “restaurant,” comes from the Olde English “rest your rump,” and was first used in 1304 in Suffolk by a drive-through tavern specializing in shepherds’ pie, Take-It-on-the-Lamb. It went bankrupt because of a competing café, Ewe-Haul-It.

Now back to work. I put out the fire and cleaned up the spilled wine. Did you bounce those drunks at Table 14? Oh? They were the international restaurant critics?

By The Numbers

The National Restaurant Association says the outlook for the eateries biz for 2011 is excellent.

1.3 million:

The number of positions the restaurant industry will add in the next decade.

$1.7 trillion:

That is the overall economic impact of the restaurant industry. I am not sure exactly precisely what “economic impact” means.

34 jobs

are generated from every additional million dollars in restaurant sales.


of adults say they enjoy going to restaurants. The other 12 percent were international restaurant critics.


of restaurant employees say they would like to own their own restaurant some day.


of adults say they try to eat healthier now at restaurants than they did two years ago.


of adults say they would patronize food trucks.


of restaurant owners started their industry careers at entry-level positions.


of adults say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers food grown or raised in an organic or environmentally friendly way.

$1.7 billion:

Restaurant-industry sales on a typical day in 2011.

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