Friday, July 22, 2011

The news gets personal

An obscene part of my day is spent online, scouting for news, glints of a trend, or the radar beeps of a new direction in dining. Usually it means wading through the type of informational detritus that makes me a leper at cocktail parties. (Bet you didn’t know Brad Pitt wore a chicken outfit for El Pollo Loco, or that Barry Manilow wrote many of the catchiest fast-food jingles. I’ve got a million of ‘em.)

The last few days have brought discoveries of a different type, Sadly disposable for most people, in or out of the industry, they’ve definitely gotten under my skin.

Not that they’re out of the ordinary. You would not believe how many stories appear in local papers or the news services about violent crime that erupts in or near restaurants, particularly on weekends. It can be gruesome stuff. But little is as affecting as the news briefs that appeared this week about an incident at a Dave & Buster’s I routinely pass.

It occurred last fall, but full details apparently weren’t revealed until recent court dealings. A 23-year-old man went into the food-and-games establishment and approached an 8-year-old who by all accounts had been selected at random. The adult drew a knife and stabbed the boy in the back five times, then dashed away.

The attacker was grabbed while he tried to hide in a bathroom by the boy’s father and another customer. Authorities found a note in the man’s pocket, explaining as if it was a to-do list that he intended to kill a child that day.

Fortunately, he failed. Now he’ll be working off a 14-year prison sentence as the boy and his family contend with the memory.

Far less gruesome was the release of a code of behavior that definitely drew my attention. I ran afoul of Tim Zagat 12 years ago by responding in a column to his declaration of a Diner’s Bill of Rights. I actually took issue with only one provision, an assertion that restaurants field any special dietary need posed by a customer. Still, mutual acquaintances informed me that I’d drawn some bad ratings from the dining-guide mogul.

I still believe the point of annoyance was a suggestion that a dining-out code should go both ways; restaurants were entitled to certain behavior from their customers. For instance, abuse of a server or disregard for the comfort of fellow patrons should be prohibited, enforceable by a boot out the door.

This week Zagat issued the sort of list I was envisioning, a set of dining etiquette rules. I agree with him on every point of the new do’s and don’t’s, particularly the stipulation on handheld distractions: “Do not talk, text, tweet, e-mail or surf the web at table.”

It’s interesting that he put that responsibility in 1999 on the restaurant, stating that the establishment should ensure a cell-phone-free dining room. But, as the Zagat notes in its preamble to the new behavioral code, times have changed.

Today, I’d say his etiquette rules should apply to the people who interact with restaurant customers. If servers use their cell phones while they’re within view of diners, they should have an immediate meeting with the manager, provided he or she isn’t tweeting. Sadly, that's too often the case, and it's a personal ire-raiser.

Finally, it was a point of personal annoyance that the watchdogs at Center for Science in the Public Interest missed an irony in their newly released roster of the unhealthiest restaurant foods.

Among the winners of the group’s annual Xtreme Eating Awards was Cheesecake Factory’s Ultimate Red Velvet Cheesecake, a single dessert that weights three-quarters of a pound and packs 1,530 calories. How could a chain even develop such a gut buster?

Well, it didn’t. The delectable was the brainchild of a customer who participated in a contest two years ago to find Cheesecake’s next cheesecake addition. Patrons were invited to submit recipes for the sort of products they’d like to find. Some 10,000 were entered.

Then customers were asked to vote on their favorites among the finalists. The Red Velvet won handily.

In short, patrons demonstrated that it was the sort of choice they wanted when they dined out.

It’s proof of the industry’s longstanding argument that its job is to give patrons what they want, not what they should be eating.

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