American Hungry (Running out of options)

Las CebollasOur favorite restaurant has shut down. Before, if I wanted to lament the lack of decent food choices in town, I could afford to feel a little whimsy about it, but now I’m broken-hearted.

There are so many restaurants in Madison. We have four steakhouses in two blocks – Outback, Rafferty’s, Logan’s, Longhorn – this creates and illusion of choice and a reality of irritation.

And I understand now why it takes so long for the natives to agree on where to eat, why it’s so difficult to choose. Because you could have 20 good experiences at a restaurant, but if they get it wrong once, that’s it, you never want to go back.

I have some favorites, but mostly it’s like settling down to choose a movie on Netflix – is a choice of a thousand shitty movies (and Thor – I could watch Thor again) really a choice?

Steak 'n' Shake's California Double Steakburger - a restaurant I don't hate.

Steak ‘n’ Shake’s California Double Steakburger – a restaurant I don’t hate.

We become spoiled by familiarity, by security. I thought I had it figured out. For Mexican, we went to Las Cebollas. For “this is like a real night out and I’m going to wear a shirt with a collar” steak, we went to Longhorn (or rather, we let other people take us to Longhorn), for “getting home late and we don’t want to cook, and damn, I’m going to have a beer with this” Chinese we went to Panda Express. And then there are the extra-budget “I get the feeling  that someday something is going to go down at this place” options of Ryan’s and Steak ‘n’ Shake – my less than guilty pleasures that I love for the duration of the meal and then spend the rest of the day regretting.

There is the pretense at Italian food – the wide-eyed, cold-plated horror of the Olive Garden, and Fazoli’s, which has a menu and prices I’m tempted by but have been forbidden to enter. (It’s said that the food at Fazoli’s is like school dinners, but I liked school dinners).

And then there are the burgers, which I rarely buy but take seriously when I do.  I can enjoy breakfast at McDonalds but I couldn’t eat their burgers. I can love a #1 or, belt allowing, #2 at Sonic, but it has to be the right Sonic. Wendy‘s is great, but hey, is it really so great, or have I just turned it into something so mythical that it will inevitably disappoint? Checkers, oh dear, I will never go back to Checkers.

You don’t go to Burger King in Rivergate, even when you have coupons, because they will take forever and then give you the wrong order anyway, and so you will cut out the coupons but keep them in your car until they expire, and then throw them away, feeling like the worst victim of a zipcode lottery. The burgers help me understand why you can drive through a town with every fast-food place imaginable and still see nothing you want. And God forbid you’re sharing the ride with another adult – no one can agree, because we’ve all been burned by these nasty restaurant, because our tastebuds have broken, because we’re tired, and a little bit sickly, and already thinking about what we’ll do after dinner anyway, so why can’t we just have food injections instead?

When I arrived in Tennessee, the restaurants were a mysterious blur, and then I got to know them, and for a period of time that I can never get back, I loved them. Applebee’s, Chilli’s, O’Charley’s…I couldn’t fault them, mainly because there were so much more enjoyable than so many British restaurants – not so much for food quality, but just in the sense that they’re actually open and you can get parked.  But now I’m like the rest of us here, and I see the holes, and I feel ripped off even when the check is absurdly cheap, and the food is just not good, and I feel sorry for the staff, and most of all I wonder why, driving past, how all of these bad restaurants stay in business, why they’re so busy on a Monday night, and of course I know why – we’re just so damn lazy – and I look at restaurant customers and they’re not having a good time, this is nothing special, it’s not close to a treat – the only positive emotion on display is relief that we’re not at home, that there won’t be washing up.

In December we rolled up to Las Cebollas and the doors were locked and the lights were out. And now we’re screwed, because this was the one place we agreed on, the one place that was inexpensive but not nasty, where the staff were friendly but not cloying, where it seemed…authentic but that didn’t matter anyway, because I just know that Rebecca and I, we knew what we were going to have before we walked through the door, and we felt comfortable to have the best conversations of our American lives in that place. We worked things out in there.

And we’ll never know what happened to the owners, and I wonder if the staff are finding other jobs, and then I think, really? Were we that close? Were they on our Christmas card list? And this illusion of intimacy, of making a closed down business somehow about me, it’s one of the least endearing parts of my American assimilation.

So instead of the angst that I don’t deserve, we’ll look for a new place we can boast about (and if you don’t count the number of times we’re mentioned in the violent crime news stories on we are so very low of things to boast about in Madison). We tried Las Fiestas for Mexican, but it didn’t come close. There’s Fat Juicy Taco, which is special in a different way, but that’s in Hendersonville.  So the search goes on for a lazy-meal restaurant, for the place to go for dinner that costs under $30 for our big/little night out – or we face the alternative; flying back to Edinburgh once a week for a smoked sausage supper. And to be honest, I doubt anything we find here will ever come close to that level of raw indulgence.