September 28, 2006
Humboldt Restaurant Syndrome
by JOSEPH BYRD
This space, which I will occasionally be privileged to occupy, will be about food, with particular emphasis on the North Coast. Since food is perhaps the topic on which almost everyone is an expert, it seems only fair that you know my prejudices.
It won't be easy to stay focused. I have many passions, and food is just one. I like people who are passionate. I enjoy the ardor of those who have adopted, or been privileged to participate in, a particular sub-culture, be it plane-spotting, Argentine tango, Chinese poetry, motorcycle rallies, Yucatan cuisine, anarchism, Navajo weaving, Tantric sex, Eric Satie or Kabala.
If there is a word that describes my approach to life, it is "catholic," meaning "all-embracing" (as opposed to "Catholic").
It is this approach that allows my wife and me to enjoy chicken pot pie, baked macaroni and cheese and Texas chili, along with foie gras, Rogue River Blue cheese and soft French-style omelets, as well as such vegetarian delights as quitlacoche (Mexican corn fungus), Indian lemon pickle (not cooked, but left to ferment in a glass jar in the sun for three days) and the radical-vegan raw cuisine of the former Roxanne's in Larkspur.
In this worldview (one not shared by restaurant critics), ethnic cooking, street food and homely American fare have equal place alongside Le Grande Cuisine, bistro and "Pacific Rim." I lack sympathy for those who are obsessive about "authenticity," and my Victorian-era British "curried creamed chicken breast with mushroom caps" coexists with my Chicken Vindaloo. Just not at the same meal.
I've eaten some strange and wonderful things, and have learned, or at least attempted to learn, to take pleasure in them all. To exclude anything, I feel, is to be a snob, and to be a snob is to reject many of life's possibilities. Thus there are foods I once hated that I have come to love, and others in which I've at least been able to find momentary pleasure. And there are a handful I've never been able to enjoy at all, but I'm not proud of it.
The exception to the above, of course, is the factory-processed, portion-controlled, antiseptic-bagged and machine-extruded faux-food made by corporations that seek maximal profit and minimal cost. That is to say, almost everything offered us to eat in the course of our everyday lives. But, you know what? Even canned food has its moments. Spam, for one egregious example. Santa Barbara olives, hearts of palm, Progresso cannellini beans -- even canned tamales, if you know how to turn them into a great snack.
But not "franchise food" and not "instant" anything. We like our guilty burger lunches, but we are eccentric enough to get take-out and subject it to our own improvements. And in this mail-order world, there are things worth paying to import. We care enough about hominy grits to order them from Virginia (the difference between stone-ground grits and the "Albers Instant" store-bought kind is like the difference between aged Vermont Cheddar and "Cheetos"). Of course, cooking is our hobby; not everyone cares to spend time and money that way.
There is a phenomenon my wife calls "Humboldt Restaurant Syndrome": A new restaurant comes along; it is good enough to get some local attention. But over time, the prices are just high enough (say, $2 more per entree) that it's not competitive with the cheaper, established places. At that point, there's a choice for the proprietor: Either lower quality to fit into the Humboldt price range, or continue on, risking almost certain failure. We've seen the Syndrome's failures time and again: Barcelona in Arcata, Prime Cut and Auguston's in McKinleyville, Dragonfly in Eureka, Al's Diner in Rio Dell. All interesting experiments that failed, because the North Coast simply will not pay more for higher quality. (We've also seen its other side, restaurants that started out good and gradually lowered price and quality to survive, until they are finally mediocre.)
Why should this be? It is not a stretch to suggest that we have more taste, talent and education, per capita, than, say, Sonoma County. There is a reason for this. If you live just an hour away from a major symphony, ballet, opera and theater, internationally acclaimed dining, richly endowed art and science museums, major universities and big league sports, you don't really have to bother about having your own cultural community. Here we either do it ourselves, or do without. It is our responsibility to exalt excellence even as we deplore crap.
But we don't. The Eureka Chamber Music Series brings in world-class string quartets, which play to audiences of 60 or 70. Because we hate classical music? I think not ... because it costs $25. (Maybe I'm wrong: My mate reminds me that folks pay more to see The Chinese Acrobats, Kenny G or Riders In The Sky.)
Back to restaurants. Having been in the trade, I know that it is an incredibly difficult business, demanding dedication and hard work, with little profit margin. Well-intentioned dinner guests who say "You should open a restaurant" should be advised that this is the equivalent of, "You should try selling cement lawn gnomes door-to-door at trailer parks."
So I am not going to say anything negative about a specific restaurant (at least, a local one) unless I think it is a good restaurant, and over-all superior to the rest.
Restaurateurs are not fools, and those who want to succeed know better than to flaunt their distinguished qualities if the customers prefer not to be challenged. And why bother to cook things fresh, if digging out last week's shrimp from the fridge and smothering it in American cheese works? ("Shrimp Melt Special, $4.95".) One visit to Eureka Cash And Carry, and you can see on the massive shelves and cavernous walk-in freezer everything that appears on the menus of local restaurants. Not just frozen chicken patties and ground beef, but pasta sauce, salsa, Hollandaise, Alfredo, Lawry's Caesar Dressing Mix, even beef "au jus" ... all by the case. Defrost or add water, stir, heat, and serve.
There is real food being served, however, no matter how hard Humboldt County tries to kill it. For example, in the midst of faux-Italian Arcata restaurants with dull and cheap-ingredient menus, there is at least one that makes interesting and exciting food: La Trattoria (with regional home-style cooking) ekes out an existence four days a week, serving, for example, baked rabbit with polenta, or house-made spinach lasagna. It is not always perfect, but it is creative food with integrity and style.
But the community doesn't really support such places: They pay the big bucks for style, not substance. When there's money to be spent, it goes to showplaces: The Eureka Inn's Rib Room survived for generations serving bad food in a handsome setting, and that lesson has not been overlooked by The Establishment. In the men's locker room, I've overheard many conversations about "that special anniversary dinner", and of the five expensive restaurants named, and yes, you know exactly which ones I mean, not one would survive six months in the Bay Area, much less thrive, as they do here.
All this is why I don't want to write a restaurant column. I have no desire to constantly debunk the values of the restaurant-going Humboldt public. They have made their choice, and we pay for it daily. Or rather, those who don't cook as a hobby, the way we do. Bad restaurants are a way of life here, and the community truly seems to prefer it that way. Having watched so many good ones fail, we now try to stay in the moment, enjoy however briefly what good cooks are willing to attempt, and not take it to heart when they are driven away.
Apart from the restaurant scene, Humboldt County is a cornucopia of great stuff. Besides being prime time for the Farmers' Market, we have a world of good food out there. Thanks to the astute competition from Brio and Ramone's, the Co-op has finally given up its sullen allegiance to vegetarianism and gummy whole wheat bread, and become the full-service bread-baking resource it should have been 20 years ago. And Murphy's Markets, perhaps sensing a demographic shift, have raised the bar with its meat and deli departments, which surpass the competition. There are glorious local oysters from the bay, peppers that scream "stuff me!", variegated tomatoes intense of flesh and flavor, and dozens of great late summer options.
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