Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Waraku, San Francisco

Our attempt to eat at all the ramen restaurants in Japantown, San Francisco continues and Waraku is an excellent staple with a slightly more upscale feel than the other offerings in the neighbourhood.


Waraku is definitely the kind of place you want to go to for a mid week meal or in the afternoon. The decor is wonderful and the staff attentive but the place can get very busy and I feel like they've added too many tables. This is definitely not a place for a first date, I feel like sometimes I am sitting at a table with strangers and I find their conversation invasive. Being only about a block from the Peacetown mall this is a surprisingly easy oasis during events in Japantown.

The food at Waraku has a limited menu but absolutely everything we've had there has been wonderful; so long as you're not after Vegetarian food.

Hanetsuki Gyoza $4.50USD

Thin skinned pork and vegetable dumplings are cooked in a way that causes a skin to form allowing you to play pull apart games with your friends. Good fun with good dumplings. 



Hiyayakko $4.50USD

Cold tofu is topped with generous amounts of ginger, scallion, dried nori and bonito. The tofu is obviously made fresh and has the telltale cottage look of air throughout. I would have preferred a slightly smoother tofu but one cannot knock fresh tofu in the US and this is a very good dish. 


Karaage $5.00USD

The ubiquitous fried chicken snack in a sesame and soy batter. This version is crisp and crunchy and not too oily. Thankfully the serves are also on the small side so you don't find yourself eating a day's worth of calories in one dish. 



Tofu salad $7.00USD

When I ordered the Tofu salad I was expecting a side dsish but instead a huge platter of tofu and greens came out. Served in a toasted sesame (goma) vinaigrette and simply covered in cubes of the freshly made tofu. Good for those avoiding the fried food. 



Kakuni-don $4.50USD

Small rice bowls can be bought on the lunch menu that are not much larger than a soup bowl and perfect for tasting a few things on the menue. This one is kakuni which is a braised fatty pork belly seasoned and topped with scallions.


Shoyu chashu ramen $10USD

A plain soy ramen served with wilted spinach, bamboo shoots, pork and egg. The noodles are a good quality chewy egg noodle. Tonkotsu (pork bone) soup is available for those who like a meatier soup and I find that this is the best broth of any of the ramen offerings in Japantown. If one could combine this soup with the noodles from Sapporo-ya you might almost have the perfect local ramen. 

They also offer a tsukemen tonkotsu version with the noodles on the side with a thicker soup for dipping for $9USD. Additional toppings like pork, mushrooms, sprouts and tofu can be added for $1-3USD. Their spicy miso ball (50c) can be added to any soup and is highly recommended for those who like a stronger ramen.


Tantanmen $9.00USD

Tantanmen is my all time favourite noodle dish and unfortunately Waraku only serves it during the colder months. Minced pork is fried in a sweet and savoury seasoning and served in a spicy sesame tonkotsu broth with coriander smoked egg.


The noodles are decent, the broths are good but the real star of this restaurant is the smoked soft boiled egg, order two it's worth it. Boiled to  soft gelatinous perfection you get one in the ramens but an extra can be ordered for $1USD or as a canape on their own for $4.50USD.

Waraku



1638 Post St
San Francisco, CA 94115

Upscale ramen eatery in Japantown, San Francisco

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review: Fat Angel Food & Libations, San Francisco

As a foreigner living in San Francisco this can mean a lot of international visitors due to the proximity of Silicon Valley. Fat Angel is the perfect place to take visitors and business colleagues for a catch up and a good drink.


The theme is high end gastropub in the Fillmore district off the back of Japantown. An intimate environment that is just perfect for small groups or couples on dates - being so close to the Fillmore Theatre this would be a great choice for a pre or post show drink. The venue isn't large though so we tend to go early, either after working from home or on a weekend afternoon. This ensures a choice of tables and no wait, but be aware if you do this the kitchen only opens at 5pm. 


The craft beer list is extensive, several pages including imported and local options, ciders and gluten free beers. Watch the specials board and try their rotation to get a good grasp of the menu. We're particularly fond of some of the unusual beers like sour cherry and dark chocolate porters. 


2007 La Rioja Alta ‘ViƱa Alberdi’  Rioja Tempranillo $12USD and 2013 Domaine de Sulauze ‘Pomponette’  Aix en Provence, France Pino/Syrah $10USD

For the wine drinkers there's an equally impressive selection by the bottle and by the glass. Lots of new world and European wines are available that pair perfectly with the small plate food. 


Pretzel $5USD

Fresh pretzels with a lye wash and not too much salt are great with cold beer, they're served warm with a rich and hearty seeded mustard.



The real winner here though are the sharing boards; all equally delicious with wine or beer and served with crisp sour dough toast points. The cheeses come with a number of side additions like pickles, sweet marmalade and nuts that pair perfectly with the sharp cheeses. Extra points for a number of non cow milk options for those of us with more sensitive palettes. The pickled candied walnuts that they sometimes serve on the cheeseboard is one of the best things in the venue and worht looking out for. The charcuterie includes a number of dried and fatty meat options and a liver parfait. 

Charcuterie selection $5.25 each, 3 for $15, or 6 for $28
  • Chorizo 
  • Duck Salami 
  • Genoa 
  • Pheasant Terrine 
  • Speck 
  • Soppressata 
Cheeseboard selections $5 each, 3 for $14, or 6 for $27
  • Vella Dry Jack hard cow 
  • Capricious hard goat 
  • Fleur de Marquis semi-soft sheep 
  • La Oveja Negra semi-hard sheep 
  • Petite Supreme soft cow 
  • Buttermilk Blue Afinee soft cow
Not shown here are also fancy butter selections ($4.75USD each) served with warm fresh bread. This is exactly what I crave when I'm eating carbs and they don't disappoint. Selections include Lemon caper sage, Garlic chili, Maple bacon, Philz coffee or Honey Butter. 


Tomato, spicy sausage and arugula with parmesan $12USD

The flatbreads are served on a very thin bread crust with plenty of toppings. The arugula gi''ves as peppery edge to this dish that cuts nicely through the sausage, combined with the thin crust this makes a lighter more refined option for those craving pizza.



Apple Bread Pudding $7.50USD

There are a number of sweet and after dinner dishes making this also a good stop for post theatre coffee and sweets. This apple bread pudding is rich and delicious served with fresh whipped cream.


French press coffee - enough for 3 cups $9USD 
10 Year Old Malmsey Madeira Blandy’s  Madeira, Portugal  $9USD

Sadly they lack an espresso machine but the French press can be bought for 1 or in a larger format to be shared like this. It's a good quality dark French roast enough to keep a coffee snob happy. There's also a very large range of aperitifs and after dinner drinks including this delicious Madeira which can be hard to find in the US. 

Fat Angel - Food & Libation

http://www.fatangelsf.com/

1740 O'Farrell St
San Francisco
CA 94115
(415) 525-3013

Intimate gastropub and post Theatre share plates




Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: 4505 Burgers and BBQ, San Francisco

If there is one cuisine that Americans have perfected it is BBQ; often though excellent rubs and sticky sauces hide less than stellar meat. 4505 Meats has been selling Artisan meats in the Bay Area at farmer's markets and their butchery for years, now they're turning their fine meats into finer BBQ. 


4505 is as self service casual dining experience; you order at the window from a large board of choices and take a number to a table in the yard outside the restaurant. Drinks can be ordered at the bar inside the restaurant but roaming servers will collect plates and take orders for additional drinks. 


Smoked meats include brisket, pulled chicken, pork shoulder, pork rib racks and mild or spicy smoked sausage. 

You can order meat by the pound, on a sandwich or a set plate with sides. They offer standard sides included with the meal or Fixin's which are 'deluxe' sides that can be added to your meat platter for 75c or up from $4 each. All of the sides are plentiful and delicious and appeal to a wide set of tastes from fried Mac and Cheese  to Beans or Fries. Each platter also comes with fresh pickles and a 'posh' locally made Hawaiian style dinner roll.




This is definitely a venue for the food lover rather than the fine diner; picnic table dining, cutlery buckets and cold beer are the order of the day. They have a huge range of craft beers on tap as well as all natural soft drinks made from cane sugar. Perfect for a warm sunny California day in the sunshine. 


Chicharrones $4USD or as a Fixin' + 75c on a meal

The Chicharrones are definitely worth a mention - the ultimate moreish low carb snack of pork rinds that have been dried, deep fried and salted. As well as being rich sweet 4505 pork fat these are salted and seasoned to perfection with a light chili lime dusting. Perfect with a cold beer or on their own. 


Condiments - Free and communal

The condiment selection is a little limited but also not as necessary as you might think. They include a mustard/vinegar sauce, a Carolina style BBQ sauce, Ketchup and Louisiana Hot Sauce. I admit when I take this home I indulge in Kansas style sweet sauce; brisket and sticky sauce is my idea of heaven. 


2 Meat Platter with Chicken & Hot Link $16USD

The chicken is soft and juicy with a rich smokey flavour. Here the sides are Fries (included) and Frankaroni ( +75c Fixin' or $4.75USD on its own). Frankaroni is an indulgent Mac and Cheese mixed with cut Hot Dogs breaded and deep fried - a delicious heart attack.



2 Meat Platter with Brisket and Mild Link $16USD

Served with double Coleslaw. The smoked sausages are fantastic but I find the heat of the spicy link overpowers the brisket so I skipped my usual mouth burning affair. The brisket melts in your mouth with the right mix of fat through the meat; I could eat an entire side of this stuff and wish to high heaven they made burnt ends.


BBQ Sandwich $9.75USD

Most BBQ joints in the US will only serve Pork, premixed with sweet sauce. 4505 will let youchoose any of the smoked meats as well as a fried chicken strip option sure to please the kids. The meat is topped with coleslaw and served on a good quality brioche burger bun. The burger doesn't come with sides as standard - fries are an extra $4 but the burger is man sized and doesn't need them. 

4505 offer take home dinners which are shareable sizes with 2 classic sides or party packages if you're catering. They're open late for evening pick up - great if you're watching the game or just want to head home after work but still eat delicious.


To top all this off 4505 is walking distance from Comix Experience and Isotope Comics.  A walk in the sunshine to the comic book store followed by cold beers, great meats and new comics is about the perfect Sunday afternoon San Francisco activity. If you're less geek centric try the Farmer's Market next door on Divisadero open till 1pm on weekends.

4505 Burgers & BBQ


705 Divisadero St
San Francisco
CA 94117
(415) 231-6993

Slow smoked artisan meats served in a no frills environment

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Recipe: No bake low carb cheesecake bites

You can see I'm stocking up on low carb sweets at the moment, having desserts around that fit in a restricted calorie or carb diet make it easier to maintain my weight. I also like to portion control any treats, you'll notice I  use small tins and moulds for many desserts. This avoids the temptation to take "just a little more" and gives me an excuse to make whimsical looking sweets

I tried a number of baked low carb cheesecake recipes with no success on texture, this no bake fridge/freezer cake is my best yet. This is a terribly easy recipe that is delicious and can be adapted to any flavour, whether you're carb watching or not!

Low Carb Cheesecake Bites





Crust



1/4 cup roasted almonds (unsalted)
1/4 cup walnuts
3 tbspn melted butter
1 tspn pumpkin pie spice (or nutmeg/cinnamon/ginger)


  • These cheesecake bites are lovely on their own but add a crust if you want the real dessert experience
  • This mix of nuts and spice makes a great low carb crust that is reminiscent of a Graham Cracker crust
  • Chop the nuts in a mixer or by hand
  • Add the spice, then add the melted butter 1 tbspn at a time until a moist consistency is reached
  • Line the bottom of a pie tin or cupcake tins for individual portions, 1 tspn per mini cake is more than enough

Filling


225g (8oz) Neufchatel or Cream Cheese
125g (or 1 stick) of Salted butter
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup Splenda granules or equivalent sweetener
1 lime or small lemon


  • Neufchatel is the best cheese to give that "just like Sara Lee" taste, but if you can't find it at your local supermarket then any brick of Cream Cheese will do just as well
  • I keep these in the freezer so that 1 batch can last many days, I take out one portion about 20 mins before I intend to eat it
  • If you like a stiffer consistency or would like to serve straight from the fridge rather than the freezer then add 1 sheet of gelatin or replace the sweetener with a box of Sugar Free Lemon jelly (jello) dissolved in half a cup of water
  • Using other flavours of jelly (or sugar free flavour syrups) allow you to mix and match flavours like cherry, raspberry or orange. 
  • Soften the cream cheese either by leaving it out of the fridge for an hour or by microwaving for 30 seconds (make sure to remove the foil!)
  • Melt the butter on the stove or in the microwave; I melt the butter and then take out a couple of spoons for the crust and use the rest in the batter. 
  • Using a hand mixer or food processor mix the Cream Cheese and Butter together. Make sure that you have returned the butter to a luke warm temperature or it will cause the cheese to curdle
  • Grate the rind of your lime (or half of a lemon) and juice the fruit, add both the rind and the juice to the cheese/butter mix
  • Add the cream and the sweetener and then mix on a medium speed until all the ingredients are combined
  • For easy serving into moulds or tins I then transfer the mixture into a measuring jug for easy pouring, the mixture should have the same consistency as melted ice cream
  • Pour your mixture into your moulds and then move into the freezer, this recipe will take around 2 hours to set. 
  • I use silicon moulds for freezing, these are perfect in cupcake form. I put the silicon liners in a cupcake tray and then put the whole tray in the freezer.




  • These make great frozen 'bites' without the crust, use fancy jelly or ice moulds to make small treats you can pop out any time like these Mooncake shapes I've created with a cheap jelly mould. Without the crust, and in smaller sizes, make these closer to an "every day" treat at around 100 calories each
  • To ensure the shape stays 'perfect' prepare the night before and don't be tempted to pop out until the mixture is firm!
  • This recipe makes 9 mini cupcake desserts, or more if you choose a smaller mould. Macros for 9 servings are 264 calories, 25g Fat, 3.5g Carbs (2.5g Net) per serving
  • Top with a slice of citrus, nuts or fruit toppings if you're not a low carb eater











Friday, September 26, 2014

Recipe: Low Carb Pumpkin Pie

It's Autumn in the US (or Fall if you must) and that means one thing - Pumpkin Spice everything! Rather than miss out it was time to investigate my own low carb recipe. If you want you can add a ground nut and butter crust but I think this is just delicious on it's own with whipped cream.

Low Carb Pumpkin Pie




3 eggs
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tin of canned pumpkin or 2 cups mashed fresh pumpkin
1 cup Splenda granules or equivalent sweetener
1 tspn Vanilla essence
2 tspn Pumpkin Pie Spice OR
1/2 tspn each of Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Ground Ginger & 1/4 tspn Ground Cloves

Method


  • Preheat the oven to 180C (350F)
  • In a bowl beat the eggs until fluffy and then add the vanilla and spices
  • While on a medium speed add the sweetener and beat until blended
  • Add the cream and beat until a stiff consistency is achieved
  • Reduce the speed on your mixer, add the mashed pumpkin 1 tbspn at a time until the mixture achieves a consistent orange colour
  • Spoon the mixture into a pie tin or 6 small moulds, in the picture I have used a mini bundt tin
  • Leave room for the pie mixture to rise
  • Bake for 30 mins, then turn the oven off and leave to cool in the oven
  • Serve with whipped cream
  • Macros below are for the whole recipe - serves 6 at 150 Calories, 11g Carbs (9 Net) per person





Sunday, September 21, 2014

Recipe: Chicken Saltimbocca (Low Carb & Gluten Free)

Saltimbocca is an underated dish especially for low carb eating since it has no starch and high fat content, but the sharp ham, citrus and pickles cut through the fat leaving a happy tummy. In particular this is a great dish to order in Italian restaurants while you watch your friends eat pasta! Even if you're not low carb or gluten free this is a relatively quick meal to cook that pleases the whole household. 


Chicken Satimbocca


500g (1lb) chicken
3 slices prosciutto
4 sage leaves
60g (2oz) salted butter
1 tbpsn capers
2 marinated artichoke hearts
1 lemon
salt and pepper

Method



  • Prepare the chicken by separating the tenders from the breast and cutting the breast in half. 
  • This should leave you with 2 large fillets and 2 small tenders, flatten the chicken using a meat tenderizer and then season with salt and pepper
  • Place a sage leaf on top of each piece of chicken and then cover with a piece of prosciutto. For the tenders cut one piece of prosciutto in half and use on the smaller chicken pieces. 
  • Put half the butter in a pan to heat on medium heat and then fry the chicken in the butter with the prosciutto attached. 
  • Once the chicken is browned add the juice of the lemon and the rest of the butter and simmer gently until the butter has melted
  • Cut the artichoke hearts into small pieces and add to the pan with the capers and simmer for 1-2 minutes
  • Remove the chicken fillets to a plate and continue to simmer the sauce until thickened
  • Pour the sauce and pickled vegetables over the chicken and serve with fresh green vegetables
  • Serves 2 people with only 3g net carbs per person



Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eating at American Family Restaurants

Some people might be surprised by this entry given I'm usually a bit of a food snob. My partner and I are regular feeders of our inner child and this means semi regular trips to geek conventions and theme parks. Now the occasional churro at Disneyland might be acceptable but there comes a point after a long day of queues and walking when what you want is a real meal. In the US tourist areas are usually flush with family restaurant chains where a decent (if homogeneous corporate kitchen designed) meal can be found at an affordable price.


You will almost certainly find such a venue attached to your local American mall

I think there's a place in the industry for this kind of food and tired, cranky and unable to face burgers and fries I've had a few dinners at such venues. Being a foreigner though I find the entire process daunting and outside my usual eating experience, a fine reason for a blog entry. For the purpose of simplicity I am going to use female and gender neutral pronouns, though service staff at such chains are usually well mixed between genders.

Getting a table



The hostess stand at a Buca di Beppo

On arrival you speak to the lead hostess usually behind a podium in the vestibule for table allocation. If it is busy your name and number of diners is taken until a table is ready. I always give my partner's name or a pseudonym since having an unusual name means every restaurant struggles to correctly write down my real name, similar to the Starbucks phenomenon. If it is especially busy you will be given a wireless buzzer informing you that your table is ready, similar to how 'self service' meal collection works at pubs in Australia. A small lounge, outside seating and an easy to access bathroom is usually provided while you wait.

Almost none of these restaurants take reservations, meaning you wait in line with recent arrivals and large groups can wait for extended periods for the few tables larger than a 4 top to be available. This almost always leads to complaints from seemingly endless number of patrons taking a birthday party to a Cheesecake Factory. If we're at a convention where I know we'll be competing for a table with 10000 other caffeine filled geeks this means I will always eat dinner very early or late (at 5pm or after 9pm) to avoid the 45+ min waiting period.

Another hostess calls your name when the table is ready. You are then lead to a table, this is the correct time to say you wish to be seated with particular requirements (booth, table, light, no light, away from bathrooms). I have discovered this is because each server (ie. waitress) is allocated certain tables and switching from one to another after you have been assigned means a change in allocation and ergo a change in the possible tips earned by your server. Not following this rule leads to cranky looks from the wait staff.

Ordering



The Menu(s)

Once seated you are usually presented with an impossibly large menu (delivered by your host) designed to meet the needs of any plausible combination of diners that could attend such a chain restaurant. For first time diners this can take up to 15 minutes to digest. For reference the Cheesecake Factory menu has over 200 items and usually comes in a book with an additional addendum for low calorie options. The calorie content of most meals is included for reference, though some stores only place the calorie value by section rather than by dish.


Breadsticks and dipping sauce at The Olive Garden

Your server will usually come by and present some kind of free 'snack' and request drink orders while you attempt to digest the menu. This is likely to be a basket of bread or chips or in some cases a salad. I have never understood how this is economical since eating an entire basket of bread sticks guarantees you will be able to eat less food you are actually paying for, but since most of these restaurant servings are designed to be larger than a single person can eat then presumably it doesn't prevent you spending the same amount of money. Most of these chains will offer some kind of "more than you can possibly eat" option such as endless pasta, shrimp or salad or a 3 course meal that should serve 5 that comes under $20. For families on a budget this must be an incredible boon, at scale they are able to offer food prices that you as a family could never cook for this price. Should you choose one of these options you should go in knowing that no mere mortal could eat all 3 courses comfortably, you are better off leaving half of each serving.



A "small" platter of pasta at Buca di Beppo is designed to feed two people but often has enough for 4 servings for under $20

The server will come and take your order, usually bringing your unbelievably large drinks at the time. If you have ordered a non alcoholic drink this will come with free refills, often topped up without request. Do not feel compelled to finish your drink each time, as this will lead to a busy server, a cold tummy and a bursting bladder! The exception to the free refills are alcohol, milkshakes and juices since these tend to be labour intensive and made from expensive ingredients. In some restaurants a sommelier or bartender may bring your drink instead of your server.

The main meal


The kitchen in these corporate affairs is treated like a factory line and so if you have ordered more than one course these will often come out as soon as they are cooked with little regard for the pace of your eating. Sometimes you may find your appetizers come second or all your dishes come at once. Servers will periodically check in on you to see if you need drink (or bread/salad) refills or if there is a problem with your meal. Bus boys will periodically check in on you to see if plates need to be taken away. Under no circumstances should you ask a server not assigned to you or a bus boy to bring something, as this again violates the service tip social rules. If you make this mistake as a foreigner they will usually tell you that they will fetch your server. In California it is fairly common for non wait staff (eg. Kitchen staff, bus boys, custodial staff) to not speak fluent English; so they can be also daunted by any request you are making to them.


This food combination of "half" a sandwich, salad and soup is served on a platter sized for a large roast for only $10.95USD at The Cheesecake Factory


Once the meal arrives it will be huge, possibly leading you to laugh at the ridiculous platter of food presented for one person. The only way to avoid this experience is to order from the 600 calorie or less page which each chain has. Generally we choose to skip any kind of appetizer knowing that this is true and concentrate on the main meal (inexplicably called an Entree in the US). The first time I ate at such a place I ordered a dish for each course and then looked horrified at how much food was taken away and thrown out.


The giant portion you couldn't possibly eat is given its own branded "doggy bag" and box to take home and finish later

The usual etiquette is that your server will bring a box for you to take the leftovers home and in fact most Americans believe that this extra food is built into the price. Many are budgeting for the fact that the price includes lunch for tomorrow; the Olive Garden even build this into their marketing offering a "buy one, take one" meal deal. Even if you do not ask for a 'doggy bag' then your server will usually offer one; if you are travelling and in a hotel room without kitchen facilities they will look at you oddly if you say no. On the plus side this means that my original fears about how much food must be wasted in America are lessened. If you are uncomfortable with the wastage then consider taking the leftovers and giving them to someone needy on the street.


A typical pasta dish at The Olive Garden $15.49USD includes unlimited salad and breadsticks

The food is decent, if unremarkable across the board. Warm comfort food classics done reasonably well, nothing fancy, but definitely satisfying.

If there is a problem with your meal this is cause for alarm! Chain restaurants like this focus on efficient, friendly reliable service. Any change to the garnishes, any time an allergy has been forgotten in ordering, any time something is cold or damaged is a ding on the reputation of the company. Each time we have had a problem we have immediately been sent a restaurant manager to discuss and apologise, frequently we are offered a discount on our bill. Sometimes this occurs even when there is not a problem as the manager is checking that the service and experience is up to code. As foreigners this is a little embarrassing for us and sometimes leads to cost benefit analysis of mentioning any mistake with the food. As someone with food allergies this care and attention is appreciated though and one assumes that this is a response to the high litigation in the US and the ubiquity of digital rating systems for restaurants.

The end of the meal


Once you have eaten your main meal and negotiated about leftovers you will be asked if you want coffee and dessert. If so your table will be cleaned (more bus boys) and new - possibly different - menus will be brought (by your server); otherwise we skip to the negotiation of the bill.

Dessert will be fancy - drizzled with caramels, sauces or nuts and sprinkles - and almost certainly as many calories as the rest of your meal. Some chains are starting to realise that most people are too full to eat another bite after their main dish and started offering "mini selections" of 400 calories or less. It is rare that we would order dessert, I struggle with weight control and the portion sizes make this difficult anyway.


A panna cotta "mini dessert" and coffee at The Olive Garden

If I am really hankering for a dessert I will usually order only an appetizer course with no main or no savoury food at all. My partner has a sweet tooth and a larger stomach though; sometimes he orders dessert or we order it "to go" (ie. Takeaway) and he will eat it at home after a suitable digestion period. The coffee will be pre-Starbucks era American drip filter coffee without exception. Weak, watery and very forgettable, your only choices will be "regular or decaf?" and you will be given cream and sugar / sweeteners without needing to ask. Some chains stock dairy free creamer or soy milk for the lactose intolerant. Coffee is treated as a soft drink, you will be brought refills if you sit for long enough.


The cake display at The Cheesecake Factory

Now finally the eating is over and before you must roll your distended stomach to the parking lot the bill must be navigated. This is another entirely daunting experience as a foreigner.

What you're paying for depends entirely on where you are and how many people are at the table. Some states have sales taxes, some have health care stipends for the staff, some may charge for the boxes or plastic bags you are taking home. Large groups will usually have a flat service charge (ie. tip) included so read carefully. Otherwise the bill you are paying does not include the tip and you must now decide what to pay.


Philosophy on tipping is hotly debated in the US but being clear - service staff are not paid a fair living wage in America and tipping is taxed and considered part of their salary. Forgetting to tip or choosing not to tip is punishing a minimum wage worker who is not responsible for the system. Standard amounts range from 10% to 25% and the choice is left to you as a customer to decide what is fair for the service you received. 15-18% would be considered a normal amount for standard service in California. One of the benefits of a large family restaurant is that they will often include a guide on the bill for how much a 15 - 20% tip would be so that you don't have to do the maths yourself. Rounding up to an even amount (ie paying and odd number like 17% to reach a $20 or $50 multiple) is perfectly acceptable. You can pay the tip and the bill with your credit card, we usually pay the bill on a card and pay the tip in cash. This ensures that the server will receive their tip immediately rather than having to have it processed through the accounting system but does require you to carry small bills. If you receive very poor service and wish to comment on this with your tip leave $1 rather than no tip; this signifies that you have not forgotten the tip but wish to make a statement.

Unlike Australia there is no concern about bill splitting; choosing to pay on multiple credit cards is no problem. In a large group this can be very useful if you wish to split the bill between 4 or more people or if corporate travelers are trying to stay under a per diem. Just tell the server how much of the bill to charge to each card. Once the credit bill is signed or cash is left you may leave this in the payment folder on the table and exit the restaurant.

The Good and Bad of Family Restaurant Eating


At the end of the day these restaurants are popular and common for a reason. They are the ultimate in lowest common denominator eating. Comfortable food, comfortable surroundings and comfortable service are the aim of the game.

Pros:

  • You can guarantee a familiar experience and menu across many locations in many states making it a good choice for travel
  • Close to tourist sites in easy walking or driving distance
  • Unlimited refills on soft drinks are a boon after a hot day walking in the sun or around a convention floor
  • Clean, efficient facilities like bathrooms and car parks are better than waiting in line at conventions or theme parks
  • Low calorie and allergy options abound 
  • Budget friendly food - $20-30 per head ensures an abundant amount 

Cons:

  • Encourages over eating or food wastage
  • Interactions with many unnecessary staff - usually 6+ people involved in delivering your dining experience
  • Typically uses factory farming and food preparation
  • Sometimes no alternative small eateries exist near tourist centres
  • Heavy family attendance and large size restaurants mean these are big and noisy establishments

Choosing the right chain


There are a huge number of these establishments and many can be found around tourist sites so what's my thinking on these?

The Cheesecake Factory - Probably the most familiar and frequently mentioned on TV. They do stock cheesecakes but the main point of this chain is huge diner/bistro meals, huge menus and family eating. Comfort food options like pasta, burgers, sandwiches and small plates are well presented efficiently. Usually this is our go to chain if family eating and I have yet to have a bad experience in one of their restaurants.

Bucca di Beppo - Family style Italian comfort food that is surprisingly good quality. Cheap pastas and salads abound, deep fried Italian American appetizers like mozzarella sticks and fried ravioli are a hit. I go for Classic Italian fare like Saltimbocca or simple pastas. Their store in Anaheim is the best option for dinner when visiting Disneyland or the Anaheim Convention Center.

Olive Garden - Another Italian American chain known for endless salad and good quality classics like spaghetti and meatballs or meat lasagne. Italian style accompaniments like antipasto, red wine and Italian pastries are rotated in a seasonal selection. A more casual affair than Bucca di Beppo.

Chili's - Casual Tex Mex diner food with kid friendly options like tacos, burgers and flatbreads. Free chips and dip, large burritos, fresh fajitas and more make this a great roadside stop on a long drive.

Famous Dave's - Smokehouse BBQ and sticky sauces presented in a beer and ribs family environment. Huge servings of meat and sides like baked beans, grilled corn, cornbread, mac and cheese or fried pickles make this a stick to your ribs affair. Expect paper table cloths and sticky fingers, make sure you've walked off your calories before you go!

BJ's or Gordon Biersch - Only America could take the concept of a  micro brewery and gastro pub and turn it into a mass marketed chain restaurant concept. Honestly though the results aren't bad. Pub friendly comfort food like burgers, pizzas, salads and small plates and 'own brand' beers with seasonal offerings come in a family restaurant efficiency feel. Ask to sit by the bar to enjoy your favourite sports team on large screens while you indulge in beer and wings.

We avoid chains which specialise in seafood such as Red Lobster or Bubba Gump Shrimp company. The same philosophy of cheap large portions ensures that seafood is factory farmed and often shipped from Asian food factories with dubious reputations. We also avoid themed restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe and especially Outback Steakhouse because as Australians the premise is embarrassing.