I'm trying to go out to eat less and less. Unless it's a nice restaurant whose food I want to experience, the only reason I go out to eat anymore is to be with company. At home I can cook my food, the way I want it, and have it be just as good, healthier, and much less expensive than anything I can get at Corner Bakery Cafe. I've been appreciating these restaurants less and less as my culinary repertoire and my interest in procuring a quality (farm fresh, local, sustainable) product grow. An Independence day-weekend trip down to the Jersey shore however, has changed my mind, at least somewhat.
I pulled into Ventnor after a long trip down the Atlantic City expressway (that's right I drove myself!) and as I drove down Ventnor Ave, I couldn't suppress a grin. I love the feel of the place, the air, the breeze, the seawater stench. I pulled up to a red light and the passenger in the car to my left looked at me awkwardly as I sat there oddly smiling to myself. Perhaps what I most admire about the town, and most of the others around Ventnor (obviously not Atlantic City) is that they're largely untainted. They're free of the ruthlessness of big business and they're unique. The pace of life feels slow and relaxed, and though I tend to get antsy when I'm not doing something productive (productive in my mind that is) I'm perfectly content staring at the water, admiring the peacefulness for hours on end, thinking about how the tide mirrors life; highs and lows come and go, and really, the only constant is change. Though they're all little towns along the Jersey coast, Margate, Ventnor, Ocean City, etc are hardly uniform, and each one has its own gems.
These gems include some of the local eateries which garner much praise from summer residents. Uncle Bills Pancake House is one of such places. It's main colors (blue and white) immediately remind me of Ihop, but the feel of the place, the ambiance, the service, has the complete opposite effect. I've said that lunch at Per Se is more experience than dinner, and I think that breakfast at Uncle Bills (a very small chain with a few places in South Jersey) is an experience in its own right. It's just plain fun to eat at Uncle Bills. If I could say the same for my local Ihop, I'd be going out to breakfast a lot more often.
My experience at Uncle Bills was not unlike my experience at other restaurants down the shore. To eat at these restaurants for me, feels like eating a big chunk of Americana. The business, the atmosphere, the style, almost makes me feel connected to generations before my own. The food at these places on the other hand, most definitely does not deserve the rave reviews it receives. I found that an omelet at a breakfast place known for their omelets was no better or worse than what I can get at similar stores places back home, and I guarantee that anyone reading this can take this recipe , throw a glob of butter on top, and have pancakes just as good, if not better than Uncle Bills'. The challenge is creating a home kitchen with the same charm, the same vibe, the same nostalgia that Uncle Bills provides.
Thinking of myself as a very objective investigative reporter on the matter, a sudden realization that I myself am not immune to this effect shocked me. As a child I always went to Ocean City, and I have my fair share of places that I regard as "the best." After not having gone there in a few years, I retried a few places that I regarded as heavenly. The fudge from one such place really was just ok and the ice cream from another was average, but eating them on the boardwalk with friends and the ocean, and the breeze made them more than worthwhile.
In the end maybe it just comes down to the fact that these places are down the shore, but the larger point remains. Food is often looked at as the most important element in a successful restaurant, and I don't disagree with this, however I don't doubt that the other elements necessary for a successful restaurant can "team up" and push the food to the back burner, or maybe just off the power burner. Great nostalgia, atmosphere, and service, working in tandem would have me eating out a lot more, even if the food stayed the same, which really is quite a basic idea that probably didn't deserve such a long post. But hey, what's wrong with a little experiment in sociology to back up a basic concept? Oh and by the way, Uncle Bill's definitely has the cutest waitresses ;)