So if you can't make them go away altogether, how's this for a compromise? For everybody out there on the chain gang -- from the chairman of the board at Brinker International, which owns Maggiano's, to the lowliest Olive Garden line cook -- I wish a copy of the Il Fornaio Pasta Book planted under their tree. Il Fornaio (see review) is a chain, too, but somehow it does fine work while still turning a profit, crushing the competition, running local restaurants out of business and doing all those other things that the interstate mega-food conglomerates promise their investors. Filled with recipes from Il Fornaio's chef-partners' menus, it shows what a chain eatery is capable of when the company respects the ideal of having a real chef in the kitchen. Proletarian dining doesn't have to be all Riblets and fried cheese, Santa. Sometimes it can be fresh bread and involtini di melanzane, too.
2) Less valet service and more plain parking. Why? Because if I had a nice car (which I don't), I wouldn't want some pimply nineteen-year-old red-jacket climbing in and getting his goat stink all over the upholstery, and if I had a crappy car (which I do), I don't want that same nineteen-year-old laughing at me behind my back for driving a car all cluttered with Gourmet back issues and review copies of Bobby Flay's Boy Meets Grill around on a doughnut spare. Sneak one of your elves onto the planning board and Kris Kringle us a couple of new downtown parking garages.
3) No more fusion, no more New American, and no more labels in general, okay? No more Indo-Bulgarian comfort food. No more truffled french fries or inside-out deconstructionist ravioli. Santa, send the foodies who thrive on this kind of obsessive naming and categorization a gift certificate to Mirepoix, so they can see how an artistic grilled cheese sandwich and a perfect asparagus-and-prosciutto napoleon can exist on the same menu without igniting some kind of culinary race war over how to label the cuisine and which ethnic tradition inspired the chef. Good food is good food, and that should be label enough.
And while you're at it, how about an understanding that presumed eco-friendliness (like wind-powered kitchens and biodiesel fryer oil and beef carved only from cows that volunteer to go to the slaughterhouse) does not equal fine cuisine? They're not automatically mutually inclusive concepts, and if the steak or cheeseburger is good enough (like the double-meat, double-cheese burger at Bud's Bar in Sedalia or the dry-aged T-bones at the Capital Grille), I don't care if Bessie the Cow was put down with a nail gun. Just pass the salt and shut up about it. I'm all for hormone-free meats and artisan cheeses and local produce, but only when all that goodness actually tastes better than the stuff the place next door is getting off the back of the delivery truck. In short, Santa, how 'bout making reservations for the guys at The Kitchen in Boulder to have dinner at Sunflower, just down the street? You never know -- they might learn a thing or two.
Oh, yeah, and for all those restaurant owners still crowing about their twenty-dollar-an-ounce Kobe beef? Send them EACH a case of grass-fed American prime strip steaks straight from the Kansas City stockyards and let them taste the error of their ways. If money is a problem, bill it to the people over at Esquire.
4) It's time to get back to the basics. Sure, give my brothers and sisters in white spice racks for Christmas -- but make sure those racks have space enough for only five or six bottles of fresh herbs, so that cooks will be forced to choose between having simple cracked black pepper available or putting lemongrass in everything; between having a good-quality nutmeg close at hand or trading it out so they can smear Chinese five-spice powder over a leg of duck confit. Trust me on this, big man. By taking away their bottles of curry and special Black Sea salt and huitlacoche corn smut -- or at least making them choose between one of those and, say, fresh thyme -- you'll be doing both them and the dining public a great service.
All Chinese restaurants should serve free fortune cookies at the end of the meal. No more of this savory sorbet or, worse, charging me to learn that I am a very talented, creative man. I already knew that, and the only cookie I want reinforcing my egotism is one I get for free. At Mexican restaurants, the chips and salsa should be free, too, and all bars should go back to putting little paper umbrellas in their rum drinks, because that's the kind of kitsch I like. Also, if a restaurant is going to serve ceviche (and I'm talking specifically about Zengo here), that ceviche should come with chips, not chopsticks, and include corn nuts -- because otherwise, it's not really ceviche, is it? No, it's fish in lime juice. So, Santa, how about giving Richard Sandoval (owner of Zengo and a New Yorker, to boot) the address of one of those really good Argentine storefront joints in Brooklyn, where they serve the stuff in paper cups to all the cabbies?