The Take-Out

In defense of restaurant chains

The Take-Out

I should probably cede that I have lost all sense of perspective when the presence of a quartered green strawberry on my plate causes visible irritation. It's not that I think that 2013's fruit MVP doesn't still have utility – they are perfectly delicious with a wide range of foods from leafy salads to duck confit – it's just that their ubiquity on current Austin menus has made them, well, tedious. I feel very fortunate to be able to regularly eat the best food that this city has to offer. But of late, the sameness of Austin's menus had driven me to get my kicks from something much more illicit.

It probably started with Popeyes chicken, a semi-occasional indulgence that I would steadfastly defend as simply being good, whatever food snobs might think of it. But then my chain-mania slowly progressed to McDonald's breakfast biscuits and Wendy's fries. One of my most enjoyable meals of last month included Southwestern egg rolls. A couple of nights ago at Juniper's pastry chef takeover, everyone at the table happily devoured Kirsten Bellah's transcendent tangerine dessert and Zach Hunter's absurdly decadent hasselback sweet potato, while talking about how maybe it's not such a bad idea to go to Red Lobster.

Beyoncé's "Formation" was, of course, the starting point of that conversation and probably thousands of conversations like it (it was widely reported that Red Lobster's sales rose by 33% following the release of the song). Not to minimize Queen B's considerable clout, but she only gave us all permission. After more than a decade of pop culture telling us we all had to stock our pantries with single estate, cold-pressed olive oils, it's a thrilling transgression to eat a Cheddar Bay biscuit.

The foodie revolution made a greater variety of food more readily available, and brought to light conversations about ethics and sustainability. Both are very good things. But our national obsession with food also brought with it a lot of insufferable yap – from a diet industry that substitutes food for religion to an entertainment industry that succeeded in taking the experience of taste out of the equation altogether.

Chains may have lost capital in the last decade or so, but they were where most of us learned that food could be special. When I planned my first dinner party at age 16, I cooked an approximation of an Olive Garden special, not the homestyle meat and sides that I grew up on. Even now, the unlimited breadsticks feel like bounty. It was probably my first taste of luxury.

I don't really want to do away with green strawberries. I realize that I am lucky to be in a position where I can even opine on them. But maybe my current hunger for chains is a desire to move beyond eating for status. Much like in the early Aughts when we collectively decided that it was OK to listen to pop, maybe it's time we dropped the pretense that food can prove superiority. Beyoncé had a hand in that musical revolution. Here's hoping she has her hand in a new one.

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Kirsten Bellah, Juniper, Beyoncé, Zach Hunter, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Popeyes

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