For six years, my job was to convince the public I was cool. Others displayed their coolness through the clothes they wore or the places they tagged themselves on Instagram. The way I showed my cool was through the obscure restaurants I recommended.
In a previous life, I played the part of a restaurant critic. I wrote a cheap eats column in the Chicago Tribune, covering restaurants that would otherwise not receive a prestigious starred review in the newspaper—the mom ‘n’ pop joints, the urban holes-in-the-wall run by immigrant families, the places doing honest food without artifice or publicists.
We food critics are master pissers when it comes to marking our territory. Our fuel is ego, the satisfaction of being the first to discover an under-the-radar restaurant. My job was to be a tastemaker and what was fashionable was the unfamiliar and exotic. In my mind, the inverse was also true: Chain restaurants are derivative cookie cutters harmful to the culinary arts, appealing to suburbanites who won’t consider any dish more adventurous than skinless chicken breast.
So Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Blaze Pizza were non-starters. At the risk of appearing uncool, which would destroy my sugar-glass ego, I’d steer clear of popular chains in favor of the Tamil dosa stand inside the strip mall. It was etched into the Food Critic’s Code: Readers demanded we traffic them to obscure places if we were to have any credibility. So popularity was uncool, and the suburbs were pejorative.
A funny thing happened on my way to adulthood: I moved to the suburbs. And then a funnier thing happened: Four months after leaving the city, I have transformed into the caricature I once mocked.
My name is Kevin Pang, formerly a cool dude, now a suburban dad who enjoys cookie cutter chain restaurants. Who have I become?
Not far from our new house is Maggiano’s Little Italy, a restaurant chain with 50-plus locations across the country. We walked in on a late Saturday morning to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra crooning through the loudspeakers. Because old habits die hard, I defaulted to the food critic’s mindset, which subconsciously recorded impressions in short, messy bursts: As cliche as Epcot Center. Waiter too sunny. So many crying babies. Ugh the salads come with “add salmon for $5” option. I immediately recognized the impulse. It was me gleefully ready to shit all over the place.
No one taught me how to be a food critic, which explained why I thought I was terrible at it. I always thought decisiveness showed confidence and confidence showed authority. My problem was I placed decisiveness within the extremes, and in food criticism that meant glowing praises or epic takedowns. Early in my writing career, I would form a kneejerk opinion within minutes of arriving at the restaurant, and everything thereafter would filter through that initial feeling—either “it’s amazing!” or “it sucks!”—to neatly fit my preconceived narrative.
At Maggiano’s, I was looking to support my confirmation bias that suburban chains are factories pushing out color-by-number dishes. But then I caught myself: I’m no longer a professional critic. It was a gorgeous Saturday, and I was grateful to dine out with my wife and two-year-old son. So why subject myself to the cynicism and ruin a nice thing? My god, it’s just food.
At that moment, the photo negative I viewed suddenly saw its colors invert. The image remained the same but all the dark parts turned bright: Look at the endless bread, olive oil, and parmesan! Mushroom ravioli al forno sounds dee-licious. Ohmigod let’s get the fried calamari!
That $14.25 plate of calamari arrived within five minutes of ordering. Squid: tender. Batter: Both light and exceptionally crispy. Marinara sauces are often too acidic, and this one wasn’t. Verdict: delicious. What it told me was the kitchen had probably cooked 50,000 orders and can nail a perfect plate of fried calamari in their sleep. Cookie cutters may be boring, but they are consistent.
My two-year-old son stuffed fried calamari in his face. His lips were ringed with tomato sauce. He said “more calamari!” in that high-pitched toddler voice that makes parents want to preserve on video and watch 20 times a day. Witnessing his first calamari experience was so damned delightful.
“When you’re eating out with kids, you go for the thing that’s going to be the least painful.”
That’s Brett Anderson, longtime restaurant critic at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and sympathetic sounding board for advice. We both became dads around the same time, and discovered fatherhood changed our relationship with food in meaningful, unexpected ways.
The biggest shift was in our frequency of dining out, which was cut in half after our sons were born. The flipside was we both began cooking at home way more. At least for myself, someone who was used to seeking out novelty, it made me come to appreciate the classics. There was power in a chicken roasted simply with salt, pepper, olive oil, and magic when you can get cacio e pepe just right.
“I don’t know if it’s age and a rejection of the newness that’s attached to youth,” Brett said when I called him after my Maggiano’s revelation, “but with each passing year I feel a greater appreciation of restaurants with menus that haven’t changed since 1982.”
The calculus of dining out changes when young children are involved. Proximity leaps to the top of the criteria, and Daddy McSuburbs ain’t driving the Honda CR-V to the farm-to-table sub shop downtown. Next on the list of considerations: how quickly can a restaurant get food out? My average time-spent-at-lunch has fallen drastically to under 30 minutes. Parents don’t see this as a rush; we call it efficiency.
When you’re frequenting a restaurant with a young family, I don’t want to suggest quality of food falls by the wayside. But dining out is such a communal act anyway, and the satisfaction of your child trumps all (satisfaction = will eat + won’t cause a scene). If the boy is happy, ergo his parents are happy, and lunch is viewed as a success.
But the thing I wanted to find out most from Brett was whether his taste in food changed when he became a parent. It didn’t, he said. All it did was widen perspectives and grow that ever-growing tally of life experiences. The person blown away by the interplay of matsutake mushroom and gingko nut in the ginseng tea, he’s still in there, only now he’s got the balls to admit out loud the fried calamari at the suburban chain is delicious.
Apropos of something: Last month, my wife was rushed to the hospital to undergo emergency surgery. She’s fine now, but at the moment it sucked. The hospital is not a place for toddlers to pass the time, so all day, I shuttled our boy from bookshop to park to toy store as I clung onto my phone for updates. Sometimes, a day spent with a toddler is a game of running out the clock.
Lunch time came around and nothing was in the fridge. The supermarket wasn’t an option that day. The closest restaurant to us was a Panda Express, so the boy and I headed there. Within three minutes of arriving, the boy was seated on my lap and we were eating chow mein and orange chicken together. We snapped a selfie and sent the photo to my wife, who was about to go under. On that day, every little bit helped.
Then Brett said something that never crossed my mind.
This was who we are. We were both products of the suburbs; he’s from 20 minutes outside Minneapolis, I’m from 20 minutes outside Seattle. We both escaped to the big city—he to Washington, D.C., I to Chicago—when we were barely adults. Those formative years revealed a world of riches, with rock clubs and improv theaters and restaurants serving dishes we couldn’t pronounce. It all felt so very cool, and immersing myself in that culture, I almost believed I was cool myself.
“Part of my taste as a restaurant critic isn’t a rejection of the suburbs, but an embrace of urban America,” Brett said.
Throughout my 20s, I embraced every jibarito, South Side Chicago-style rib tips, and bowl of bun bo Hue I encountered. I resisted moving to the suburbs for fear of losing those experiences. I didn’t. It’s now just a 20-minute drive farther away. The cliches I dreaded—the static menus, the seafood restaurants with the cartoon crab on the plastic bib, the never-ending breadsticks—those aren’t new experiences I’m encountering. Those memory laid dormant for years, because I used to love them, and my ego told me I shouldn’t. But I still do.
“The pleasures of dining is where you find them,” Brett said. “If you’re starting to find yourself attracted to what Maggiano’s has to offer, I say who gives a shit?”