When a “just okay” restaurant is more than enough

Gif: Libby McGuire
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The range of restaurants is amazing. They can be once-in-a-lifetime dining experiences worth planning an entire trip around. Or they can be a local spot that’s essential to the fabric of your life: that one place you always hit up for brunch, your standard place for pizza, the one you go to when you want a quiet night out with your sweetie. Then there’s the non-decision decision restaurant, the one you pick when you don’t have the bandwidth to do more than point at your gaping maw and indicate a desire to put something in it to address your baseline need for calories.

These are often not the places you recommend to visitors or friends. Strangely enough, the places you most send others when asked for suggestions—the establishments with the extra-delicious food, wonderful service, and craft cocktails—are often places you don’t necessarily frequent with any regularity.

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And if you look at your list of the places you actually spend your dining dollars on the regular, how many of them have food that is, for lack of a better phrase, just okay? While I love great restaurants, I have a soft spot in my heart for the just-okay restaurant. The one that is fine, the one that is good enough. It’s not exceptional, not extraordinary, just consistently not bad.

There have been many such places in my life. When I was a teenager, there was a diner a block from my urban high school with a vast menu and not a single standout dish. Since the school was open campus for both study hall and lunch, my friends and I spent nearly as many hours there as we did in class, going during morning study hall for coffee and maybe a sad toasted bagel that was never hot enough and always just this side of stale, and then again for a lunch of soggy fries and gray burgers or indifferent grilled cheese sandwiches.

There was a place I frequented throughout my college years that served a roasted chicken dinner for $8.95. A small salad and cup of soup was included, as was a choice of potato, vegetable of the day, a cup of coffee or soft drink, and either rice pudding or Jell-O with whipped topping. A group of us would order one and share it: One person would get the salad and the drumstick, another the soup and accompanying cracker basket, someone else would get the thigh and veggies, a fourth the baked potato, and the last person the dessert. A table of five or six would order one dinner and take up a table for three hours and no one said boo. The chicken was always dry, the potato invariably slightly al dente in the middle, the salty soup dotted with noodles so mushy a breath would disintegrate them, the salad overdressed. We loved it. The waitresses called us “hon” and flirted with the guys and then rolled their eyes over the guys’ heads at the girls, and for all of our cheapness on buying food, we tried as much as possible to overtip.

There was a place in Chicago that in its heyday was consistently packed with the most unselfconsciously diverse crowd. There seemed to be no pattern to the guests: They were of all races, ages, social strata. The food was mostly terrible. The menu had a lot of vegetarian options. They were uniformly mediocre. The cornbread was so dry that no amount of butter or honey could salvage it. For dessert, there was a spectacularly weepy and rubbery lemon meringue pie. A part of my heart died when it closed last winter.

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Whether it is a place of nostalgia for the food of your youth or early adulthood, or the place you go weekly because of geographic convenience, there is something to be celebrated in these palaces of the pedestrian. They tend to be mom-and-pop shops. Service might be somewhat awkward or even occasionally incompetent but is never indifferent. The food might not be destination dining, but it is perhaps the best the cook can do.. I’ve had Michelin-starred meals that were so soulless that they made me want to stop at a place like this on the way home, not because I was hungry, but because I wasn’t fundamentally satisfied. The just-okay restaurant will fill your belly for a price that doesn’t break the bank, and when the hosts and servers thank you for coming you know that they mean it, which fills you up in a totally different way.

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