A food snob moves to the suburbs

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.