Sometimes I let my optimism get the best of me. This past weekend was one of those occasions, when Amanda and I – having seen signs for some time touting all fresh and local ingredients and basically a whole re-vamp of the restaurant – decided to go to lunch at the Silver Diner to see what it was all about.
The Silver Diner is a small chain diner with about three or four different locations in the DC area. It’s really not much to speak of, the sort of place that you might go because it’s still open at 2am, but there are likely few other reasons you’d find yourself there.
So it was with a certain degree of skepticism that we started noticing signs going up around all their restaurants advertising fresh and local ingredients and a new menu – “The Next Generation Diner” was their new tagline. Eventually we had to go and see what it was all about.
Admittedly, the menu got me a little excited. At first, anyway. There was a brief explanation of their new philosophy emphasizing sustainable agriculture, and a list of the specific local farms they are purchasing their produce and dairy from.
There was a blackboard by the hostess station listing out particular ingredients that were available now and where they came from. Marketing materials and flyers abounded, they were really pushing this thing.
So I asked our waiter about the Chesapeake crab and corn chowder on the menu, wondering if the corn from the chowder was indeed local and came from somewhere on the eastern shore. He had no idea what I was talking about. Eventually, he responded, “local, yes, local, all local, everything local.” I wasn’t buying it, but I ordered the chowder anyway.
After further inspection of the menu, without assistance from any of the not-so-helpful employees, I ascertained that the local thing really only seems to apply to a very limited section of the menu – the seasonal chef’s selections (well, that, and wherever else it easily fits in – eggs, milk, local beer and wine).
So there were basically three choices of seasonal entrees. A soft-shell crab entree or sandwich, and a mahi-mahi entree or sandwich. And a Greek salad. I went with the mahi-mahi sandwich, but they were out of mahi-mahi. So it was the crab for me.
By this point, starting to get a little frustrated.
And then the food started arriving, and I remembered I was still just at the Silver Diner. I had to send back a milkshake that had a huge gag-worthy hair garnishing the cherry on top, and my “local, seasonal chef’s choice entree” (the soft-shell Chesapeake Bay crab sandwich with local tomato and lettuce) was inedible. Perhaps it’s true that the produce comes from a local farm, perhaps it’s even true that farm practices sustainable agriculture, but when you wait a week or more to serve that produce you’re just completely missing the point.
Local? Maybe. Fresh? Absolutely not.
And of course the elephant in the room, as usual, is the meat products. Silver Diner advertises “all-natural” (which means nothing) and “hormone-free” meats, but they say nothing of the source or the methods used in raising those animals. This seems to be typical of a lot of places that are adopting the “farm-to-table” badge, they start buying a handful of products from a local purveyor – sustainable or not, cause most people won’t bother to ask – and act as if they are now the new revolutionary choice in dining. But they don’t commit to the most important choices, the ones that might actually take some thought and effort – buying local and sustainably raised meats, paying your chefs enough to care, and paying your waitstaff enough to understand the product they are hawking. Silver Diner is a relatively cheap place, to be sure, but it’s not so cheap that this should be impossible. We paid similar prices at the Woodberry Kitchen, and there was a world of difference between the two experiences.
So unfortunately this all brings me to a most foul conclusion, but what I suspect was always an inevitable one. The “movement” towards a better food system – which I readily admit is a pretty vague and nebulous thing, likely defined differently by anyone who is a part of it – has for some time now reached the point where it is popular enough that restaurants are taking advantage of the trend in order to bring in new customers. Surely, Whole Foods can be accused of having practiced similar duplicity for quite awhile, but at least with Whole Foods there’s still a tangible quality there that’s arguably worth the price. But I can’t help but think sad trombone every time something like this happens. Silver Diner is certainly not the only offending restaurant, either.
The trouble with this kind of marketing, really, is the fact that it probably works pretty well. There’s a pervasive attitude in our culture which is constantly looking for a quick fix, an easy way to do right and feel better about myself without *really* putting any significant time, effort, or money into it. It’s the same attitude, I believe, which has driven us so deep into the hands of the fast food industry – lots of food, real cheap, zero effort. But the whole impetus behind the food movement is the complete and polar opposite of exactly that attitude. To use “local” as a label and have it simply mean “better” to you is a mistake. You have to dig deeper, you have to ask questions, and you have to actually spend some time learning about your food and selectively choosing who deserves your hard earned money. Do you want to pay money simply to see that word before your food, as in the instance of the Silver Diner? Or do you want to spend your money somewhere that may not be hyping their food up through a slick marketing campaign but who you know is practicing sustainable agriculture and who you can rely on to provide consistently good product for you and your loved ones?
Though this recent op-ed piece in the NY Times largely misses the point of eating local, it does a good job of illustrating why it’s important to do more than just look for labels to wear as a badge like a name-tag at a cocktail party. Just because your food is local, doesn’t mean it was sustainably raised, it doesn’t mean it may not have a significantly larger output on the environment than something that may have been shipped in from an entirely different continent. It’s just not that clear-cut of an issue. Dig deeper.
I shared an article on my Facebook page last week that I want to post here, as well. It’s from Grist and called Do You Really Have the Balls to Change the Food System? While I’m not entirely on board with the attitude the author of the article has taken, there are a lot of really great suggestions made which I think would never occur to a lot of people. I know there are at least a couple of restaurant chefs and executives who could benefit from reading such a piece – I think there’s a great analogy between the weekend foodie as described in the Grist article and a restaurant like the Silver Diner. If I were to give them the benefit of the doubt, then maybe – MAYBE – their heart is in the right place. But they are doing it all wrong.