Not long ago, the hardest decision you had to make when you went out for dinner was whether to have the steak medium or medium rare. If you wanted fish, you could get either the filet of sole or something more expensive – the filet de sole.
No more. These days, after hoisting the phone-book-sized menu, the waiter interrupts your reading with, “I have a few specials to tell you about.” He then takes a deep breath, and begins, “We are offering 20 delectable appetizers, 15 award-winning entrees, and 16 tasty ways to cook a potato. And if you glance to your right, the six-tier wagon being pulled by that ox contains half our famed desserts.”
By this point, like the ox, I’m exhausted. I have a tough enough time selecting blue or beige socks let alone choosing among 14 species of fish, half of which have been discovered in the past six months.
Recently, I was in Denver, where I avoided dining at a restaurant that offered 37 different sauces to go with the meat entree. The way I look at it, if the chef can’t decide whether black pepper aioli or smoked habanero salsa goes with my steak (sirloin, filet, hanger, skirt, flat iron, porterhouse, T-bone, tenderloin, flank, rib eye), why should I?
Maybe being given all these choices is a reaction to our formative years, when we were offered zero dining options. “You don’t like oatmeal? Tough.” (When I asked my wife, who spent her youth in chilly English boarding schools, what she did when she didn’t like a lunch of minced beef parts and overly boiled cabbage, she looked at me as if I were mad. “We ate it, of course. And asked for seconds.”)
After our choiceless childhoods, we are now confronted by mile-long buffet tables groaning under the weight of 28 different pasta salads. All of which is why, I’m convinced, we end up not really choosing. It’s the reason we keep the same grocery list week to week. And it is undoubtedly the cause of the success of the West Coast fast-food chain, In-N-Out Burger, which gives its customers a choice of one sandwich, hamburger, and one kind of potato, french fries.
A number of years ago, my father went to a restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and ordered duck. The waiter nodded and started to leave. My father stopped him, “Excuse me, but what kind of sauce goes with the duck?” The waiter shrugged, “It’s a duck.”
My father, invariably polite, smiled. “Yes, but is there an orange sauce, perhaps a glaze, maybe a savory....” The waiter interrupted, “It’s a duck. The cook sticks it under the broiler, takes it out and puts it on a plate. And it’s still a duck. You want it?” My father nodded. He wanted it. So do I.