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May 2001 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

You Are What You Eat
By Brian H. Marston

Every year, the results of the RFT's restaurant poll make me mad. This year was no exception.

Consider these first-place winners:

Best Appetizers: T.G.I. Friday's
Best Buffet: Old Country Buffet
Best Coffee: Starbucks
Best French Fries: McDonald's
Best French Toast: IHOP
Best Garlic Bread, Italian Cuisine (Popular), Pasta, Salads and Toasted Ravioli: Pasta House Co.
Best Late-Night Food: White Castle
Best Milkshakes and Upscale Fast Food: Steak 'n Shake
Best Pizza (Thick Crust): Pizza Hut
Best Seafood (Popular): Red Lobster
target of my ire

Large chain restaurants are liberally sprinkled throughout the top ten vote getters in almost every category. Their prevalence is especially appalling given St. Louis' abundance of great, one-of-a-kind restaurants and the fact that the voters in this poll were readers of our town's so-called alt weekly.

The RFT polls offer the little guy a chance to get some play and compete with giant corporations that spend millions of dollars on aggressive marketing. No one needs to pick up a copy of the RFT to discover McDonald's. The "My McDonald's" advertising campaign would be laughable if it weren't so insidious. McDonald's stores are not so much restaurants as they are distribution centers for chemically-engineered food products. Its hard to believe that a company that has served billions of customers and become a global titan through strict enforcement of one-size-fits-all industrial standardization would have the gall to claim to be "My McDonald's," as though it has some sort of personal connection with me. Equally insulting are Applebee's claim to be my "neighborhood grill and bar" and Panera Bread's insistence that its dozens of St. Louis Bread Co. locations are "neighborhood bakery-cafés."

Yet lots of people are apparently buying these corporate slogans and loyally casting their votes accordingly. They're not just willing to passively tolerate big chains; they're actively promoting them.

A restaurant poll may seem like a rather insignificant thing to get bent out of shape about given all the other deserving targets of ire, but the RFT survey is emblematic of a larger civic identity crisis. Food is an important part of how most communities define themselves. So what does the RFT poll say about St. Louis?

A visitor who picked up a copy of the RFT could understandably conclude that St. Louisans are a bunch of conservative conformists, content to wrap themselves in a cocoon of the familiar because they're too afraid to try something new. A meal from one of the embarrassingly prosaic chains featured in the RFT poll may not be particularly good, but hey, at least you know what to expect.

Fast Food Nation

Of course, such a thumbnail psychological sketch of the average St. Louisan is not entirely fair. The fast-food mindset and the values it embodies are hardly unique to St. Louis. It's now possible for an American to live his entire life without ever patronizing an independent, owner-operated business. As Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation, "The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today's retail economy, wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating code."

Ironically, a culture that prides itself on rugged individualism has been willing to sell out to the twin gods of mass marketing and mass consumption to save a modicum of money and time. The relentless drive for cheap, convenient goods has destroyed the character of our communities and created disposable suburban landscapes that are indistinguishable from one another. In addition to bland homogeneity, fast food restaurants also serve up lots of crappy, low-paying McJobs and ugly buildings.

One way to counteract some of the trends reflected by the RFT restaurant poll is to give independent restaurants a fairer shot by dividing the number of votes a restaurant receives by the number of locations it operates in the St. Louis area. A better way would be for more people to vote with their dollars and support the unique establishments that help give St. Louis its character. Get out there and celebrate your favorite non-chain eateries. While you're at it, take a risk and try a place you've never been before; you just might find a new favorite.

Bon appetit!

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