While the Gulf Coast is a region comprised of similar-not-same cultures, we are experiencing, like the rest of the country, the appearance of same-thing-same-result dining.
I think we are doing a better job of raging against “the same,” but you have seen it and maybe it has not bothered you. That does not make it right.
Here’s the deal: large multi-national corporations involved with bringing you food and drinks can effect better economies of scale by larger productions of products, which results in lower unit costs. When the prices are lower, then everyone jumps on the bandwagon and serves the same things at about the same costs.
I mention this because regionality, particularly when it comes to such a unique place as the Gulf Coast, has largely taken a back seat to mediocrity and mass distribution. But we are not fully going down that path and we are committed to our foods and our beverages as much as is reasonable.
The best food being served in our region is still being served in the home. Cooking around here has always been a family affair, with Mom and Dad passing on the recipes and the techniques to tasty results. Succeeding generations follow the tried and true but insert just a little new twist, improving what has come before.
Let’s start with a food discussion. Who else anywhere has the ability to access such a vast array of fish than the Gulf Coast does? There are fish with names that amaze our visitors: pompano, flounder, redfish, grouper, crayfish, oysters, ling, just to mention a few. Even our trout is different from trout in other places. Little secret: it’s better.
Yet, we are seeing on just about every menu throughout the region scallops and salmon. These are not fish from around here. They are good, but they are not ours. However, here’s the key: our chefs do their own thing with these imported and delicious species.
Because our Gulf Coast chefs know their way around fish so well, they are ready to add exciting new elements, like sauces, spices and herbs, to fish that are not even from these parts. And the menus that could be the same from one restaurant to another now take on unique characteristics, enhanced and defined by our talented chefs.
In these cases, you can visit just about any restaurant along the Gulf Coast and see the same basic foods, but the flavors of those common foods will be different from one fine restaurant to another. That’s true kitchen magic.
When it comes to beverages, it’s pretty much the same thing, only different.
Many diners like to order their favorite cocktail. And they know how they like it. A Cosmo or a Gin and Tonic from one place to another is about the same. And that’s the way we want it. When we as consumers hit on the right combination of cocktail ingredients, then we want the drink prepared precisely that way.
On wine, we are a little more accepting of a broader range of smells and tastes. Many folks have a favorite grape and a favorite label. But wines from the neighborhood, coming from the same area using the grape we prefer are usually acceptable. That is an important consideration when it comes to the maddening array of wines available from all over the world.
There is a very real possibility that the restaurant won’t have the wine that we have tabbed as our favorite. We have to look around to see “what else is going to please me?”
Yet, there are many labels in the wine world that are well-available everywhere and there are grape styles that are everywhere, too.
Take grapes like Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay. If these are among your favorites, or at least you find them acceptable in a restaurant setting, then usually whatever is on the wine list using these grapes will suffice just fine. Most wines made from these grapes exhibit similar styles.
As for the labels, if you are fan of certain wines that are in widespread distribution, then you are in luck at the wine store or in most restaurants. Some of the most popular wines that appear on just about every restaurant wine list in America are:
Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, Vintner’s Reserve – the most popular restaurant wine in America
Cavit Pinot Grigio, Italy
Beringer White Zinfandel
Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, Italy
Franzia Chardonnay Vintner Select
Of the top 20 wine labels that appear on most restaurant wine lists in America, 17 are white wine varietals. The list can also be skewed quite a bit because these wines usually have a very aggressive by-the-glass marketing program, offering special pricing to restaurants that place the wines on a single glass sales effort.
Incidentally, by-the-glass wine programs are gaining quite a bit in popularity for obvious reasons. It allows the customer to enjoy a sampling of several different wines without having to be concerned about finishing a bottle. The downside is that many restaurants do not keep their open bottles of wine in good order, and so the wine served by the glass is not as fresh or pleasant as the vintner intended.
The reason for choosing a particular restaurant is to enjoy all that it offers, from the people who work there to the surroundings to the cuisine and the range of dishes to the beverages.
If all restaurants were the same, then our dining choices would be simple, let’s just go to the closest place.
However along the Gulf Coast, even though the ingredients are pretty much the same, the preparations are always surprising and different from one establishment to another.
It’s why we love to eat our cuisines, and when we travel to other places, we do miss that about not being home.