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What Really Counts When Dining Out

What's all this fuss I hear about the food?

I was thinking of asking Patch if I could write reviews of some of the restaurants here in town, but had second thoughts when I realized one of the main criteria I’d use to rate them would be how much I liked the barstools. I know. Barstool quality isn’t a top-of-mind issue for many New Canaan gourmands, particularly among certain elements of the weekday-lunch set. They care more about what restaurant-review poobahs might call “items of high culinary interest,” like whether the veal’s tender enough or if the waiter pronounced the specials right. I care about that, too, but like to take a broader view. And why not? If you’re one of those people (like moi) who sees dining out as an excuse for sitting at a bar for hours on end watching whatever sport happens to be in season, you understand perfectly well that barstool quality does indeed count as an item of high culinary interest, and should be properly included in any restaurant appraisal that aspires to count itself as thorough. One can’t be too careful. One day last summer I found myself at the wrong place watching a Yankee game that eventually went 17 innings, and had trouble straightening out my legs all the way for the rest of the week.

My bar-stool fixation doesn’t apply everywhere, though. The only ones I really care about are the ones at bars here in town, where I think of several places as de facto extensions of my home and where, by inference, it’s OK for me to grouse about the furnishings. Outside New Canaan, I go with the flow. When the stock market was tanking during the financial crisis a few years back, a bunch of us in my office got into the habit of heading to a nearby saloon after the close each day to calm our nerves and ritually reassure each other that everything was going to be fine. The place was called Muldoon’s, on Third Avenue at East 43rd Street, and the Budweisers there (I’d moved down to domestic beer; there was a crisis on) cost three dollars a pint and came in glasses that were occasionally clean. I wasn’t even aware of Muldoons’ barstools back then--or even much else, now that I think of it. We’ve kept on going to Muldoon’s even since the market has recovered, and now that my unhinged mind has become hinged again, I’ve realized I have no idea why, beyond the cheap beer and opportunity for slumming, people find Irish-style pubs so appealing in the first place. It sure can’t be the food. And that music will eventually drive you nuts.

But beyond my barstool critiques, I’m not sure what else I should pay special attention to as I eat my way around town. The quality of the service? No way! I’ll have to face those people again, and some of them, especially at one Italian place that comes to mind, look to me like they’re not above exacting revenge. The decor? Mrs. Banks will forbid it. (“You can’t say you wish the dining room ‘were a little more man-cave-y’”.) I suppose I could take a stab at providing a detailed appraisal of the actual food, but that would mean stocking up on adjectives like “ambrosial” and “piquant” and then sprinkling them through the piece to create the illusion that I know what I’m talking about. That would never work.

So it will be barstools and then everything else. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll be able to strike the right balance. Here, for instance, is part of an early draft of a review I’ve begun on Gates:

The stools in the bar are in a tan and black faux-tiki weave, with broad seats and firm backs, and are quite sturdy. The armrests sit at just the right height for comfortable lounging, while the stools themselves can easily be climbed out of for the occasional cigarette break or trip to the restroom. Overall, the stools fit with the bar perfectly. My dining companions and I enjoyed ourselves immensely as we whiled away the hours at the bar drinking beer and watching college basketball. I also had a cheeseburger. It was fine.

You see the problem? I don’t think Patricia Brooks is going to have anything to worry about.

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Baffled Resident February 26, 2013 at 12:21 PM
Perhaps you've subconsciously gravitated to Muldoons because it isn't pretentious? I can't recall ever going to a Irish pub where the clientele was judgmental or aloof. There's nothing wrong with occasionally "slumming" it at a decent blue collar type place like CSE.
Glen K Dunbar February 26, 2013 at 12:54 PM
I LOVE Muldoons. I go there all the time. Small world. Each time I go to NY to see my Psychologist I will stop in there for lunch (juice NOT beer). there is also the Blarny Stone just down the road a bit. There use to be an OTB there too before they unfairly shut them down. That really put a crimp in my ever so miserable life.
Conrad Banks February 26, 2013 at 12:59 PM
BR-- Nobody loves slumming more than me! It's the corned beef and cabbage that's hard to take.
Leslie Yager February 26, 2013 at 01:35 PM
I'd like to write a column critiquing restaurant booths – vinyl vs leather, high back vs low enough the 2-year-old behind you to pull your hair. But I'll read your reviews of barstools if you write them, Conrad! If you're not comfortable it doesn't even matter if the food is good, right?
Conrad Banks February 26, 2013 at 01:56 PM
Leslie-- Hair-pulling two-year-olds a problem, no matter what! My initial thought is high and leather beats short and vinyl, but I'll try to conduct some field research to confirm.
Baffled Resident February 26, 2013 at 02:26 PM
Cabbage doesn't bother me, but i absolutely agree with you about corned beef. Just the smell of it is vile.
Glen K Dunbar February 26, 2013 at 02:29 PM
My parents us to have corned beef and cabbage all the time. (Grown ups) I did not hate it. But, I do not really care for it. Blarney Stone has like a who barage buffet now. Years ago it was not as nice a spread as it is now.
Conrad Banks February 26, 2013 at 02:42 PM
BR-- Am not so crazy about the cabbage either now that you mention it. In our house on St Patrick's Day, I like to head to Tequila Mockingbird and have the green salsa. Close enough!
Kendall L Owott February 26, 2013 at 09:59 PM
The S&P 500 looks ready for a correction. When people can afford to focus on minutiae and socioeconomic differentiation, it may be a sign of a market top. I wonder how the regulars at Muldoon's feel about the swells slumming on their turf. Maybe they hold off buying new tools when the broker crowd displaces them at the bar.
Conrad Banks February 26, 2013 at 11:31 PM
Kendall-- The regulars couldn't have been nicer! Near the bottom, they'd just leave us alone and let us stare into our beers and weep.

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