Days of Chicken a la King dethroned

Our server at the Ciao Down Cafe has just placed a little, shallow dish of olive oil and a basket of different types of bread on our table. We’re supposed to dip our bread in the olive oil because if there’s one thing everyone needs right before dinner, it’s some nice oily bread. We would never eat oily bread before dinner at home or tell the kids they can’t eat dinner until they finish their oily bread, but restaurants seem to think we want it.

The real reason they serve it is so that you’ll have something to do with your hands before the real food arrives – a good idea when you’ve got a bunch of bored people sitting around a knife-festooned table drinking the local vino.

The bread is free, of course, which means it’s not free at all; it means they’re charging you more for something else. Why not? If you’ll pay $11 for the handmade squash ravioli, you’ll probably pay $12 without much squawking. I can usually tell how expensive a restaurant is by how many “free” things they offer:

• A tablecloth: + $3

• A paper tablecloth: + $5

• A candle on the table: + $1

• A flower on the table: + $1

• A menu on the table: + $2

• Lots of children’s seats: + $5

• Servers wear T-shirts with logo: + $1

• Servers wear black pants, white cotton shirts, skinny black ties: + $6

• If the restaurant is on a pier or docked boat: + $3

• If that boat plans of moving: + $10

• Visible kitchen: - $4

• In a tourist city in season: + $8

• If the restaurant is on top of a skyscraper: + $15

• If it’s on top of a skyscraper and it revolves: + $25

So as you can see, I know my restaurants. I’m just sorry I didn’t eat more oily bread before the food arrived. I got three raviolis in the center of a gigantic white-stoneware plate (add $1) with a sprig of rosemary over it (add $1). It looked like a painting (add $1), a real work of art. And it was about as filling as eating a small Picasso, though I’m sure they tasted much better.

I still haven’t figured out how trends like dipping bread in olive oil start. One day, no restaurants served olive oil with bread, the next day, it comes with your grilled cheese at the lunch counter at Walgreen’s, and McDonald’s is trying to figure out a way to turn it into a breakfast sandwich.

Who knew food could be so trendy? What happened to all that stuff we used to eat in the ‘50s? Chicken a la king used to be one of the fanciest things you could eat. Now, you couldn’t serve it in prison without being accused of cruel and unusual punishment. Lobster Newburg, tuna casseroles, ring-mold salads? In one year and out the other.

And when did we start blackening everything? When did we stop blackening everything? My grocery store now has an entire section devoted to peppercorns and salt. There is mustard from every country in the world.

Forty years ago, the most fashionable order in the most fashionable place in town was a large wedge of iceberg lettuce dripping with blue cheese dressing. It screamed sophistication and class. Then it was a starter, now it would be the meal.

The lettuce wedge would be followed by the Surf and Turf, (add $5) or maybe just the Prime Rib. And for dessert, she’ll have the Crepe Suzette flambe, and I’ll take the Floating Island.

That kind of food (and ordering for the woman) has gone the way of Nehru jackets and Princess phones, replaced by California rolls with chipotle and paninis. The lettuce wedge was replaced by the radicchio decade, followed by the arugula decade and now mixed baby green decade. What’s next? Well, I already know. Iceberg lettuce wedge smothered in blue cheese dressing is making a comeback. I know because it came “free” with my three raviolis.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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