All the food that fits

While on vacation recently my wife and I were in no mood to search high and low for the best restaurant in Chicago and decided to eat as close to our hotel as possible. The day had been long and the temperature hot…one sign I read said 102 degrees. We’d spent the day visiting a 160-year-old farm that had been created by my wife’s great, great, great Garfield family grandparents, now a working farm/museum, located an hour-and-a-half by train from downtown; we were beat.

At Flat Top Grill, a restaurant one-half block from our hotel on “the loop,” we were confronted by what has to be the most complicated set of dining requirements I have ever encountered; our server, Caitlin, required a full five minutes to explain how to procure dinner.

It begins with a large black plastic bowl, stacked at the end of a long double-sided counter filled with many rows of individual trays of meal ingredients: rice, noodles, chopped vegetables, tofu, various sauces and the like. Once filled, one then selects a small red plastic bowl to make a choice of chopped meats or seafood. The bowls are placed together on another counter, and one selects among eight colored plastic sticks, each representing food preparation choices; stir fry, soup, Mu Shu pancake style, etc. All this was carefully explained by Caitlin, who unfortunately had to yell in order to be heard above the music.

I listened dutifully and arose to follow the instructions, selecting a black bowl. Of course, the first item encountered is starch – noodles and rice. I avoided them and moved to the vegetable section, choosing some of this and some of that. I picked out a coconut curry sauce, and then placed some seafood into the little red bowl. I walked to the cooking counter, and the multi-colored sticks; I picked a stir-fry stick – I think it was red. A cook took my bowls and poured them out on a large square metal grill. Two chunks of seafood fell off the edge of the grill to the floor.

That’s when I noticed the chopped peanuts. They were in a bowl, but I’d never been instructed about the peanuts! I also realized I’d never been told if I should wait and take my food to our table or not. Caitlin happened by, and I asked; she’ll deliver, and yes, “You can wait and then add peanuts.” The whole meal was at a fixed price, no matter which ingredients I selected.

Once seated, the entertainment is watching others negotiate the process. No doubt, highly detailed scientific studies were conducted by the restaurant to determine the profit-based optimum bowl size and placement of each ingredient, the pattern in which people move down a food line rather than jumping around, and the way complexity actually limits the exercise of choices. I watched as each patron took far too much starch and then vainly tried to add veggies to the pile; food tumbling over the edge of a bowl, and the embarrassment it creates, undoubtedly is a factor in the restaurant’s profit calculation. And so it was with the little red bowls; no matter how greedy the diner, physics limits the height of a pile of raw meat. The restaurant could be renamed “Bigger Than Your Stomach” or perhaps “All the Food that Fits.”

As for the meal, it actually tasted pretty good.

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