Every restaurant experience is different, but how different? What would happen if I went to the same restaurant at the same time and ordered the same dinner seven nights in a row? Would things be shockingly similar? Or wildly different?
To find out, I channeled Bill Murray and embarked on a Groundhog Day-esque experiment at Manhattan's Freemans, where I ate every night for a week, to analyze the food, the people, the atmosphere, everything, to see what was different and what was the same. The goal: to better understand what happens on any given night that can shape a diner's experience.
Fast-forward to Sunday night, after the seventh and final meal. As I left Freemans, I did the same thing I had done on each of the previous nights: I called my wife. Though I had gotten used to eating alone, sitting at a table for one left me yearning for a little conversation.
"Like it?" she asked of my meal. "Dinner was disappointing tonight," I said. A fan of Freemans herself, she was skeptical. "Maybe you've just eaten there too much!" she replied. She was right, but not necessarily for the reasons she probably thought.
On any random night, the spread I had eaten at Freemans would have been fantastic, as its food typically is. The Backlash Sour made from Amaro Nonino, Velvet Falernum, cachaça, lemon and cucumber had a refreshing kick. The Devils on Horseback are hard to mess up: bacon-wrapped prunes stuffed with a creamy blue cheese. The Goffle Road Farms Chicken Breast Confit served with sautéed green beans, tomatoes, olives and dill yogurt would have been a well-prepared contrast of flavors. And though my palate knew what to expect each passing night, by Sunday, my taste buds weren't bored. Instead, I had become hyperaware of every detail of the meal, able to nitpick every tiny difference—like knowing Beethoven so well you can tell when the second oboe is off (assuming Beethoven even uses a second oboe?).
Though my final meal was fine, it had tasted better . . . earlier in the week. In fact, I can regale you with tales of all seven chicken entrées. Friday's was by far the best: It had a delicious roasted flavor, was perfectly tender and expertly seasoned. Saturday's deserves the silver, similar to the day before but, comparatively, lacking in taste and texture. Monday's and Wednesday's were oddly identical—straightforward and slightly tougher—especially when taking into account that Tuesday's was probably the worst, so soft I could practically cut it with a fork, which was actually to its detriment.
Now, I am not a food critic by any means. If anything, I've learned to appreciate food by brute force of dining. And my experience over these seven days was no different. I don't purport to know which meal was truly how the executive chef at Freemans had intended it; I only know what I preferred. But with every passing dinner, I began wondering more about the former. How did Freemans want the chicken to taste? Is there a "right" number of green beans to be served on the side? Does it require a "proper size" dollop of dill yogurt?
But it wasn't just the food. Lack of consistency boiled over into service as well. One night, when I sat at the bar, I was given salt and pepper with my entrée. Another night, at a table for one, my server asked if I'd like the shakers. Outside of those two times, the seasonings never came up. Was the staff supposed to offer me salt? Did one bartender just decide to go rogue? Or is there no standard policy and some servers are just more into S&P than others?
Even the bill fluctuated, even though I'd ordered the exact same things each night. The sales tax was actually higher when I sat at a table, ostensibly because Freemans lumps tax in with drinks at the bar to make charging patrons easier. But despite the items in my meal adding up to an identical $49 every night, my total bill was $1.24 cheaper at the bar.
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Of course, none of this matters. I'm the kind of guy who is going to trust a chef's abilities when it comes to doling out salt. I'm not going to worry about a dollar price difference on a meal that's setting me back over $60. But matter or not, it did alter my experience.
Our culture has decided that cooking is an art form, and in many ways, it is. But it's not like a painting. Instead, dining out is more akin to a play: always the same at the core, but a medium defined by the possibility of differences. During some performances, an actor might unnoticingly botch a line, like the night my five Devils on Horseback didn't arrive stacked in a perfect pyramid. Other performances might be marked by extra gusto, like the night my chicken was delicately placed on a bit too much dill yogurt. Sometimes, we're stuck with an understudy, like the night my Backlash Sour was oddly unavailable. (Turns out, I actually prefer the role of "drink" as played by Freemans Cocktail.)
Much like seeing a string of performances in a row, each night changes your expectation for the next. On Saturday night, my bartender, probably slammed, forgot the cucumber garnish on my Backlash Sour. It's the kind of detail I normally wouldn't give a damn about, but after five previous nights of cucumber, its absence was glaring.
It all speaks to an obvious but overlooked point: At restaurants literally everything is up for grabs. We've become so hung up on Zagat guides and Yelp ratings and Michelin recommendations that we go into a restaurant with certain assumptions, but even though it's entirely possible that a well-oiled machine of chefs, servers and the rest of the staff will execute your ideal preconceived dining experience, it's just as likely you might be hit with the devastating reality that your meal doesn't look exactly how your favorite food blogger Instagrammed it.
Over the course of seven days, I was reminded that things go right and things go wrong. Sometimes one of your favorite songs happens to get played (like when Freemans unexpectedly piped in "The Bomber," by he James Gang). Sometimes the table next you features a precocious little kid giving you the stink eye for eating alone while sporting a giant beard. Many of the variables aren't even in the restaurant's control.
Most importantly, however, I was reminded that dining truly is an experience, and each meal is unique in its own way. Though large fluctuations can be frustrating, smaller differences are just part of the deal. Otherwise, we might as well sit at home swallowing Soylent like we're living in some dystopian future. Then, I'd really have something to complain about.
My wife was right though: I had eaten at Freemans too much. I had eaten there so many nights in a row that I forgot to enjoy it. Without that, why even go out to eat at all?
Or, like my friend, Jeff, said, "The takeaway is that if I want to go to Freemans, I should go on a Friday?" Um, sure, maybe that, too.
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