Asian Flavors vs. Happy Meals

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Ling & Louie’s is a place aimed squarely at families, at young, quote-unquote adventurous eaters with a taste for Asian flavors who want something better than Happy Meals and cheeseburgers when they go out to eat. A restaurant with a kids menu and a liquor license? I’ve got to think that’s a mighty comfort to couples unwilling to give up their dining habits once the offspring start arriving. There are cloth napkins and comfortable booths. The dining room seems constructed entirely of long, sensuous curves and live bamboo, the kitchen sealed behind an indoor waterfall tumbling down across pebbled glass (a design element that has become a sort of signature of Schoch’s Taifoon and Ling & Louie’s operations). It is a chain restaurant sired by chain restaurants, modern, urban Asiana done with a restraint belied by the estimated $2 million it cost to open, and it works.

Almost.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have seen any of this. I wouldn’t have noticed the difference between a good multi-unit operation and a bad one; would only have bitched and cursed and shouted about how all these gol’durn monkey-punching chain restaurant bastards were out there fucking up my beautiful restaurant landscape with all their jalapeno poppers, lettuce wraps, McRiblets and prudent, demographically-focused, investment-driven business plans. To me, the restaurant world was like the Wild West -- wide-open and freaky, full of socially maladjusted fruit loops with tattoos and sharp knives who just picked their hill and died on it completely irrespective of what any accountant or real estate developer had to say. And in my mind, any restaurant’s success or failure had as much to do with dumb luck, passion and blind appeasement of the food gods as it did with intelligent lease structuring, traffic patterns and having a nice sixteen dollar chicken on the menu. Chain restaurants were about menus designed by committee and written by bookkeepers, about low-grade product served to dimwits and gigantic fudge sundaes with sparklers and American flags sticking out of them -- the purest essence of evil to a young man whose entire life, for the previous fifteen years, had been about food and restaurants and kitchens, to the near total exclusion of everything else.

And there were no shades of gray in this simple worldview: You were either a black-hat or a white-hat and the two could be told apart very easily because the white-hats were always on the verge of bankruptcy, going broke by doing good, while the black-hats all drove Jags and had people lined up out the door waiting for their chance to spent $14.95 on fettucine alfredo out of a bag.

That is, of course, a stupid way to look at the world. Comforting, but stupid. And while it is sometimes tempting to slip back into that steel-jacketed absolutism, I’ve learned too much in the past five years to be able to wear it with the kind of élan I used to. I’ve seen what can be done by a dedicated operator with a conscience, some talent, a little taste and the kind of financial security that comes from having an entire corporation at your back. There are good restaurant chains out there as well as bad, good operators as well as bad. And while bad might still be the rule, I am comforted by the exceptions on those nights when it seems as though the entire country is being taken over by Red Lobster, Bennigan’s and that little fucking dog from Taco Bell.

This week, we’re going to talk about a couple of the exceptions -- about Ling & Louie’s in the review and the new Oceanaire Seafood Room in Bite Me, along with some news from another multi-unit ownership group: the Wonder Twins, Jesse Morreale and Sean Yontz, who announced last week that they were closing their restaurant, Sketch, in Cherry Creek. -- Jason Sheehan


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