This is the end of the century (as you may have realized by now), and like everyone else I've become a little contemplative, taking the longer view. I've listed the major changes I've noted on the local restaurant scene over the many years I've been sampling them. And I've also graded those changes for desirability and their contribution to our lifestyle.
But at the same time, there are some culinary things that never change, so I've listed them also. No grades here because these things have existed here forever and no doubt always will. And I'm not even complaining because after all ...
They're part of our local charm.
Fresh vegetables. It wasn't too long ago that even fancy restaurants had only two kinds of vegetables available: frozen peas and canned green beans. They were served in little sauce dishes alongside the main course and weren't worth touching with a fork.
Now even the most modest dining places offer fresh veggies, often seasonal. And even though there seems to be excessive reliance on zucchini, probably the most tasteless vegetable God ever created, I have to give this change an A plus.
Fresh fish. In the dear dead days, most Western New Yorkers ate the finny stuff in only one style -- fried and on only one day -- Friday. Now interesting varieties of fish grilled, baked or poached appear on many menus almost every night.
What's more, most of this fish is fresh. As long as you don't count Orange Roughy that is. Orange Roughy is the zucchini of the marine world and what's more, it's always frozen. For the most part, though, the day of those drab frozen nameless fillets appears to be over.
How can I give this change anything but an A-plus.
The expansion of wine lists. Do you remember the days of something called "Burgundy" (which never even owned a passport)? And even worse, something called "Chablis?" Often, that was all a restaurant had to offer. Or else its wine list was carefully printed out by one company or distributor so there wasn't much room to choose.
Now there is much more variety and, with the introduction of new sealing systems, more wine available by the glass. Grade: A.
New ethnicities. Once Asian meant Chinese food -- period. That's not true any more. Try Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese and/or Korean; try a mixture of all the above. Try Middle East. Even American selections are deeper than they used to be. There are more Southwestern offerings although sometimes that's an excuse for the chef to just pile on chiles. (After all food has to offer something else beside just heat.)
We're not quite there yet, though. We could use more true Mexican restaurants or Latin restaurants. (That last is a very big deal in bigger cities.) We could use some vegetarian places or more barbecue. Still room for improvement, yes. So progress locally rates a B.
The growth of fast food franchises and chains. Steak, burgers, chicken -- whatever you want, you can get it stamped out by cookie cutter and wrapped in Styrofoam. Some streets in the area have become Fast Food Lanes. In case you didn't get the message -- I am not a fan.
I don't like chains because besides not being as cheap as they seem, they put mom-and-pop restaurants out of business. Also, the food they offer (with the possible exception of Burger King french fries which are a triumph) is b-o-o-o-ring. Therefore I give this change a grade of D.