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A while back I ate at, of all places, the Outback Steakhouse. Judge me not. There was a gift certificate involved and a certain amount of curiosity. I hadn't eaten at one of the popular "casual dining" chains in a while. The last time it happened (also for the sake of not wasting a gift certificate) was a trip to the Mission Gorge Chillis, which was a terrible meal but had merits similar to the trip to Outback. Sometimes, it's very valuable to step outside the bubble and gain a little perspective.

I could go into detail about the sheer badness of my dinner at the Outback Steakhouse. I could start with how the host sat me at a dirty table, follow with the way my server dumped plates onto the table with an artful mix of scorn and carelessness, and finish with the calculated mediocrity of the food.

But what would be the point in that? Of course it sucked. That was no surprise. The piece of cognitive dissonance, the teachable moment, came from elsewhere.

The initial shock was in how easy it is to step outside the confines of the local scene. Four steps into the mall and, as my friend put it, “I might as well have been in Wiconsin.” Or Florida, or Los Angeles, or anywhere that there’s an Outback. For people who spend their time cruising around some of our colorful neighborhoods, it’s easy to forget that Hillcrest or North Park end. Sounds a little goofy, but it’s true. Despite the fact that I spend many of my days exploring and thinking about the diverse restaurant community in San Diego, I often take it for granted.

True, our scene has its ups and downs. But at least it’s a distinct culture, shaped by the people who live here and somehow representative of those same people in a socially meaningful way. It’s valuable to appreciate the ways the restaurants in San Diego share commonalities--local flavors, if you will--that make the scene uniquely ours.

At its best, our food culture ties together the unbelievable climate, the proximity of a radically different country, surfers, hipsters, hippies, hop sniffers, and everything else that’s going on in town.

Even the bad stuff, like the fact that San Diego’s table servers are almost universally inept, softens a little when I consider the background culture. Our waitstaff may be overpaid and incompetent, but at least they’re consistent and failing in the same, uniquely San Diegan way.

This was initially going to be a pensive inquiry into bourgeois attitudes at local restaurants (I know, right?), but it turned into an admiration and I think that says something. That trip to the mall for an inferior steak polished the cloudy goggles of jaded familiarity that threaten to make me see the world with curmudgeonly eyes. I guess a little reality check is a good thing.

Outback Steakhouse
1640 Camino Del Rio North
619-294-8998

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Comments

Ian Pike Nov. 21, 2012 @ 8:56 p.m.

Thanks, Chad. Hitting the mall can be a freaking eye opener in a lot of ways. Good for the heart and soul. Consider it doing emotional interval training, or something.

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Frankie Nov. 24, 2012 @ 2:26 p.m.

Having spent the past 40 years in the food biz, up and down the state of California, I must take issue with Mr Pike's assesment that servers are overpaid here (although I do agree about their general ineptness).

In most cases, the company doesn't properly train their staff as it costs money...

When it comes to a server's wages, if anything, they are underpaid across the board, especially compared to Silicon Valley and San Francisco (I can't tell you anything about LA as I have avoided that place like the plague).

More than anything else, tip sharing (especially when management dips their hands into the tip jar) accounts for much of the difference as do tip pooling among servers (why should anyone work hard if they all get the same money?) and now, with the likes of Darden Restaurants, Papa John's and a string of Denny's franchses back east who now only pay their servers a couple of bucks an hour and share the server's tips, it's going to get a loss worse...

Supposedly Darden enacted this policy recently (and converted their staffs to part timers only) as they couldn't afford to pay their employees' health coverage but when you do the math, they're putting $3 Billion in their pockets while Wal-Marting the staff and letting the tax payers pick up the slack (medical bills, unemployment or welfare, etc)

This is thoroughly gutting the once proud profession of waitressing while the fat cats get even fatter and maiking it virtually impossible for a hard working single mother to support her family.

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SurfPuppy619 Nov. 24, 2012 @ 6:52 p.m.

When it comes to a server's wages, if anything, they are underpaid across the board, especially compared to Silicon Valley and San Francisco

And on WHAT BASIS would you compare Silicon Valley to ANY AREA EXCEPT Silicon Valley?? Same with SF.

And waiting tables has always been part time, it was never a f/t job and very few, a small minority, offered health care coverage/insurance.

I do not think pooling tips is the rule in the majority of serving restaurants, it is not Starbucks.

Dumb comment.

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