On this dimension, I have observed that people fall into 1 of 2 categories. There are people who prefer large, national chain restaurants over local restaurants and those, like me, who prefer local restaurants over chains, for the most part. Perhaps I learned this from my Dad, who was always on the road during his career. He could be counted on to know the best barbecue places in his territory – and they weren’t Sonny’s. So, I’ve been to many little barbecue joints with him over the years and, as I began traveling on my own, I found that looking for a place where the locals go really added to the travel experience. There is certainly some safety in the familiarity of a chain, including the convenience of not needing to think much about a restaurant or whether one will find it acceptable. But, it is to me much more fun to try a referral given by a friend, or even a stranger, of a “locals place.” In my year of traveling to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Europe I found few chain restaurants – and some of my dining experiences were really adventures. I’ll admit chains have their place, and will never forget how happy Melissa and I were to find a Subway in Merida, Mexico after some questionable meals. Today, the use of apps on a smart phone broaden the possibilities. “Local Eats” is usually what I try before Yelp or other apps. We have enjoyed introducing others to some of our finds over the years, and some of our staff are more tuned in than others to the fact that, if we say we’ve got an interesting place to go to dinner in whatever town we’re in, it will be good. Some are more skeptical and they usually turn out to be those who would choose a known thing over taking a chance on something unknown. But, picking something you could have on any given day over something you can only get in a particular town is much more appealing to me and no one has ever complained about the places we’ve taken them! So, which are you? Chain or Local?
No offense to the readers of this post who like chain restaurants, however, as a rule, I loathe them. I will go out of my way to avoid eating at a chain restaurant whenever possible. I prefer to patronize local eateries wherever I travel, both for business and pleasure. There are exceptions, of course, including my beloved Columbia Restaurant that began in Ybor City in 1905 and now has 7 locations. The Columbia, known as “the gem of Spanish Restaurants,” is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Florida, the oldest Spanish restaurant in the U. S. A., and one of the largest restaurants in the world. The Columbia was always the place where, when my dear, sweet dad would ask me where I wanted to go on a special occasion, I would choose (even though this required a 2 ½ drive from our home in Fort Myers). When I was growing up, there was only 1 Columbia Restaurant and now that there are 6 more, I still think of it as a local, family owned restaurant. When I am in Tampa, with time for only 1 meal, that meal will definitely be eaten at The Columbia. Similarly, I have favorite restaurants in other towns that I visit when possible. When I don’t have a favorite place to eat in any given town, I find out the best places to go and these places are never chain, corporate, or generic places that are found on every dismal 4 lane road throughout the country. Recently, while working in Bradenton, Florida, I found an interesting sounding restaurant located in a beach side hotel. The name, “Beach Bistro,” conveyed to me a casual place that might serve my all time favorite meal, fried shrimp. Upon entering the restaurant, however, David and I found we had come to a fine dining establishment rivaling any restaurant we had ever seen. Had we eaten at any of the local mundane chain restaurants, we would never have had this excellent culinary experience. In my opinion, chains are for people who prefer the ordinary things in life. There is nothing wrong with that, but I prefer the extraordinary, in restaurants and in life, in general.