- Ratio of food trucks to chain restaurants
Aside from an ice cream truck (which for some reason plays creepy Christmas music in the middle of summer), you won’t find any food trucks out in the suburbs. Instead, sustenance is provided in the troughs of chain restaurants, where you’ll be squeezed into a booth and forced to choose the least offensive offering from a plastic ranch-stained menu. Sure, there are a few decent chains, but the lack of a food truck scene removes nearly all of the potential culinary creativity. If you love dry chicken fingers and bland (yet over-salted) French fries, you’ll be in luck! But, if you’re craving a Coca-Cola braised pork bun with savory cabbage and preserved yellow mustard seeds, you better buy a plane ticket to San Francisco.
- No coffee shop within walking distance
Maybe it’s just me, but I have this weird fantasy about how enjoyable it must be to simply walk to a local coffee shop. Get a little exercise, enjoy the weather, fist-bump a few homeless people on the way… You know, the American dream. Unfortunately, I’m living in the other American dream. The one where they squeeze eleventy-billion identical townhouses next to each other, thus making it impossible for anything to be within walking distance. Having to physically get into a car and drive to a Starbucks makes the whole process feel more like refueling a work truck than connecting with my inner muse. And there’s a drive-thru, so why would I get out of my car and use my legs (which are nearly atrophied from lack of use anyway).
- Every night is Kids Night
Kids are cool. They say funny things and are a great way for their parents to live out their own failed dreams. I get it. But, why does it feel like every night is Kids Night in the suburbs? Red Robin is a solid chain that gets a lot of take-out business from us. However, I always have to mentally prepare myself to battle the hundreds of small humans that will undoubtedly be crowding the entrance. On a Tuesday night the last thing I want to do is hurdle several Eddie Bauer strollers while dodging red balloons, before I get into a fist fight with a four-year old over who gets to high-five Mr. Robin. And that’s white sand beach peacefulness compared to Chick-fil-a…
- Lack of hipsters
Say what you will about hipsters, but clearly the weirdest, most creative food is created with a strong hipster influence. I mean, you can’t NOT find good food in Portland or the Williamsburg neighborhood of NYC. Maybe the county could introduce tax benefits to hipster families who move into the suburbs. Yes. A hipsterfication of the ‘burbs is long overdue. Lets replace strollers and red wine with handlebar mustaches and craft beer.
- Not a decent donut in sight
With donuts hopefully replacing cupcakes as the “it” dessert in many cities, I’ve been waiting patiently for a hip donut shop to open up nearby. Unfortunately, the suburbs are generally at least ten years behind all the major food trends (In fact, I’m still waiting for the cupcake trend to make its way out here…). For now, Dunkin Donuts has the monopoly over donut lovers around here with no competition in sight. On the plus side, the grocery store chain Safeway is offering their version of a cronut. Is it any good? Who knows, because we have nothing to compare it to and probably won’t until 2024.
- The Whole Foods void
I’ve spent hours wandering the aisles of Whole Foods. It’s a great place to spend a few hours and $500. In order to get to the nearest Whole Foods, we have to make sure the dog is fed, pack a lunch, fill the car with a full tank of gas, and plan our whole day around it like a trip on the Oregon Trail. Alternatively our nearest grocery store is Safeway. Blah. I have a love-hate relationship with Safeway. I love the fact that they have cronuts, but I hate everything else about the nightmare of a grocery store. The products cost twice as much as every other grocery store. Everything is cramped, so you can barely walk around without accidently grinding on Grandma. And the organization of the aisles is about as logical and efficient as the IRS tax code. It took me 45 minutes to buy a dozen eggs once. So, although the trip to Whole Foods sometimes feels like a trip out west, there are many times when I would’ve rather gotten dysentery than shop at Safeway.
- Froyo is inescapable
Although the suburbs aren’t the only areas with an infestation of frozen yogurt shops, it certainly feels worse due to the lack of other dessert options. As much hyperbole as I try to include in here, there is no stretching of facts when I say that every single shopping center in proximity to our home contains one fro-yo joint. Sweet Frog, Orange Leaf, Zinga!, Pinkberry, Fartberry…We suburbanites apparently don’t care what the name of the place is as long as we can fill up a cup full of diabetes and pay by the pound. This speaks more to the fact that suburban entrepreneurs are more interested in capitalizing on a proven money-maker and have no interest in investing in a more risky, yet creative endeavor. I understand the risk aversion, but it would be great if at least one of these small business owners would take some of their yogurt profits and introduce something new to the area (like a homemade ice cream sandwich shop). Until then, the Orange Leaf employees better get the sample cups out, cause I want to try them ALL.
- Farmer-less markets
Do you envision a farmer’s market with overflowing greens, fresh fruit exploding from barrels, and ears of corn stacked taller than your head? Yeah, I’ve heard about those types of markets, but they’re not in the ‘burbs. Sure we do have a farmer or two, but the suburban markets are more a way for yuppies to try to make money selling mediocre BBQ or cupcakes (is that still even a trend?!). Even more Ludacris is the fact that on more than one occasion I’ve seen produce that have the grocery store stickers still on them. Weird that an apple imported from Mexico is considered “local” to northern Virginia.
- Food Service workers are dead inside
Local family-owned restaurants are motivated to make you happy, because if you don’t eat at their restaurant and have a good time, they don’t eat, period. But, when the food scene is dominated by chain restaurants, the “trickle down effect” is that the food services workers generally don’t care enough to make the experience enjoyable. Your community college-enrolled server is much more interested in retweeting Kimye than refilling your iced tea. And when she does remember that refill, your glass will be filled not only with tea, but also entitlement and angst. And can you blame her? I certainly don’t care if Applebees hits its goals. But, don’t stiff the server on her tip. Over-tip so she can pay for her books next semester and eventually move out of the suburbs. Just be sure to try and not write on the check, “Take me with you!”
- Vegetarians not welcome
Aside from a few veggie burgers and salads, vegetarians will most likely have to order from the “side dish” section of the menu. If you enjoy seeing blank looks of confusion, just ask your server if the soup du jour is vegetarian. (Luckily they’ll already be on their iPhone, so they can Google it.) Until the hipsters move into town (or someone opens up an Indian restaurant), enjoy your Meatless Monday with a double order of French fries and two pounds of froyo.
Yikes, that was more depressing than I intended, but that’s okay because there is one positive aspect that helps offset all of the above:
- You can control your own kitchen
Since going out to eat and finding good food is so difficult, it forces us to become more creative at home. Why would I order a pizza from Papa John’s when I can make a beautiful charcoal-grilled rosemary potato pizza at home? Yeah, it’s more work but that’s part of the fun and how you can create a lasting memory of something so simple. Do you remember every time you’ve ever eaten at McDonald’s? No, but I bet you’d remember a homemade pork banh mi burger with Sriracha-Maggi glaze, picked daikon, and cool cucumbers. So, even though you can feel trapped in the ‘burbs sometimes, it can be overcome* by simply firing up the grill and inviting your friends and family over.
*That still doesn’t fix the donut problem, so somebody should get on that ASAP.