The culture war, with forks

If you wait around long enough, everything changes. This is especially true in the restaurant industry. The cultural identity of a neighborhood is often established and anchored in its restaurants and grocery stores. Eating with a person gives you a special insight into who they are and what type of values they actually ascribe to. You can tell a lot about a person by how they choose to eat – if they pray first, or if they seem reluctant to eat new food – everybody has idiosyncratic eating habits. As revealing as these revelations can be, I often get more information from what a person chooses to eat.

People who choose to eat a specific diet like vegetarian or vegan have to be very careful and conscious of the food they eat, which sets them apart in our consumption-based culture. I also know people who keep kosher and halal dietary habits, which reveals yet another set of data.

It makes sense that a change in our restaurants is some kind of indicator of a larger social change. The biggest new innovation that people can’t stop talking about is the “casual rapid dining,” or CRD-style restaurant, slated by food-service oracles to replace fast food on the cultural landscape within a generation, just as Clown Burger and company replaced the diner.

Here on campus, we are surrounded by archetypal examples of this brave new world. The hallmarks of a CRD establishment are that you get to make choices off of a fixed menu, your food is assembled while you wait and you can either sit in the facility or take your food and go. Think Subway – you get to choose what goes on your specific version of a base sandwich and then add your own method of finishing the sandwich. Another oft-referenced casual rapid dining chain is Chipotle, which brings this technique into the realm of Southwestern-style food.

Another near-campus restaurant in this mold is Baja Fresh, which has a focus on the preparation rather than the interactivity of their menu, with the exception of their salsa bars. The chain likes to advertise, “No can openers.” Making claims about the quality of mass-produced food is new to the CRD movement and marks a significant point of distinction between them and fast-food restaurants. It is also common to see new, high-end versions of familiar options. Now if you want a sandwich you can choose either of the Subways or go down to Quizno’s.

I prefer to eat at these places over fast food, but only barely. What you choose to eat defines, to some extent, who you are as a person. I see this type of restaurant as a good place to eat when I don’t really have time for better options, or when I don’t have money for better food. It shows a certain self-consciousness about food choices, while at the same time, an avoidance of larger community-based food-system concerns.

The thing that most disturbs me about this type of eating is also the feature that makes it best poised to dominate the market. They are intentionally location non-specific. You can walk into any Quizno’s, Baja, Chipotle, Pizzicato or Subway in any city and get the same food, every day, all year. The restaurant near your house that you visit weekly isn’t any more “yours” than the one in Roseburg. It is mid-quality food with no chance at community.

There are excellent models in the area of what I would consider to be a better option to replace the fast food culture. Local chains like McMenamins, Hot Lips Pizza and Burgerville thrive because they have entrenched themselves deeply into the community and have become as much of a part of the culinary “place consciousness” of our region as the fine-dining restaurants, while staying much more accessible.

McMenamins might not have the best food or always be on top of the service, but they are always interesting to look at. They actually employ full-time artists to decorate their extensive holdings. They also operate some of the major venues in the area for performing arts and music. If you were to wake up suddenly in a CRD restaurant, you would have a hard time figuring out where you were without asking. This would not be a problem in most of the ornately embellished McMenamins pubs, although they do tend to blend together after a while.

Hot Lips Pizza is Northwest by effort and intention. They source their ingredients locally and only use organics. You can find details on their web site,, about the farms that supply the incredible produce. Hot Lips Pizza is also passionate about our community and region. They consider themselves to be the most sustainable pizza business possible. I especially enjoy their blackberry soda, made in their own facility from locally harvested fruit. The specials, which are on a weekly rotation, change each season with the changes in produce availability. You can check the link above to see a complete menu.

A more traditional international restaurant that should get more business and is also near campus is Abu-Rasheed. I’ve had their falafel, hummus platter and lentil soup. The meat pie comes highly recommended too. They also have tobacco and nargilehs, better known as a hookah. I’ve often walked by Abu-Rasheed and noticed people with coffee and pipe enjoying the early evening at their outdoor tables. It looks like a really good time.

And that’s really what makes these options so much better than the CRD joints. Dining out should be about sitting down and enjoying time with your friends and family. You can do that just about anywhere. Some of my most vivid memories of growing up involve fast-food restaurants. The point isn’t just to have a good time – the point is to have a good time in such a way that it makes it easier to have a good time in the future. That’s the kind of change I think we all can live with.