Chili’s in New York City: An Investigation

Indiana Governor Mike Pence accepted the Vice Presidential spot on the now Trump/Pence ticket. Then he did something that bread (haha) controversy:

This opened up a dialogue. Allegedly, this began when some people mocked Pence for eating at Chili’s in New York City. I caught the second phase, which was people defending the choice. Then came the third phase, which accused everybody in Phase Two of being faux-populist because Chili’s is trash and everybody knows it.

It was an endless plate of meta.

But it brought to light several questions:

  1. Is it acceptable to eat at Chili’s in New York City when there are other options available?
  2. Why, precisely, was Mike Pence eating at Chili’s in New York City? Was he trying to flash some working class cred and engage in some culture wars, or is he a tasteless dweeb without sufficient taste and sophistication?
  3. Is it acceptable to criticize him for doing so, and suggest that it is indicative of said lack of taste and sophistication? Or does that make you an elitist?
  4. Is it acceptable to defend eating at Chili’s in New York? Or does that make you a phony populist?

One of the more interesting aspects of this discussion is the notion that Chili’s represents “working class” to begin with. It doesn’t, especially, in my view. I associate it more with middle class, in suburbia, small cities, and large towns. For those on the left talking up phony populism, and those on the right trying to demonstrate populism, Chili’s is an odd hill on which to do battle. It’s not especially inexpensive. Apart from Denny’s, none of them carry a blue class vibe. Outside of the bar, they cater as much as anything to families on their night out as anything, and groups of people who all want to grab a bite to eat and want something they can agree on. Places of this sort tend to have wide and varied menus that can cater to different people at once.

Due to my biography, the place I most recognized this dynamic was small city and big town America. In suburbia you sort of take these places for granted, but in Deseret it was a big deal to get one of these restaurants. That’s not because there’s no good local cuisine, exactly. In fact, in Deseret, you have an unusually high assortment of restaurants with dishes from all across the world. (Think Mormons, who like to open businesses and many of whom spend two years overseas in foreign cultures.) But you grow up and you see these ads for places on TV and then you find out they’re opening one here! Wow! You can finally get those dishes that you keep hearing about!

And they’re not bad. They’re median food, almost definitionally. They’ve been field tested extensively by corporations with a lot of resources and a strong motivation to figure out what median people like. You don’t have to like it, but if you think it’s trash then… yes… you run the risk of snobbery or elitism. Even if you aren’t, you are in the company of a lot of people that are.

On the other hand, if you think they are unremarkable and you’re puzzled as to why someone would go all Michael Scott and eat at Chili’s in New York City, I get that. As with a lot of things snobbery-related, a lot of it depends on the delivery. If you feel the need to denigrate Chili’s, though, well that came come across poorly. If you’re of the mind that Pence wanted that reaction, well maybe he did. But if people took the bait, they took the bait. If you don’t want to get caught up in the “dining wars” of casual dining chains, then don’t. And if you’re a snob, then own it. (I’m not a snob about food, but I can be a snob about other things.)

I don’t know Pence’s motivations and don’t much care. I could see him thinking that he could get a rise out of people by eating at Chili’s. Or that this could be a homespun appeal to Regular Folk. On the other hand, the guy had a really big weekend and there was a lot going on. When we last moved across the country, we passed through a lot of good food towns and ate chains. Why? Because food wasn’t really the point. We just wanted something reliably good (to us) and get on our way. Mike Pence was just tapped to be a Vice Presidential nominee and had gone to New York on the equivalent of a last-minute business trip. I can certainly imagining myself finding comfort in Chili’s under those circumstances.

Truth be told, though, I didn’t actually see as much original outcry as I saw outcry against the outcry. Which is to say, by the time I caught wind of the conversation, it was people saying “Actually, Chili’s is okay” and “Chili’s is awesome” and “Screw the snobs!” This is not uncommon. Either I miss the first round, or as often as not the blowback to the thing is bigger than the thing. But even if we accept that some people did go ahead and mock Pence for his pedestrian ways, and we figure on the blowback, the third round was people telling people in the second round that they can’t possibly like Chili’s (or can’t not have a problem with Pence eating there).

That’s actually a more severe statement than “I don’t like Chili’s” and even “Chili’s is crap.” The first is a statement of personal taste, but even the second allows for some disagreement in the “Okay, you like crap.” This, though, is to suggest that Chili’s is so bad that anyone above a certain who claims to like it is a liar.

This lead to the anti-Chili’s populist argument that it’s actually more insulting to the normals to “pretend” you like Chili’s than to insult it. That was kind of a new one on me. I can sort of get the argument that “Actually, Chili’s isn’t that cheap so there’s nothing working class about it.” As mentioned, Chili’s isn’t exactly a working class haven and so it’s not a working class populist deal. Or more precisely, the “class” argument with regard to Chili’s works both ways. But this takes us into a weird space where it’s practically suggesting that liking Chili’s is, in itself, putting a bone in your nose to fit in with the locals. Not anything a sensible person would ever do.

So yeah, let’s chill out about Chili’s. Try their southwestern eggrolls. Good stuff. Or don’t, because it’s not your thing. But let someone else try it, and like it, even if it doesn’t seem like it should. Don’t rise to the bait of politicians baiting you, if that’s what they’re doing. And if that’s not what they’re doing, Chili’s really isn’t such a bad place if you’re a politician crunched for time, want something reliably good, and need to be asking yourself serious questions about your life choices.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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108 thoughts on “Chili’s in New York City: An Investigation

  1. I ate at Chili’s last night. I don’t know why someone would tweet that, because it’s kind of banal that I did so, but whatever.

    I’m not that big a fan… well, let me clarify. I actually quite like the fajitas, but I almost never have them because it’s kind of too much for me these days, and also coronary artery disease. The same goes for the molten chocolate lava cake. So they have some good stuff that I mostly don’t eat when I go there. But my daughter likes it.

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  2. I once ate at the TGIF’s on times square. Coworkers and I had a late flight, hotel (two blocks off times square) restaurant was closed, and they could seat the 5-6 of us. No brainer. They have one in NY for a reason, and that reason is people want it.

    I will say, the food and service was better than some famous foodie restaurants I have eaten at.

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  3. I can think of one reason to eat at Chili’s in new York, but o think it’s a perfectly valid one: with a national chain, you know what you’re going to get without extensive research. If you take a chance on some single-location hole in the wall, it might be amazing, but then it might be bad, and you have to put in work to find it.

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      • Well but that’s the problem. If there are literally hundreds of options available, picking a good one is a daunting task. paradox of choice and all that.

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        • And, your group may include a picky eater, or someone who is afraid to try new things. Such a person needs to feel like there is a safe and familiar food option available. For those of us who derive pleasure from trying new things, this is an alien concept, but the fact is, some people are like that.

          So yeah, there are a ton of awesome, interesting, and delicious things to eat in New York. That your fussy friend has never heard of and therefore refuses to even try, much less stake the cost and time of a meal on.

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          • Burt,
            I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but back in the 1990’s, there were about ten chains claiming to have NY Pizza (and they were all named similarly too).

            I don’t particularly mind that he did something Boring (as $1 slice NY Pizza is pretty boring).

            But it’s cheap and filling and not something unusual at all.

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  4. I suppose the key is that its NYC.

    Periodically I end up in Manhattan for business; the food choices are, well, overwhelming even to a person like myself who grew up in a food culture, worked in food and wine, and owns a farm. I’ve been sorely tempted after long work days to just find something I know and go there. So I get that, certainly. And, when I’m in lots of other cities or suburbs where I don’t know the location that well, that’s often what I do. But not in NYC. :-) Especially when you have people who work for you to offload the food finding thing. And, while food in the downtown area is generally more expensive there are plenty of downscale and midscale joints at which to eat. For hamburgers alone I’ve had great “cheap” burgers, excellent mid-scale foofy burgers, and one friend tricked me into a “burger joint” where you first had to select the steak (prime rib, tenderloin, or NY) that you wanted hand-chopped into your burger – that one was really good, but, um, yeah. So I do think there’s something meta about eating at Chili’s in NYC, but I’m not confident to say which meta would apply.

    At the most basic level, it simply shows poor judgement and small thinking on the execution of this one decision. But then, for Trump’s VP… that’s probably just a defined character trait at this point.

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  5. If he really wanted homespun, he would have gone to Cracker Barrel. It may not even be an option, who knows. I figured the Chili’s was just the closet and easiest option. That’s usually my calculus when I’m traveling, especially if I’m not familiar with the city.

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    • Oh cracker barrel. On the one hand, I used to work there and it wasn’t a great experience. On the other, I could go for some breakfast for dinner and the little peg game right now.

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    • notme:
      If he really wanted homespun, he would have gone to Cracker Barrel. It may not even be an option, who knows. I figured the Chili’s was just the closet and easiest option. That’s usually my calculus when I’m traveling, especially if I’m not familiar with the city.

      I don’t think there’s one in Manhattan. In NJ, you have to get well closer to the PA border than NYC before you see one.

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  6. As a midwesterner who grew up in a place where getting casual dining chains was a big deal, I’m going to go with “Mike Pence is a boring midwesterner who likes these places.” Definitely a waste of a meal when you’re in NYC, but we’ve all done worse things with our time.

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  7. Good grief.

    I mean, ten minutes on Google maps can find you a fun place in Manhattan. On the other hand, maybe he was hungry and busy and Chilli’s was nearby and didn’t have a line. Whatevs.

    He remains a repugnant homophobic bigot tho. Let’s talk about that.

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    • We should be clear that probably 70% of America, so long as they’re not literally on vacation in Manhattan, would take less than a second to choose Chili’s if it was right there, wherever that may be, over spending ten fucking minutes on Google maps trying to find someplace better. Especially on a working trip in a place they don’t know.

      But yeah, good grief, I guess.

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  8. I thought he was eating in New Jersey, somewhat close to Newark Airport.

    Edit- or maybe it was the airport in Teterboro he was flying out of. The media has really failed us on the 5 w’s of this story.

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    • There are Chillis at Newark and JFK airports. which then makes sense as he was waiting for the flight back, and was hungry. There are also other Chillis in NJ as well as one on Staten Island and one in Brooklyn or Queens.

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    • The media has really failed us on the 5 w’s of this story.

      I literally chuckled to myself when I read that. That’s not what most of the media does anymore. Most of the media exists to populate a narrative into which you can assert yourself and feel alternately inspired and enraged, sometimes at the same time.

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      • Most of the media exists to populate a narrative into which you can assert yourself and feel alternately inspired and enraged, sometimes at the same time

        Because of the logic of capitalism, yes?

        If you don’t like the way the media functions, don’t blame the media. They’re just responding to market pressure to make a buck.

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        • News reports from that date had Pence and family landing at Teterboro in a small private jet. Chances are good they would have flown out on the same plane, regardless of the destination.

          When I was the “ask embarrassing questions” technology guy for the giant telecom/cable company where I worked, I got to fly on the corporate jet with the big shots a few times. It’s a hell of a way to fly — meet the pilot in the hanger or lounge, when everyone’s there you walk a couple hundred feet to get on the plane, taxi out, take off. The time the meeting got done 90 minutes early, the CTO called ahead while we were in the limo so the plane would be ready when we got there.

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  9. I haven’t followed the controversy, but as a thought experiment, let’s say he’d done the same thing on a short trip to Tokyo, or to Rome, or to Mexico City – found a Chilis to eat at – and taken heat for it. Is that a fair parallel?

    I guess I think there’s a fair point to be made around the chauvinism of those from NYC claiming that their city has a food culture and he should have partaken. When I traveled in Europe, I’ve seen the chains of English/German bars on Greek/Turkish beaches, serving homestyle food and beers, and I’ve definitely mocked folks who would fly there and then not try the local cuisine. Not every traveler is a tourist, but I’m more sympathetic to that than to a class argument about what someone can/can’t possibly like.

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  10. Some people on the internet are wondering where the reflection of the woman in white is (in the Mike Pence photo above). I assume it’s just a camera angle thing, but it does look a bit odd.

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  11. This little episode could not more perfectly encapsulate everything that is wrong with self-styled-sophisticated center-liberal Twitter-slash-internet.

    Actually, no, not nearly everything. A lot else is wrong. But this is one of the things.

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    • I dunno. I have to field endless accusations that I’m one of the “godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts,” when in fact I don’t drive a Volvo.

      And actually I’m not a vegan. I find them as insufferable as everyone else does. Furthermore, Tofu can be okay, I guess, if well prepared. It’s certainly fairly healthy, if you care about that. I prefer steak.

      My “weenie” is a complicated topic, to say the least.

      Anyway blah blah blah bsdi blah.

      If I were hanging in Manhattan with someone, and if they suggested Chilies, I would look at them like they had two fucking heads. I’d be, “What the everloving fuck? Let’s get steaks? Sushi? Maybe fucking pizza! I dunno. I’ll handle dinner arrangements. Shut up and look pretty or something.”

      All the same, this is a non-story. If the dude goes on a whirlwind tour of Vienna, Paris, and Milan, and he only eats at Olive Gardens (or whateverthefuck), how is that my business? He’s a grown up. He can eat where he wants.

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      • Tofu can be okay, I guess, if well prepared. It’s certainly fairly healthy, if you care about that. I prefer steak.

        Preparing Tofu well usually involves lots of frying in lots of oil. When its nice, its not very healthy.

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  12. My wife is not a food snob. She will eat at Applebees and such with her friends and genuinely likes the food. But when I told her about this “incident,” her first reaction was “why there if you are in NY?”

    I imagine Pence wanted to signal to his base that he wasn’t going to go all cosmopolitan and eat something they wouldn’t eat.

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    • I imagine Pence wanted someplace he knew he and his family would like without putting an ounce of thought into it. Manhattan actually is a place people go to get business done and not be all touristy about it occasionally.

      But we’re both just imagining; the truth might be a bit of both. Or… not.

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  13. Why is everyone concerned about Chili’s when the photo shows that his daughter is a vampire!? And there’s a phantom grandchild that follows him around that only appears in mirrors!

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  14. Chilli’s in NYC for the same reason Mcdonalds in Ireland. It’s a known quantity and, especially for the kids, they’ll eat it. Convenience, known quantity, same around the world.

    The rest is a bunch of coasters bitching about the low brow choices of the commoners in fly over land. WTF really cares? Gotta signal your status. pffft

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    • I landed in Venice after an 8 hour flight and then got lost tryinf to take pub tran to find my parents (I was 26) in a small town. I didn’t speak the language, didn’t have a smart phone (or any phone for that matter), and was in a suburban train station far from the canals. I got McDs. It was my first bite of food on Italian soil. I, myself, am Italian-American. There I was eating my McMeatball or whatever. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

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  15. The goal of any chain is to consistently reproduce each dish the same way, at the lowest possible cost. The variables between chains is how much they are willing to spend on training kitchen staff to achieve this consistency. The higher-end chains will invest in training in order to put a better product on the table.

    Chilis lies within the vaguely-diner spectrum of chains. Denny’s is at the bottom (unless you count something life Waffle House). I place Chilis a step above this, on the same level as Applebees. An example of a chain higher up is Marie Calendars. (Or at least it used to be. They aren’t out where I live, and I haven’t eaten at one in about twenty years.) Olive Garden is an example of a chain that formerly invested heavily in training its kitchen staff. Twenty years ago it was a respectable example of the Northern Italian genre. They have since cut back on training and substituted pre-prepared foods, with the result that they are now at the bottom end of the ‘mediocre’ range.

    Chilis in New York? I don’t really have any problem with that. Self-identified “foodies” are all about making every meal into a delightful culinary adventure. If that is your thing, that is fine. But the foodies who try to impose this esthetic (or worse, “aesthetic”) on those of us who are merely trying to go about our business are–and this is the kind word–tiresome.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t tweet about it. But then again I’m not a politician. Or on Twitter.

    FWIW, when I find myself in New York City I am invariably there for something specific, and usually don’t have a lot of spare time to savor a fine meal. I usually grab lunch off a street cart. The prices are good and the food is usually OK, and I can get to where I am going. That last time I was there I had about an hour in the evening before my bus was scheduled to arrive, so I went into a sit-down salad place next to the public library. It was fine: not life-changing, and a bit pretentiously twee, but the prices were only modestly outrageous. I may go there again the next time.

    Edit: I forgot to include that the implication of the chain’s goal of consistent reproducibility is that a chain will always settle for ‘good enough’. The only question is where they set the ‘good enough’ line. In indie can achieve reasonable consistency by having the same small group of people cooking there every day. If they are really good, the food will be really good. Of course if they suck, the food will suck. So trying an indie is always a risk. The cost-benefit analysis varies depending on whether you are likely to go back, if it is good. If it is also a thousand miles away from your home, you probably aren’t coming back, so why risk a bad meal?

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  16. I just spent six years living in NYC and don’t remember ever seeing a Chilli’s there so I had to look it up… there are none in Manhattan. So Pence was probably either in New Jersey or at the one in the terminal at JFK, which means he wasn’t actually dining in NYC, rendering all this moot.

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  17. I dislike Chili’s for the same reason I tend to dislike all of the Sysco-esque, factory pre-made food chains. I find them all bland and uninteresting, and therefore not worth the totally not cheap prices. ($10 for a burger is not a cheap burger.) I am, most admittedly a food snob. Or more to the point, I like the taste of certain kinds of foods more than others, in a way that finds Chilis, Olive Garden, and Applebees lacking.

    On the other hand, I don’t really understand the appeal in banging on Pence for liking Chili’s. It feels a pretty self-absorbed criticism to make. It’s the flip side of that coin when someone tells me that the only reason I “pretend” to prefer nonfactory food when I eat out is because I want to impress people.

    Everything in the world does not have to be made into a culture war battle line.

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  18. Can I point out that Chili’s in NYC* is adjacent to the In ‘n Out in NYC? (Looks like already pointed that out)

    * By which I mean Manhattan because Staten Island, Queens and JFK do not count for this

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  19. I guess I have two reactions:

    1. This is no big deal, especially in a week where there is plenty of truly disgusting GOP behavior of real significance to talk about.

    2. Candidate food choices matter because they have always mattered. There’s a reason candidates in the primaries eat at every mom-n-pop they can find, and eat every kind of local cuisine put in front of them. It’s a way to connect with people. And Pence is explicitly NOT connecting with NY through tweeting that choice. Which seems dumb, since Trump keeps saying he’s going to put assets into trying to win NY.

    So, as with much of the small-bore stuff, the takeaway isn’t that the act is bad, but rather that the act betrays an additional form of dumbness.

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  20. I’m guessing that, just like every other part of the job, a VP candidate’s lunch experience is actually completely unlike the average lunch experience. Decided by staff based predominantly on scheduling and location; eat whatever is put in front of you because you’re mostly doing photo-ops or interviews; focus on not eating in a weird way that could be turned into a meme (note that this “meal” appears to be half-eaten finger-foods); make sure you don’t accidentally end up in a place where the owner has ties to the KKK or also runs a leather fetish bar; make sure the people on staff don’t refuse to serve you because you’re a homophobe and start a big public confrontation; find a place with plenty of space for cameras + staff that’s not crowded and can serve lots of people quickly; etc etc. For all sorts of reasons this basically rules out hip places unless you’re staging an explicit photo op at some iconic location (which, if Pence did this in NYC, would be an actual indicator of incompetence).

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  21. Adding to what said. Before chains, most restaurants and hotels in the United States were of questionable quality unless you were in a big city or in a region with a specific regional cuisine like BBQ in Texas or North Carolina or Cajun in Louisiana. Chains and franchises made eating out less of an adventure and more of a pleasure. Its still like that in many places, I know this from personal travel experience in some really remote places in the United States. People in New York City and other major foodie places tend to forget this.

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    • Definitely. Small family diners in remote places are, as a rule, terrible: food that would be uninteresting if it were done well, which it isn’t. But then, once in a great while, you stumble into one that is simply wonderful. The problem is that you can’t tell from the outside which is which. Not even by counting cars in the parking lot, since in places this remote people don’t have any other choice, and they get acculturated to the place. If I am driving toward some place large enough to have chains, I will usually wait until I get there rather than roll the dice. But once I check into my room, I’ll ask the person at the front desk for recommendations of local places. Sure, he might direct you to his brother-in-law’s horrible place, or he might simply have lousy taste, but I figure at that point the odds have tilted to making it worth a shot.

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  22. I’ve found that middlebrow eateries/diners here in the UK are often quite good. If you are in the UK, you should try

    1. Frankies and Bennies – A british chain of american style 70s-ish diners

    2. Pizza express – Its a pizza chain, but it does italian style pizzas. Its got a better than decent variety and is consistently solid-good

    3. Harvester – a chain of diners found throughout the uk. You should pretty much only come here if you have not eaten for 2 days because the portions are huge.

    4. Prezzo – a slightly more upscale italian chain. I’ve only been to it once, but it was quite good when I went there.

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  23. As a New Yorker who has dined in chain restaurants in the city (once on a first date with an out-of-towner and once while drunk for neverending pasta bowl), I tend to scoff at suxh experiences for two main reasons:
    1. They’re often overpriced. If you’re in midtown (and Godforbid Times Square), renrs are exorbitant and everything is a tourist trap. Prices can be 50% more than other locales. You’ll even see ads that have fine print noting a given deal js not applicable in Manhattan or TSq.
    2. There are so many better options. And not just haute cuisine. The street meat guy outside (stilled marked up but probably only a buck or two to $8) sells food I’d take over Chilis any day.

    But that’s me. I’m super adventerous with food and love spice and heat. I try not to be pretentious… I’ll eat in dive joints and even some fast food cuz sometimes you just NEED a BigMac. Not everyone is like that. Some people need predictability or “safe” food choices… I’m seeing one such woman now.

    I saw the initial Pence tweet and did scoff. “Michael Scott move,” I thought. A joke is okay. More than that? Ugh…

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  24. My experience of living in Salt Lake City, which was a few decades ago, is that there are lots of places to eat, some of them of very high quality, especially if you like steak, but they all treated spices as being slightly more illegal than heroin, even the Mexican-style restaurants. At the Mongolian barbecue, the spicy oil had to be added after cooking, lest trace amounts of it contaminate someone else’s food.

    On the broader point, there’ no accounting for taste. Around here, the are some wonderful family-owned Mexican places, but we still have Chipotle and Chili’s.

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