Meatloaf is meatloaf, no matter how you serve it

A voters' parable by Brian Sack
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The Independent US

You live in a very large town. There are only two restaurants. They're across the street from one another. They've been there forever. But they're all the dining choices the town has to offer - aside from a few places on the outskirts that most folks shun because the directions are confusing and some of the menu items just sound ridiculous.

You live in a very large town. There are only two restaurants. They're across the street from one another. They've been there forever. But they're all the dining choices the town has to offer - aside from a few places on the outskirts that most folks shun because the directions are confusing and some of the menu items just sound ridiculous.

To be honest, neither restaurant is particularly thrilling. They both serve meatloaf made with different recipes. Which recipe is better depends on your taste, though many will say that meatloaf is meatloaf, no matter how you dress it up. Both places are well aware that there's no real competition in town. They figure that if they can get you in the door with a few Happy Hour specials, you'll probably stay for dinner.

It has certainly crossed your mind to just eat at home, but everyone seems adamant that you go out. "Just pick a place," they tell you, "and eat there." When you suggest perhaps trying one of the places on the outskirts of town, they tell you that those are too out of the way and you'd be wasting your time.

So, you trudge to one of the two places. You look at the menu and then you walk across the street. You look at their menu and walk back across the street. You peek through the windows of one place. And the other. It's getting cold, and it's getting late. There are decisions to be made. You need to pick your meatloaf. One place has good meatloaf, but their side dishes are wanting. A consistent menu, yes, but not a lot of variety. They finally started offering string beans, only to tell you that they won't serve them with butter. You're not quite sure why, but it's not even an option.

The chef seems nice enough. You're not sure where he trained, but his dad was a chef and briefly ran the place. In fact, a lot of the kitchen staff stayed on. The menu hasn't changed much, but the prices went up. He strolls around the dining room and chats to everyone with the familiarity of a good friend, patting them on the back and leaving you to wonder who exactly is in the kitchen.

Service is good, and even better if you're connected. Big tippers get better tables and first dibs on dessert. But the place can get on your nerves. They won't change the radio. Sometimes it gets a bit stuffy. They continue to tell you that they love string beans, just not with butter.They insist that their mashed potatoes are fantastic, even though most reviews say otherwise. And you're really sick of their Brussels sprouts.

And then, you have the establishment just across the street.

It was the "in" place for several years, but no more. It claims to be under new management, although it has the same logo and napkins. The new chef says that he studied with the masters in France, but no one can vouch for him and he won't show you his qualifications. He says that he has a better menu than the guys across the street. You'd like to believe him, but his menu only lists the courses, not the ingredients, because the ingredients keep changing depending on who is at the table.

A lot of the patrons say that the new chef is a jerk, but they're boycotting the other place, so he'll have to do. The chef insists that he has better meatloaf than the guy across the street. The key to great meatloaf is lean ground beef, he says. Then he says that it's the spices. Then he says that it's the ketchup. If you ask him to elaborate, he'll tell you to forget the meatloaf and concentrate on the great side dishes.

The side dishes are the menu's greatest strength, and, conversely, its greatest weakness. In trying to appeal to every palate, the menu is overwhelmed. Some are quite good, and others are just terrible. And they don't mix well. Beetroot doesn't go with rice, for example.

The Best Restaurant Awards are soon. This is no small affair: the winning chef's recipe becomes the town's meatloaf standard. Consequently, people get very excited about the BRAs, and some become downright emotional.

While the new chef is perfecting his recipe at the back, one of his patrons makes a film suggesting that the meatloaf offered by the competition is flavoured with mouse-crap. But across the street, several diners cast doubt on the new chef's credentials. Others point out that his recipe for meatloaf keeps changing ingredients, and the ketchup is always too strong.

While the diehard patrons of each establishment keep eating, the majority of folks filter out of both restaurants and stand in the street, debating whether or not to check out those restaurants on the outskirts of town.

Eventually, they decide it's too much of a hassle to go anywhere else. Citing the lesser of two evils, they head back to the place whose chef they dislike the least.

Either way, they're getting meatloaf.

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