What More Restaurants Should Do

Yesterday, I ate lunch with Sidney’s family out on the patio at a popular Myrtle Beach restaurant. With temperatures reaching into the 70s, it was a great afternoon enjoying the atmosphere that River City Café provides. Part of the charm of the place is the ability to use provided crayons to color on the paper table cover. My niece and nephew certainly let their creative juices flow over the course of the lunch.

Enjoying our lunch at River City Cafe during the gorgeous Myrtle Beach afternoon (photo cred to Brenda).

This reminded me of my favorite restaurant in Spokane. Tomato Street is a well-known Italian restaurant in the north part of the city that offers amazing food and, just like River City Café, a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. In addition to the cans of tomato sauce that line the walls, the chalkboard stations that are installed around the restaurant, and the servers who take “flair” to a whole new level there is another “experience building” part of Tomato Street. Whenever a family sits down at a table, it is covered in a fresh white sheet of paper. A cleaned out can of tomato sauce filled with color crayons waits upon the blank slate. Customers go nuts letting their inner artist run wild.

Tomato Street in Spokane is my favorite restaurant.

When drawing on a Tomato Street table, you always want to do your best work. Why? Well, the restaurant will take the very best pieces of dinner art and display them in a glass showcase located in the very large waiting area. When we were younger, it was always a thrill for my family to go to Tomato Street and see if the drawings we did on our previous visit made the showcase. Before social media, it was one of the very best and creative examples of user generated content.

A drawing my dad did of me a couple years ago at Tomato Street. No, it did not make the showcase.

So, what is so special about coloring on the top of a table? Thousands of restaurants across the country do it, right? Yes and yes. However, these days I am surprised that more restaurants don’t do it, primarily because of the phrase I used to end the previous paragraph.

Besides being cost effective and besides serving as a way to entertain guests, Tomato Street utilizes paper table covers as a way for customers to help promote its restaurant (aka user generated content). When someone is drawing/coloring at a restaurant, the common tendency is to create something that is somewhat related to that restaurant. It was not a coincidence that the drawings that made the Tomato Street showcase had something to do with Tomato Street. Each piece of art hung was basically a testimonial for the restaurant.

Now we are in the age of social media. No longer do these pieces of user generated content need to be sheltered inside the walls of the restaurant for people who are already customers to see. Social media can now take these ultra-creative works of art and broadcast them out to an audience that could potentially reach millions. Forget marketing slogans, forget corporate designed logos, and forget staged photos…table cover art made by actual customers is where it is at!

Sure, any restaurant that converts from a traditional table cloth to one that allows customers to draw on it is not reinventing the wheel. The ploy has been around forever. But from what I have seen, businesses have yet to monopolize on this quirky method inside of the digital world. For the Instagram or Facebook account of any restaurant looking for fresh content to post, I think a gold mine awaits with customer produced table art. Don’t Blink.

Where All the Restaurants Taste the Same

If you go out to eat, there is one option you can always choose that will be safe: Mexican. If everyone in your party likes this type of food, then In terms of quality and menu choices you can’t really go wrong with going to the local Mexican restaurant.

Keep in mind what I am talking about. I am lumping together what the industry calls “Mexican family restaurants.” These are the dime a dozen sit-down Mexican places you find sprinkled in every city. I am not talking about Taco Bell, mission burrito joints, or Qdoba…I am highlighting the Fiesta en Jaliscos, El Sombreros, Aztecas, etc. of the world. If this is a place where you sit down, get chips and salsa, and order off a menu that has a heading of “combinations” followed by a bunch of numbers you know what I am talking about. And yes, I think they are all the same.

Now I know some of you might be cursing at your smart device or computer right now saying that I am crazy. Very well, you might have more sensitive taste buds than me. But personally, I find very little difference in the Mexican restaurant located on the side of the street that I am standing on and the Mexican restaurant located on the side of the street across from me.

I think I am semi-qualified to speak to this just because I have stayed consistent in what I have ordered at a Mexican restaurant for the last twenty years or so. I most always get the same thing…two enchiladas…one ground beef and one chicken. Sometimes I might switch it up a bit and get a burrito but in all honesty burritos taste the exact same as enchiladas. Anyway, my two enchiladas surrounded by refried beans and rice have tasted roughly the exact same at the hundreds of Mexican places I have dined at in my lifetime. I try to find distinguishing factors but many times it is impossible.

Not that this is a bad thing at all. Like I said above, it makes eating at a Mexican restaurant a solid choice. Burgers, fish, Asian food, and steak taste different at every place you go. People have different preferences on how they want these particular items to taste so it is always a risk selecting a restaurant. No such dilemma at a Mexican restaurant. You go anywhere and you know you can bank on getting the standard tacos/burritos/enchiladas with rice and beans, a cold Corona, and chips & salsa.

Now that I mentioned it though, I guess I should point out the separating factor that might put one Mexican restaurant ahead of the other: Chips and salsa. I admit that while any combination platter you get will pretty much taste universally the same, a business can shine a little brighter with its chips and salsa. If the restaurant serves warm and unlimited chips that is a good start. If they go the extra mile and make their chips homemade and provide a couple different types of salsas (one better be spicy), that makes it all the better. If I can slightly taste the grease and butter on the chip than that restaurant will definitely have the edge.

Atmosphere also plays a factor as well. For the same price I have ate the same tasting/looking Mexican platter in spacious, well-lit establishments as well as dirty, sketchy dives. When it comes down to it, I will always take my girlfriend to the place with a functioning sign and clean bathrooms.

Stressing out over where to take your relatives or visiting friends to dinner? Simply choose one of the many local Mexican restaurants in your area located in a decent part of town…and make sure the chips and salsa are delicious and plentiful! Don’t Blink.