Prior to Fred Harvey civilizing railroad dining, American travelers were hostage to trains' "refreshment room" schedules: In the nineteenth-century, it wasn't unusual for passengers to be granted 10 quick minutes to get their fill of hard-boiled eggs, hams custards, patties and pies.
As a visiting British naval officer recorded in his 1849 diary: "The cars stop, all the doors are thrown open, and out rush all, like boys out of school, and crowd round the tables to solace themselves...The bell rings for departure, in they all hurry with their hands and mouths full, and off they go again."
Those early trackside restaurants didn't offer much in the way of service or sophisticated cookery. Some of the them didn't even offer chairs. But Frederic Marryat claimed nobody left hungry.
Modern restaurants are frequently more artful affairs. For no more than $50, a diner can buy an evening complete with professional wine service; an amuse bouche before the meal; hearth-baked bread with Guernsey butter; gorgeous small plates constructed from local produce and a masterfully-made espresso to accompany dessert. Yet at many of the nicest restaurants, satiety is rarely guaranteed.
I had two lovely meals at Greg Atkinson's Restaurant Marche, the subject of this week's review. But I wouldn't describe either meal as filling: The portions were delicately-sized, and servers on both visits actively discouraged me from ordering additional food. I wasn't extraordinarily troubled by the situation, since I can always snack after a review meal (a startling number of review nights end with me eating Tapatio Doritos.) But my experience led me to wonder whether serious chefs should be expected to attend to something as prosaic as temporary hunger.
The old joke about bad food and small portions makes sense because the value of a disappointing dish can only be measured in calories. In the absence of pleasure, you're paying to get fed. But that's not the case at a great restaurant, where a customer might be entertained, educated or enthralled by a dish. The taste of Marche's salade Lyonnaise is worth $10, never mind its size. Yet I suspect very few diners think of a restaurant meal as a purely aesthetic occasion.
Patrons of other arts aren't quite so greedy: Nobody goes to the theater or the symphony looking to have their physical needs met. It would be ludicrous for a museum visitor to complain that he saw only beautiful paintings, when he also needed to see a PowerPoint presentation for work the next day. But the culinary arts and commerce are intimately intertwined, so it's the rare diner who'll happily submit to a chef's vision and then go home hungry.
To be fair, $10 for a taste is a defensible deal: $21 - which is what Marche charges for its steak frites - is a wholly different matter. Knowing there were Doritos in my future didn't feel me leaving any less indignant about the size of the $24 salmon I was served at Marche. I understand quality ingredients command a higher price, but couldn't Marche have put extra fingerling potatoes on the plate? Or allotted more than one roll per person?
Clearly, small portions are not a pressing national problem. Chain restaurants are notorious for serving way more food than they should: According to a new study, 96 percent of chain restaurant entrees have more fat, saturated fat and sodium than the USDA recommends. An earlier study showed the average muffin is 233 percent bigger than USDA recommended-dimensions. Unsurprisingly, the trend's been blamed for contributing to the obesity crisis.
I'm not even sure small portions can be construed as a local problem, since my perspective's skewed by my appetite. I've always been an enthusiastic eater, and my standard review day diet makes me even more so. I typically eat a 100-calorie granola bar for breakfast and a 120-calorie package of salmon for lunch, which - according to the Mayo Clinic's calorie calculator - means I'm 1900 calories short of my daily recommended intake when I show up for dinner. That means I could eat Red Lobster's crab alfredo linguine and a Golden Corral steakburger (two dishes often cited as offenders in the excessive size category), and not significantly overshoot my goal.
I'm often surprised when other local reviewers are overwhelmed by servings I find insufficient: When The Stranger's Bethany Jean Clement reviewed Altura, she wrote, "If you can eat more than three courses at Altura, then you are a hero of appetite." After a five-course meal at Altura, I wrote, "Should you string together a nearly perfect dinner-and-a-movie evening by heading to the nearby Harvard Exit after eating, plan on ordering lots of popcorn."
So my comments should probably be taken with a grain of salt, or however much the USDA allows. But whether you're a plate cleaner or someone who always leaves a restaurant with leftovers, I still think it's instructive to think on the balance between art and appetite.