SECOND HELPINGS

The Write Stuff: How long should a critic wait before reviewing the fare at a new restaurant? Most of my colleagues like to give new places several months' grace, letting them work out the opening kinks. I'm inclined to be a bit less charitable. When Broadway producers are getting a show ready, they generally present a week or two of previews. Critics are alerted that the production is still being fine-tuned, or they're excluded altogether. More important, theatregoers get to see the show at a greatly reduced cost. But how long can a restaurant logically expect to be free from evaluation while it's charging customers full price? Why should the kinks be worked out at our expense? How about a price break while the chef and staff get their act together? Actually, theatre audiences know that any play still being massively overhauled a week before opening is most likely doomed. Same thing in the restaurant biz. Any place that can't get it right after serving 50 dinners is not likely to show up in the Michelin Guide with three stars after 500.

No one can really make an informed judgment about a restaurant in its first few weeks of operation--unlike a Broadway show, not everything can be anticipated or worked out before the first customers are seated. Perhaps the produce supplier is unreliable, the hostess short-tempered.

But after two months, the chaos should be routinized. Sure, there's always ongoing tinkering to keep things primed, but the shakedown period of the new restaurant cruise should be over.

These days, if you don't shape up after a couple of months on a new job, no boss will keep you on. Why should the paying public give a restaurateur any more leeway?

Does the Cream Cheese and Ox Come With Onions?: The New York Times Magazine recently rounded up some menu howlers from the bistros of Manhattan. Among the appetizer selections, its intrepid correspondent found "heart of palm with golf sauce," "loose vegetables" and "lady's finger, saut‚ed and cooked with tomato and onion." Entrees offered such delectable temptations as "special big leg with rice," "baked zit" and "grilled fresh tuna served with soap." Diners partial to sandwiches could find "live wourst."

Ready for dessert? What sweet tooth could resist "chocolate mouse tort" or the inviting "fluffy balls of milksolids in syrup"? A Blimpie, a Shake and a Large Order of Nails: Taking the concept of food-court marketing into virgin territory, the people behind the Home Depot chain are testing Depot Diner, a snack bar featuring several fast-food brands inside 15 Home Depot stores--none, unfortunately, in Arizona. Restaurant News, a trade journal, quotes one fast-food exec on the logic of the enterprise: "Why shouldn't someone who buys a hammer and nails also be able to have a fast, quality, reasonably priced dining experience?" says Anthony Conza, president of the Blimpie chain and a Depot Diner participant. Why not, indeed? I guess it's a lack of that sort of imagination that keeps me from developing into a powerful, visionary businessman like Mr. Conza.

 
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