Second Helpings

Trendspotting: Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer (although, unfortunately, not the end of the heat). As natives start emerging from their homes and snowbirds and tourists begin filling up the Valley, restaurants are busy getting ready for the season. Here are some trends to keep your eye on:

* Making a reservation at a posh restaurant? Better have your credit card handy. I hear more and more places will be demanding credit-card confirmation. The problem is no-shows. It's more than rude to book a table and then not show up. It's stealing. Holding a table for idiots who don't have the courtesy to cancel costs restaurant operators money. Another procedure to look forward to: restaurants phoning you the day of your reservation, making sure you still plan to come.

* Curious about how many calories are in your appetizer, how much cholesterol is in your steak, and how many grams of sugar are in your dessert? I'm not, but some restaurateurs think you are. This pernicious trend, using numbers out of context to masquerade as "information," is threatening to get out of hand.

Now I can see the reasoning behind identifying dishes aimed at diet-conscious diners. I can even understand the reasoning behind providing a nutritional breakdown of those dishes. But subjecting the entire menu to nutritional analysis? Why should restaurant owners worry about my weight, blood pressure or cholesterol count? What's next? Maybe on my next trip to Vegas, the croupier will warn me about the perils of gambling.

* Calories and fat grams are not the only extraneous pieces of information showing up on menus. There's a growing tendency for restaurant owners to share knowledge they'd be better off keeping to themselves. At one trendy place, the menu advises patrons that the veal is "humanely raised." Diners who up until that moment hadn't given the food chain even a moment's thought now suddenly have to deal with images of cute, frolicking calves marched off to slaughter. It doesn't do much for the appetite.

I could also do without menus that boast "we don't use lard," "we use low-fat cheese" or "we never fry our food." What this signals to me is a case of misplaced kitchen priorities. Since when does nutritional correctness take precedence over taste? If this trend continues, the surgeon general will soon be issuing restaurant reviews.

* The best idea in wine service since wine by the glass? That would be wine "tastes"--smaller glasses that let you try more wines with dinner without raising your blood-alcohol level. And with glasses of wine frequently running five dollars and up, the less expensive "tastes" are a wallet-friendly touch.

* Beer drinking used to be associated with the unshaven, suds-swilling, blue-collar masses. Not anymore. More and more restaurants are toning up their brewski lists with imports, microbrews and draught beer. I also think the Valley is on the brink of a brew-pub explosion, like the ones that have hit Seattle, Portland and Denver. Look for lots of new places in town featuring homemade suds and grub.

--Howard Seftel

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