California prides itself on being the food and wine capital of the United States. There’s certainly a lot of justification for that in places like San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Monica, La Jolla, Napa, the Wine Country, etc., but it’s also true that Out There in the sticks the food is just as likely to be standard “International Cuisine” (i.e. fried chicken and “New York Steaks”) or worse (ever wondered how they could make Calimari Steaks from boneless squid? Well, take a lot of calimari and a heavy hammer; bash away until the bits have congealed into something roughly steak-shaped; deep fry until vulcanized…). But you can always cheer yourself up by remembering that even out there in the middle of nowhere, the food will still almost always be better than anything you could ever get in the same sort of place in England — and at half the price.
If you’re like me when I first came here from London, Californian restaurants and cafes will actually provide you with a pleasant culture shock: not only are they usually clean, cheap, open useful hours, relatively healthy, and serve reasonable food, but even in the humblest of places you’ll be given a bewildering choice of things like bread, cheese, and coffee. For example, even ordering something as simple as a cheese sandwich with a side salad and coffee, you’ll need to be ready to answer the inevitable questions:
- “What kind of bread?”. Your choices here are likely to be sourdough (white), wheat (brown), rye (white or brown), 7-grain, 9-grain, sourdough roll, soft sourdough, hard sourdough, seeded roll, batard, croissant, etc. “Wheat” is always a safe choice, if you ask me. Don’t ask for “white” or “brown” bread — there really isn’t such a simple thing here; waitresses will roll their eyes and think you’re from Iowa.
- “What kind of cheese?”. Well, here you’re going to have to choose from a bunch of unlikely cheese types like “Swiss” (!), “Cheddar”, “Jack” (Monterey Jack), provolone, etc. “Swiss”, by the way, simply means the cheese has holes in it, presumably drilled in the Great New Jersey Cheese Factory before it was sent over here by cheese tanker. If I don’t know the place well, I always pick “Jack”, which at least has pretensions to being Californian.
- “What kind of salad?” This one’s a real killer if you’re English and think all salads are just bits of lettuce and cucumber with whole tomatoes. “Caesar” or “House” are probably the safest bets here.
- “What kind of [salad] dressing?”. Typical choices are “oil and vinegar”, “thousand island”, “ranch”, etc. Again. if I don’t know the place, I ask for “oil and vinegar” — it’s kind of hard to destroy something so simple. But it happens.
- “What kind of coffee?”. There’s more than “black” or “white” here — typical choices include “house” (plain brewed coffee), and the usual espresso, mocha, capuccino, latte, etc.; most are available in caffeinated or decaffeinated (“decaf”) versions (a.k.a. “leaded” and “unleaded”).
- When a waiter or waitress asks whether you want “cream” in your coffee, they’re usually asking whether you want milk. If you’re lucky the “cream” will be what’s called “half and half”, i.e. half milk, half cream; more commonly it’ll just be plain old milk. In the better places, your choices will also include “non-fat”, “low-fat”, and soy milk, all fairly self-explanatory choices, and all fairly well-known (but not always available) in most places in the state.
These choices can be intimidating and confusing, and you should develop a stock set of default answers so that you always have some idea of what you’re getting. In most cases, too, the waiter or waitress will not spell out the possible choices unless you ask — he or she will simply ask “what kind of bread?”, for example. You’re expected to know the various standard choices likely to be available, and to ask for them with the order (e.g. “I’ll have the House salad with oil and vinegar, a tuna melt on white rye with Swiss, and a decaf soy latte, please” (not that I ever have decaf anything, but it’s the thought that counts, no?)). You might also need to know some of the more pretentious terms for coffee in places like Berkeley or Santa Monica — not knowing the difference between a doppio capuccino and a latte grande could be a major faux pas.
Some additional notes:
- In this country salads are usually served before the main meal, on their own. Don’t do what I did when I first got here and sit there with your salad uneaten waiting for your main course so that you can eat it with the salad — the waiter or waitress will hang around waiting for you to finish the salad before he or she brings the main course.
- In California an “entree” is the main course, not the appetizer (“entry”) course. What we UnAmericans would call an entree is called an “appetizer” here. Don’t order an entree thinking it’s just a starter — it will almost always be a large main course dish.
- “Cookies” are what Britons and Australians call “biscuits”; in California, a biscuit is something quite different — it’s possible (but not advisable) to get something called a “sausage biscuit” here (Americans: think “sausage Oreo” to get some feeling for the horror the phrase “sausage biscuit” causes in British or Australian minds). Similarly, American muffins bear no relationship to their English forebears, nor do scones (always pronounced “scohn”, with the long “o”) have much to do with English scones. Crumpets exist, but are (confusingly) sometimes called “English Muffins”.
- Restaurants here almost never lay enough cutlery for each place on the table; you end up having to rescue knives and forks (etc.) from departing plates so you can eat the next course. This is almost universal — it’s rare to eat at a place that sets the right amount of cutlery either before you eat or as they bring the next course — and you just get used to keeping your butter knife around for use with your main course. Waiters and waitresses always act surprised or suspicious when you ask for another spoon or fork.
- Sandwiches here are invariably made using mayonnaise and mustard instead of butter or margarine (mustard on the top slice, mayo on the bottom). The mustard is usually slathered on so thickly that it’s almost impossible to taste the rest of the sandwich (which is probably the whole point, come to think of it). While it’s fairly easy to stop sandwich makers from using the mustard (“hold the mustard!”), asking them to use butter or margarine (or whatever) instead of mayonnaise is pointless — most sandwich places simply do not have any butter or anything except mayo and mustard. You’ll get used to it.
- Californian food regulations seem to specify that all sandwiches, regardless of contents, be served with, or preferably contain, things called “pickles”. These are usually sharp-tasting pickled sliced cucumbers, and, predictably, these too dominate the taste of any sandwich they’re put into. Yes, you can get sandwiches made without pickles, but it’s usually a struggle, and you’ll be branded UnAmerican for the rest of your life. I say it’s worth it, but you may differ (or you may just like the fact that the pickle hides the underlying blandness of the rest of the sandwich…).
- Take-away or eat-out food is generally called “take-out” here. If you’re at a place that does take-out food, you’ll usually be asked whether your order is “for here or to go”. If ordering, use something like “I’ll have a tuna melt on light rye with jack to go, please”, or similar with “for here” instead.
- The legal (alcohol) drinking age here is twenty-one. This is quite crazy and leads to all sorts of problems in restaurants, bars, and liquor stores. If you look younger than about 30, you will be asked to provide proof of age if you try to buy or order alcohol; in my experience non-USA drivers licenses and the like will not be accepted, and you’ll be treated like a child from that point on. Don’t get upset at the waiter or store clerk for trying to enforce this — it’s the law, and he or she may lose their job or business by not enforcing it.
I’m a snob about restaurants, but if you’re out on the road, the restaurant chains like Pizza Hut, Chevy’s, Lyons, or Denny’s (etc.) won’t kill you; at least you’ll eat better in one of them than at one of the you-know-who fast food hamburger places. I believe you’re actually better off in a strange town eating at one of the chain places if you haven’t got time to Yelp or Google the area for real restaurants. The food in these places is at least standardized and properly-prepared, if not particularly imaginative (think “New York Steak” or “Chicago Pizza”…).
One of the problems you’ll face in places like this is the sheer size of the portions and servings. You’ve probably noticed that Californians are often (how to say this politely?) larger than life; the size of the meals helps explain why. The amount of (and waste of) food here is staggering. You are not expected to eat everything on your plate unless you’re really starving, or you’re eating at some sort of hip California Cuisine place where the portions are naturally tiny. In fact, it is quite normal for the waiter or waitress to come around when you’ve stopped eating and ask whether he or she should wrap the remaining food up for you — i.e. put it into a “doggy bag” so you can take it home with you and eat it later. This is perfectly acceptable, and it is quite O.K. to ask the waiter or waitress yourself for this.
Oh, and don’t forget to tip — normally at least 15% of the total bill.