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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The healthy eating debate crosses the restaurant threshold

All of a sudden, restaurants, those temples of wish fulfillment and gluttony, are under fire for being too unhealthy. On Monday the New York Times reported that Michelle Obama has taken her fight with obesity to the National Restaurant Association. But that's not the first we've heard of it.

Of course, fast food restaurants have long been the subject of scrutiny when it comes to the health of our nation. Mid priced, chain restaurants have had their share of bashing on the subject as well. But high end restaurants have mainly stayed out of the conversation. Why? I don't know. The same reason flight attendants love to pour champagne down the gullets of first class passengers but if you order a second scotch in coach they look at you like you're a hobo (in other words, because rich people get a pass)? Because they're considered a once-in-a-while treat that very few people could reasonably eat enough of to make that much of a difference?

Of course, it does make a difference for one group of people: restaurant critics.

In his much-discussed open letter to Atlanta chefs, one of the points John Kessler made was to cut back on the gluttony. His third point was direct: "Think about our health."

For personal reasons, I completely agree with this request. I eat so many restaurant meals, and I wish I could consume fewer calories while doing so. Of course, there are strategies I've found to help - the gym, the only-eat-half tactic - but still. I find I have a huge amount of gratitude when the food is not only delicious, it's also somewhat healthy.

But that's me - not the regular dining public. For most people, an expensive meal out is a rare treat. Perhaps most people want that one meal to feel decadent. Perhaps excess is the name of the game. The conundrum, for reviewers, reminds me of the question Anthony Bourdain posed when I interviewed him a few months back: "Is there a point, a number of meals, a number of years in which you become unreliable or you’re not just useful as an observer of food?" I'm not suggesting that us critics don't have any grasp on what regular people want, but it's possible our immersion in eating can cloud things from time to time.

So, what do you guys want? Healthy options? Or bacon-foie gras-splosion?

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