The Restaurant Experience

Now to one of my favorite subjects.. Food.. Just ask my cousin Ken :-)
There are some 400 restaurants here, Many are the size of a garage with about 3 tables. In fact, many ARE garages. There are a myriad of fantastic American and European cuisine establishments and a ton of Ecuadorian restaurants. The influx of expats has had a tremendous impact on the culinary scene. There is a gigantic disparity between the two, not so much on the quality of food, but rather on the affordability and the expectations of their clients. People tell me that as recently as seven years ago there were only a small fraction of the number of restaurants you find today. The good news is the variety you can find, the bad is the effect it has had on the restaurant business itself. For some reason many people, expats especially, seem to think that the restaurant business is an easy nut to crack. Taint so. As a consequence new restaurants open all the time and then close within a short period. Meanwhile the established locations suffer a drop in attendance.
The disparity I mentioned is due to several factors. First of all the national average wage is $385 a month. that puts most of the American type restaurants out of reach.There are some really nice restaurants here but dinner for two with cocktails usually runs me $40 to $50. Well worth it but higher than I am used to. Local places are a different story with the average almuerzo, or complete lunch, running between $2.50 and $3.50 which includes a fresh juice, soup and then a main course with a meat or fish and rice, veggies and a salad. This is usually followed with a desert. More than even the two of us can finish, even sharing. The next factor is the expectation of service. We are spoiled and expect to be waited on very quickly and have our food all brought out at the same time. Not the usual custom here. It may be hard for the Waiter/Owner/Cook to tear himself away from the soccer game he is watching on the ubiquitous hanging TV screen. Checks are seldom, if ever, brought until you ask for them, a custom we don't seem to embrace. If you want more of anything or need a little something, like a new fork, you have to catch the waiters attention and ask him. Once served there is very little interaction with the wait staff until the check is asked for. Thursday night we ate dinner at a nice restaurant downtown for $30.00. Friday on the way home from downtown we stopped into a nice looking corner restaurant with 4 tables and had a hamburger with all the fixings and the ever popular local Salchipapas, tiny hot dogs in a plate of french fries. Pam had a coconut drink and I had coffee. The total bill was $2.75.. The people with these little places don't need much money and have pretty close to no overhead. They usually live in their establishment. Many Americans tend to be put off by chicken soup with chicken feet sticking up, very common. We are used to having coffee refilled free and here they charge per cup.For these reasons many expats tend to search out places that are more similar to what they are accustomed to when it comes to eating out. With the number of restaurants here and the rate of turnover it would be impossible to sample them all over any kind of time frame. There are many Indian restaurants downtown, mostly clustered together, very very few Mexican style restaurants and Chinese restaurants are scattered all over the place. Since lunch is the main meal of the day, usually about 2:00, many restaurants aren't open past 4:00
To give you an idea of the wealth and variety of restaurants we habit here are a few of my favorites. Hands down my favorite is Joe's Secret Garden. There is no signage and reservations must be made well in advance as it is only open on Saturdays. It is in a very large residence with a large garden outside. There is a social hour beginning a 5:00 with a great bar, hors d'oeuvres and an incredibly attentive and knowledge staff. There is a lot of interaction during the social hour and we have made some lasting friendships from that. Dinner is served at 6:30. Inside are a number of rooms with tables set up to accommodate between four and 10 guests each. Seating is assigned in advance and name cards are placed on each table. That is an adventure in itself and another excellent way to make new friends. The food ranges from wonderful fried chicken to Steak Oscar with filet and large prawns. Everyone gets the same thing and it is served in multiple courses. It takes considerable skill to be able to pull that off smoothly. With a couple of drinks each it runs us between $40 and $50 for the night Taxis are called and assigned to guest by number, thereby avoiding the common free for all.
On of the friendships developed at Joe's led to us being invited to a charming french restaurant about 5 miles outside of town up a few dirt roads. It is only open on weekends and reservations are needed so that the chef has a better idea of quantities. The dishes can include complicated french entries as well as more regional items.
There is a great cafe on the main drag, Calle Larga It is always packed with expats, called Sunrise Cafe. It is always packed with expats and does a great business. They do a special every Thursday of steak and eggs. An incredible New York cooked to perfection that melts in your mouth and looks to be about 10 Oz plus 2 eggs, biscuits and potatoes. Endless coffee included $5.99. We share one. Again a very attentive staff, owner wandering to greet everyone, and outstanding food.
There is the Vegetable bar with its familiar atmosphere and great food. Once more well trained attentive staff. Tuesday night there is a trivia contest and many informational meetings take place there.
You get the idea..You may also notice that all these places have American names. Common Grounds, The pub. The list goes on. I have asked most of my Ecuadorian friends if they have ever been to any of these places or even know they exist and the answer is almost always no. Its a shame but understandable.
On the local scene there are a number of vendors upstairs in the local open air markets that serve portions of pork from a whole roasted pig and other Ecuadorian food. There is a road going out of town that is lined with whole pigs on spits. Cuy, or Guinea Pig, is a traditional dish here and there are several restaurants that specialize in it. Plantains and a sort of hominy are traditional accompaniments to most meals here in the Andes. On the coast the cuisine is very different.
OK lots more on this subject, but later.