Indiana Governor Mike Pence accepted the Vice Presidential spot on the now Trump/Pence ticket. Then he did something that bread controversy:

This opened up a dialogue. Allegedly, this began when some people mocked Pence for eating at Chili’s in New York City. I caught the second phase, which was people defending the choice. Then came the third phase, which accused everybody in Phase Two of being faux-populist because Chili’s is trash and everybody knows it.

It was an endless plate of meta.

But it brought to light several questions:

  1. Is it acceptable to eat at Chili’s in New York City when there are other options available?
  2. Why, precisely, was Mike Pence eating at Chili’s in New York City? Was he trying to flash some working class cred and engage in some culture wars, or is he a tasteless dweeb without sufficient taste and sophistication?
  3. Is it acceptable to criticize him for doing so, and suggest that it is indicative of said lack of taste and sophistication? Or does that make you an elitist?
  4. Is it acceptable to defend eating at Chili’s in New York? Or does that make you a phony populist?

One of the more interesting aspects of this discussion is the notion that Chili’s represents “working class” to begin with. It doesn’t, especially, in my view. I associate it more with middle class, in suburbia, small cities, and large towns. For those on the left talking up phony populism, and those on the right trying to demonstrate populism, Chili’s is an odd hill on which to do battle. It’s not especially inexpensive. Apart from Denny’s, none of them carry a blue class vibe. Outside of the bar, they cater as much as anything to families on their night out as anything, and groups of people who all want to grab a bite to eat and want something they can agree on. Places of this sort tend to have wide and varied menus that can cater to different people at once.

Due to my biography, the place I most recognized this dynamic was small city and big town America. In suburbia you sort of take these places for granted, but in Deseret it was a big deal to get one of these restaurants. That’s not because there’s no good local cuisine, exactly. In fact, in Deseret, you have an unusually high assortment of restaurants with dishes from all across the world. (Think Mormons, who like to open businesses and many of whom spend two years overseas in foreign cultures.) But you grow up and you see these ads for places on TV and then you find out they’re opening one here! Wow! You can finally get those dishes that you keep hearing about!

And they’re not bad. They’re median food, almost definitionally. They’ve been field tested extensively by corporations with a lot of resources and a strong motivation to figure out what median people like. You don’t have to like it, but if you think it’s trash then… yes… you run the risk of snobbery or elitism. Even if you aren’t, you are in the company of a lot of people that are.

On the other hand, if you think they are unremarkable and you’re puzzled as to why someone would go all Michael Scott and eat at Chili’s in New York City, I get that. As with a lot of things snobbery-related, a lot of it depends on the delivery. If you feel the need to denigrate Chili’s, though, well that came come across poorly. If you’re of the mind that Pence wanted that reaction, well maybe he did. But if people took the bait, they took the bait. If you don’t want to get caught up in the “dining wars” of casual dining chains, then don’t. And if you’re a snob, then own it. (I’m not a snob about food, but I can be a snob about other things.)

I don’t know Pence’s motivations and don’t much care. I could see him thinking that he could get a rise out of people by eating at Chili’s. Or that this could be a homespun appeal to Regular Folk. On the other hand, the guy had a really big weekend and there was a lot going on. When we last moved across the country, we passed through a lot of good food towns and ate chains. Why? Because food wasn’t really the point. We just wanted something reliably good (to us) and get on our way. Mike Pence was just tapped to be a Vice Presidential nominee and had gone to New York on the equivalent of a last-minute business trip. I can certainly imagining myself finding comfort in Chili’s under those circumstances.

Truth be told, though, I didn’t actually see as much original outcry as I saw outcry against the outcry. Which is to say, by the time I caught wind of the conversation, it was people saying “Actually, Chili’s is okay” and “Chili’s is awesome” and “Screw the snobs!” This is not uncommon. Either I miss the first round, or as often as not the blowback to the thing is bigger than the thing. But even if we accept that some people did go ahead and mock Pence for his pedestrian ways, and we figure on the blowback, the third round was people telling people in the second round that they can’t possibly like Chili’s (or can’t not have a problem with Pence eating there).

That’s actually a more severe statement than “I don’t like Chili’s” and even “Chili’s is crap.” The first is a statement of personal taste, but even the second allows for some disagreement in the “Okay, you like crap.” This, though, is to suggest that Chili’s is so bad that anyone above a certain who claims to like it is a liar.

This lead to the anti-Chili’s populist argument that it’s actually more insulting to the normals to “pretend” you like Chili’s than to insult it. That was kind of a new one on me. I can sort of get the argument that “Actually, Chili’s isn’t that cheap so there’s nothing working class about it.” As mentioned, Chili’s isn’t exactly a working class haven and so it’s not a working class populist deal. Or more precisely, the “class” argument with regard to Chili’s works both ways. But this takes us into a weird space where it’s practically suggesting that liking Chili’s is, in itself, putting a bone in your nose to fit in with the locals. Not anything a sensible person would ever do.

So yeah, let’s chill out about Chili’s. Try their southwestern eggrolls. Good stuff. Or don’t, because it’s not your thing. But let someone else try it, and like it, even if it doesn’t seem like it should. Don’t rise to the bait of politicians baiting you, if that’s what they’re doing. And if that’s not what they’re doing, Chili’s really isn’t such a bad place if you’re a politician crunched for time, want something reliably good, and need to be asking yourself serious questions about your life choices.

Category: Kitchen

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8 Responses to Chili’s in New York City: An Investigation

  1. ScarletNumber says:

    I posted the exact same The Office clip over at Lion of the Blogosphere.

    While I agree with the general sentiment of the backlashers, it is worth noting that there is a Chili’s in NJ on the way from NYC to Teterboro Airport. So that’s probably where he was. While I don’t go there often, I have enjoyed my experiences there.

    • Peter says:

      That’s almost certainly the one Pence visited. There are only three Chili’s locations in NYC. They are in Staten Island, in Glendale in central Queens, and at Kennedy Airport. None would be anywhere close to Pence’s route from Teterboro to Manhattan.

  2. Peter says:

    Chili’s isn’t a bad restaurant by any means. Pretty decent margaritas. I would say that to the extent it aims at particular groups, they are families with children, teenagers on dates, and groups of co-workers going out after work.

  3. Michael Cain says:

    Back in the day when I had to do what seemed like a thousand-and-one one or two day business trips all over the western US, my standard dinner was a green salad, a bowl of soup, and a glass or two of innocuous white wine. Most of the tech companies I was visiting were out in the suburbs. The sit-down chains, including Chili’s, can provide you with a passable soup, reasonably fresh greens, and let’s face it, innocuous is what their wine list is aiming for.

    The best version of that I ever got was in the hotel restaurant at a Best Western the company had stuck me at somewhere in California. The restaurant was empty, which can be a bad sign, but I was too beat to go out looking. Without picking up the menu, I told the middle-aged Hispanic guy who was the only one working in the restaurant what I wanted. He tucked the menu under his arm, smiled, and said, “The cook has been in a mood to experiment today; I think we can do something better than the menu for you.” The salad dressing was first rate and the cream of red bell pepper soup was superb. He told me that the wine was a white blend from one of the small wineries and “The manager doesn’t know that we have a couple of cases of this tucked away.” Much better than innocuous.

  4. I know nothing of this “controversy” except for what you’ve reported.

    Sadly, I know exactly where I’d fall in the debate, and it probably doesn’t reflect well on me. I’d probably rush to defend the decision to go to Chili’s pretty much along the lines of “it’s where regular people like to eat and if New York foodies don’t like it, then….” I’m not saying that’s an accurate reaction, just that it would have been mine.

    • ScarletNumber says:

      Responding to your comment Over There, I rarely go to Cracker Barrel because I live along the Northeast Corridor and they tend to be located closer to PA than to NY.

      However, I have been to the ones off of 78 and 80 and I enjoyed them. Be sure to check out the Old Country Store. I buy some apple butter to take home with me.

      Be warned: for a lot of small towns, Cracker Barrel is the place to be. Therefore, if you go during a popular time, you will have to wait. There are comfortable rocking chairs out front, but still.

      • The main reason I haven’t tried Cracker Barrel where I live is that they’re all out in the suburbs or farther out, and I don’t have a car.

        But thanks for the pointers about the NE corridor. I’ll keep them in mind if/when I ever make it to that area.

        • ScarletNumber says:

          LOL I only said that so you could understand why I don’t go to Cracker Barrel often, even though there are 2 in North Jersey.

          The one off of 78 is Exit 15, which means 15 miles from PA. 78 is about 66 miles in total.

          The one off of 80 is closer to the midpoint, since it is exit 30 and 80 is about 71 miles in total.

          I wouldn’t expect anyone who is staying in NYC to go to either one, especially if they don’t drive. Cracker Barrels and mass transit don’t mix.

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