When you walk into one of the city's better restaurants, there's a certain set of expectations that you bring along. If you're planning to drop a pretty penny on a decent meal, you expect great service, top-notch food, and a great atmosphere. You also probably expect for a basket full of bread or rolls to make it to your table, and that's one of those old-school dining traditions that really, really needs to die.
Sure, it's great to wait the 15 minutes before your dish comes to the table with a basket of warm, crusty bread and butter. But most of the time, bread service is such an afterthought at restaurants that the result is much more reminiscent of a few old buns dragged out from the back of your own bread bin at home than a Francophile's yeasty dream. Often, the bread in these baskets is cold, slightly stale, and leaves you wondering exactly when (or where!) it was even baked.
There are a few occasional gems when it comes to bread baskets, like Henderson Avenue's Gemma. There, the basket is filled with muffins, rolls, and scones prepared in-house by pastry chef Stephanie Childress, and accompanied with a ramekin of housemade salted butter. Considering the cost of dinner at Gemma, the bread basket here adds to the value of your already-expensive dinner. Unfortunately, it's is a rare exception in a world of very mediocre bread baskets.
For the past few years, bread baskets have been on sort of a downward slide in the country's better restaurants. In 2013, The Boston Globe found that restaurants there were replacing the traditional bread offerings with other snacks, like pickles and bar nuts. At Knife, John Tesar's steakhouse at The Highland, an assortment of fresh crudite, beef jerky, and green goddess dressing is a much more suitable choice before slamming 28 ounces of ribeye.
A 2014 survey in the Bay Area found that some restaurants were spending upwards of $2,000 a month on bread, largely for the complimentary bread baskets left on the table. We can guess that the numbers in Dallas are similar, especially when you consider the premium purveyors like Empire and Village Baking Cos. that most restaurants use for their breads. If you know anything about the restaurant business, you know that the costs for these so-called "freebies" are built into the costs of entrees, appetizers, and desserts. As a result, that crappy assortment of rolls and sourdough slices is making diners pay more for already-expensive ingredients like grassfed meats and locally grown produce.
There are also a number of chefs who would be happy to ditch bread service. When we talked with Chef Brian Zenner of The Mitchell and On Premise last year while he was working at Oak, the long-standing tradition was on his list of the most played-out restaurant services. "Bread service pains me sometimes. It's this begrudging thing, and I feel like I don't always want you to eat half a loaf of bread when you're about to eat my dinner." said Zenner. "At the Mansion, they have little demi baguettes, and I always thought that should be it. That's all you get. That's the fun part of having bread at your table, not just gorging on it. I applaud places like Gemma that do something more interesting than just handing out bread, but maybe we don't need it.
Maybe we don't need bread service, or at least if we're going to keep it around, restaurants should be doing more to make it interesting. If you're insisting on serving me that boring baguette, at least mix it up with some kind of chipotle-infused butter or an interesting oil-based dipping sauce. These kinds of additions wouldn't take much effort, especially in kitchens where just about everything is made artisanally. If you're going to give me a freebie, make it worthy of the food that you're about to charge me for.