Living here in Orange County has some great advantages.  Safe, clean, and new.  But in the underbelly of the culinary and food landscape is a dangerous undercurrent of the “big box” restaurants taking over.

Before I go any further, I don’t mean that in a specific sense – that there are no good restaurants in the OC.  That’s just not true.  With restaurants like Marche’ Moderne, Mastro’s, Sushi Kappo and the like, there are dining experiences to be had.  What concerns me is the frequency and regularity in which big box restaurants like BJ’s, Chili’s, Yardhouse, CPK, PF Chang’s, Panera Bread, and let’s not forget the ever present and ubiquitous Corner Bakery, have risen from the ashes of capitalistic companies that will stop at nothing until you hand over your taste buds.  Many of you will say, “Hey, lay off BJ’s, they have great happy hour!”  To which I say that I actually eat at BJ’s.  I like it.  But to have a place like BJ’s define my taste buds for what a pizza should taste like is scarier than watching “The Exorcist” with the lights off on Halloween.

As I drive around town, I can’t tell you the number of big box restaurants that are opening.  What I can tell you is that it is increasingly clear that there is no room in the OC for new family run restaurants that give a community its identity.  You will never find Guy Fieri’s ghastly “Diners, Drive-In, and Dives” in Orange County.  Why?  Because the old establishments are gone and new ones that rise do not rise where big box restaurants come to hunt and kill.  “To kill and be killed”, they say.  Well, with deep pockets like the Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden, a place like “Sushi Wasabi” doesn’t stand a chance.  These big box restaurants can ride out an economic dive with only 25% capacity.  Sushi Wasabi losing 25% of their clientele is like losing its life line and quite frankly, the entire business.

Which is to say that while there is nothing wrong with big box restaurants, they have become so entrenched in our every day lives that at some no-so-distant future, our reference point for a good bolognese will be what they’re serving at your local Macaroni Grill.  And to add insult to injury, the baseline for Chinese dumplings will not be at Din Tai Fung, but the ghastly and awful establishment known to us as PF Chang’s.

Part of the problem with the picture above is that it reminds us of too many restaurants we already know and perhaps even frequent too often.  It’s too indistinguishable from all the other restaurants taking over America.  When I look at it, I don’t know if it’s a BJ’s, a Chili’s, a Yardhouse, a Claim Jumper, etc.  It just looks like a big box restaurant.  So please, I implore all of you to go and find that good family run business and frequent it often.  So often that they know you by name.  Try to get out of the ease of driving towards another BJ’s to have another freakin’ pizookie.  Try to eat Chinese food at a restaurant where utensils are not part of the name [i.e. Wok Inn, Chopsticks Heaven, or the ever growing popular Pick Up Stix].  Yes, that may require you to drive to some ethnic parts of your city.  Get over it.  Our generational identity in our appetite for food depends on it.