I love it when readers give feedback, and boy, did you ever on the Jan. 1 column that focused on food and restaurant trends we like and don’t like in 2014.

I received nearly three dozen emails from readers (and they are still coming in), an unprecedented number at a time when most people usually just vent on social media for a bit and then forget about it. The overwhelming majority were positive, except for a handful of people who were angry at the comments about gluten-free menus. More on that below.

There was also a lively discussion on Facebook that briefly turned into a personal attack on me – mostly, from what I could gather, from young people who work in the restaurant industry who think I am as old as Methuselah’s mama. (That made me laugh. No, I’m not 20 anymore, but I’m still way younger than a lot of your bosses.)

One thing that struck me in reading all the messages was the gulf between what the public wants and what people who work in restaurants think they want.

All that said, in the grand scheme of things the column and the reaction to it was not part of any scientific survey, so take everything that follows with the proverbial grain of salt and the spirit of fun in which it was originally intended.

Let me start by addressing your comments on the suggestion that we’ve had enough of gluten-free menus. We asked: “How many people actually have celiac disease? (About 1 percent.)”

Well, people who have celiac disease, or know someone who has it, let me have it.

Virginia from Wells wrote: “First, people don’t have to suffer from celiac’s to be sensitive to gluten – there are thousands of us who cannot tolerate gluten and really appreciate a restaurant that serves a dish or two that will not make us sick. I found your dismissal of that issue insensitive.”

“The fact that so many restaurants now have food that I can eat is a joy to me,” wrote Helen Coxe of Portland, who has celiac disease. “I wish it were possible for me to eat everything that was on the table, but, alas, those days are gone. Local restaurants seem to be practicing inclusion, a very nice trend. And I have never heard complaints from the chefs and managers I have thanked. Some have gone so far to say their customer base has grown.”

Let me just say that if our little rant was offensive to you, I apologize. It’s my fault for not dropping the tongue-in-cheek banter in favor of clarity and thoroughness.

Let me reassure the folks who think I’ve never heard of celiac disease that not only have I heard about it, when I was a science reporter I wrote about it – long before gluten-free became a national buzzword. I know how hard celiac is to live with (as well as sensitivities to wheat), and when we said we’ve had enough of gluten-free menus, we didn’t necessarily mean they should go away completely.

We were actually poking a little fun at the nearly 30 percent of Americans (according to the NPD marketing group) who have just jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon like sheep and say they’re cutting back on gluten for other reasons – to be generally healthier, for example, or to lose weight.

For people who do not have celiac disease, or a milder sensitivity to wheat, going gluten-free is not like eliminating butter from your diet to lower your cholesterol, or cutting out desserts.

There are plenty of anecdotes, but no overwhelming body of scientific research yet showing that eschewing gluten will help you lose weight.

In fact, some people who switch to a gluten-free diet actually gain weight because of the extra sugar or other ingredients added to gluten-free foods to improve taste and texture.

The point is, like most things in life, it’s not all so black and white, and more research needs to be done.

But companies have caught on to the fact that a third of Americans have lots of money to spend, and gluten-free products are now a $4.2 billion a year business. Ka-ching.

This whole debate also makes us wonder, what happens when the next dietary trend comes along? Will people expect every restaurant in town to accommodate them, no matter the cost to the restaurant’s bottom line? Where do they draw the line? Food for thought.

Moving along …

CHATTER ABOUT NOISE

By far the largest number of comments came from readers who thanked me for bringing up the problem of noise in restaurants.

Again, it’s not all or nothing. A little buzz for atmosphere is great because, obviously, you don’t want a restaurant to be dead inside either. Most people who wrote me say they just want the noise turned down a notch or two so they can enjoy conversation with dining companions without having to shout.

I was the one who raised this issue, based on personal experience. I went to a restaurant to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in 15 years. We spent $180 on dinner, but when we left we still felt like we hadn’t gotten caught up because we spent most of the evening shouting at each other over a table for two – and we still couldn’t hear each other.

“Your comments and suggestions really struck home to me,” wrote Susan Soule. “Especially appreciated your suggestion that noisy bar and restaurant does not always make for return diners. We now have struck several off the list for that reason.”

“Thank you so much for bringing up the noise issue,” wrote Bill Goodykoontz of Cape Elizabeth. “There are restaurants which have lost our business solely because of the noise level, and I thank you for bringing it to their attention. I hope you’ll stay on this issue.”

“Excellent piece overall, but particular thanks for the noise in restaurants paragraph,” wrote Harold Stover. “My wife and I base our judgments about whether to go back to a restaurant on both quality of cooking and noise level, and the latter trumps the former no matter how good the former.”

I was talking about this with some friends on Sunday, and one couple told me a story about a recent visit to an unusually noisy restaurant. When they complained, their server said, in a condescending way, “Well, we usually cater to a younger crowd.”

Ouch.

Now, these friends are not exactly spring chickens, but they aren’t ready for the nursing home yet, and did not deserve to be insulted. They have grown all their own food in their huge home garden and have eaten a vegetarian diet, with no processed junk, all their adult lives. In other words, they have already lived the kind of life many young people in Maine strive for now. They are generally healthy and not hard of hearing.

The server’s comment puzzled them, and they asked me: “Don’t young people want to be able to talk over dinner too?”

To his credit, restaurateur Harding Lee Smith – the chef I called out in the column for having noisy restaurants – was a good sport and emailed to say he has turned down the music at his establishments – all of which, he notes, already have sound panels in the ceiling.

He said a busy restaurant will always be noisy – he prefers to call it “convivial” – so even without music, the atmosphere may still be loud.

“I understand the complaints and I have heard them also,” he wrote. “I do say, however, that I’d rather have it loud than empty!”

READERS’ SUGGESTIONS

Finally, here’s some feedback from readers who had their own ideas about how to improve the dining experience in Portland:

From Karen Parry: “To restaurants – please stop seating our party of two next to the party of 8, 10 or 12. Large parties dominate the dining room with their noisy conversation and make an intimate dining experience impossible for the rest of us.

“To patrons – please respect the concept of fine dining and dress a little more appropriately for the establishment, particularly in the summer. Shorts, sandals and untucked T-shirts are totally inappropriate at fine restaurants, yet we see it all the time.”

From June McLean: “Why can’t restaurants serve a decent cup of tea? Weak tea brewed in lukewarm water is not a fitting end to a fine dinner. Some restaurants in Portland don’t even have tea. Herbal teas do not cut the mustard.”

She goes on: “My husband and I will not patronize a restaurant that has tables for two lined up with hardly any space between them. There is no privacy. You hear your neighbors’ conversation and they hear yours, unless it’s one of those restaurants where the noise level is so high you can’t hear anybody.”

From David Norman of Pownal: “And another thing – server rushing to remove your plate when your dinner companion is still eating.”

From Sandy Scully: “Noise level is a Very Sore Point with me so please continue to bring attention to that matter. I also had to chuckle over the ‘bistro’ tables and chairs as I was recently with a 5-foot-2 friend (and I am not much taller) and we are both ‘ladies of a certain age.’ The hostess at the restaurant we chose to patronize that evening led us to – you guessed it – a seating which would have required a ladder for my friend to access and a stepstool, at least, for me. What on earth was she thinking – or not?”

Peter Jacobs of Cape Elizabeth (who was once a waiter himself) said his own “greatest dislike” is “the server who comes to the table and simply interrupts an ongoing conversation without pause or apology … not even a polite ‘excuse me.’ It’s a very common occurrence, and suggests that the waitperson’s time is much more valuable than the customer’s.”

From John O’Brien: “I hope never to ‘work’ when I dine out, and therefore will never be ‘done working on that.’ Dining well in a good, unpretentious Portland restaurant is a pleasure, not work.”

That’s one thing we all can agree on, Mr. O’Brien.

 

Staff writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]