Perception revisited

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I had rather a strange experience a couple of weeks ago. My wife suddenly announced out of the blue, in a quite uncharacteristic fashion, that she wanted a souvlaki for dinner as a change from our normal home cooked meals. Not just any old souvlaki mind you; she wanted me to travel quite some distance from our home to an icon caf? called Hollywood Palace which is in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond.

Locals all know the Hollywood Palace, it?s been there for over forty years and I remember it well from many visits there after big nights on the turps following work at the nearby Hilton Hotel. For one tortured moment I thought she might be pregnant, but by a simple piece of basic reasoning quickly discounted the possibility.

The place is a bit of a food museum ? from the antique mini jukeboxes at each booth table, to the aging, smoke stained posters around the walls of long dead celebrities such as Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and forgotten beauties like the pneumatic Samantha Fox. The rotund staff exude affable indifference to the passing menagerie, as the jetsam and flotsam of humanity mingle with the hoi polloi in search of emergency sustenance.

Into this the Eldred family marches. Wife, self and two kids ? all dressed up and presenting the exception by being sober and unaffected by recreational drugs. The kids have never been into an environment like this; they go to conventional restaurants at least once a week, but with the naivety of young children they unquestioningly piled themselves into a booth and demanded to be fed. My wife bowled up the counter and ordered three souvlaki (s?), one with chili, one normal, one cut in half for the kids.

Poetry in ethnic motion ensued. I watched something I?d seen hundreds of times before with a newfound fascination. The electric knife lovingly shaved the crispy bits from the vertical spit into a pan; meanwhile the flat bread was crisped on the hotplate and dressed with the requisite lettuce tomato and dressings. In an extraordinarily short time the finished product was placed onto four plates with some paper napkins and delivered to our table.

You can always tell if the family is having a good feed by the noise level, or lack of it. ?Yum? was about all I heard for the whole meal. No arguments, no cajoling, no entreaties to finish ? just the contented sound of satisfied munchers. There was no doubt about it; it was a bloody good souv!

I had to laugh. It occurred to me that what I had in front of me wrapped in flat bread for the princely sum of five bucks, was the same as I had had spread out on a plate in a Greek restaurant a few weeks before for $23. It just goes to prove it?s all in the presentation.

I have a reputation of being a very fast eater. In some quarters I?d possibly even be labeled a bit of a pig ? I do love my food ? so I was finished before the rest of the family was half way through and basking in a fit of gastronomic nostalgia ? to the point where I greedily decided to follow-up with a favorite of mine from the past; a hamburger with tomato and onion, which they also do well. The cholesterol warnings from my doctor were brushed aside in the pursuit of hedonistic satisfaction. Why are all the good things immoral or fattening?

The hamburger was constructed with the same poker faced efficiency as the souvlaki. I timed it to perfection, finishing my second course at the same time as the family finished their first. By this time I was pleasantly sated, but the kids had further ambition which could only be addressed with an ice cream. Sensing their enjoyment, I was happy to wait while they were introduced to ice cream in a dixie cup with the traditional little wooden spoon.

I bided my time by watching the people coming and going ? all being dealt with the same quiet competence, and with product consistency that the better restaurants would do well to emulate. My thoughts went back to recent dining experiences in comparison.

I?m in a privileged position because of my occupation ? I dine out a lot, mostly while traveling. In the previous three weeks I had dined in three ?three hat? restaurants in three different cities, as well as a cross section of restaurants at lesser market levels. To my mind they were mostly satisfactory dining experiences, but none of them gave me the dining pleasure of that visit to Hollywood Palace. Am I a sick man?

In some perverse kind of way my perceptions have been reversed to those of most of the rest of the world. To them a special occasion is a rare visit to a top end restaurant; to me it is the opposite. Lately, I?m finding the simpler, less complicated experiences the most rewarding.

One thing I do know is that places like Hollywood Palace provide the benchmarks from which we all judge value for money. That whole meal cost the family $30. If you want to charge us more, what do we get for the extra money? Yep, we will pay a premium for a nicer environment, better service, better food, but all too often the extra money does not result in a commensurate improvement to the feeling in our happy valve.

Hollywood Palace reminded me that value for money is no more than a personal perception. The best hospitality managers are the best managers of perception.

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