Chow, Baby has always accepted the premise that “atmosphere” (however you reckon it: décor, lighting, music volume) counts a lot toward the dining experience. But the exact contribution has never been clear.
There’s not a direct correlation, as there is with service, where an idiot waiter can utterly ruin an otherwise perfect evening and a great waiter can make you laugh at kitchen follies. Nor is it the U-shaped curve of price, where low prices certainly contribute to dining value, but in a way so do high prices – that little extra thrill you get from dropping $100 on dinner. Remember how that used to feel, in the days before but-the-economy? That was fun.
But what does atmosphere add? You’d think that Chow, Baby, with its years of experience with takeout and leftovers, could tell you if a Fredburger is just as good when it’s not eaten on a funky patio – but that’s not a fair test, since Chow, Baby’s house has a great funky atmosphere of its own, sometimes a bit too funky. No, the only way to scientifically analyze this is to take a statistically significant number of favorite restaurants, plop them into a sterile setting, and see if our enjoyment of them changes. Let the experiment begin.
The original Drew’s Place on the edge of Como (5701 Curzon Ave., off Camp Bowie) and the reopening-any-day-now (yay!) Stop Six location (5012 E. Rosedale St.) are full of soul and not just because of the food and neighborhoods. If you’re any kind of Southerner at all, you’ll feel right at home in these elderly but spiffed-up houses that are stocked with nurturing-grandma staff, happy customers, and the smell of frying catfish. The food is great, but how much of the enjoyment is due to the ambiance? Now we know, because in October Drew’s took over the cafeteria concession at the least soulful place in town: Fort Worth City Hall (3rd floor, 1000 Throckmorton St.). Subjectively, Chow, Baby estimates it enjoyed its lunch – fall-apart smothered pork chops in velvety brown gravy with mashed and green beans ($6.25; plate specials change daily) plus a slice of Drew’s fantastic sweet potato pie ($2.29) – maybe 88 percent as much as it has at the homier locations. Thus atmosphere counts for 12 percent. Scientific fact.
Now for a test with even less ambiance than a government building. Until recently, Thai Tina’s was holed up in a vibrant, eclectic, horribly rundown building on the desolate end of Henderson Street. Velvet drapes added cozy intimacy but didn’t quite block the draft, and the ceiling dripped a bit. Chow, Baby loved it, 100 percent. In late September Thai Tina’s relocated to a hotel lobby (in the Embassy Suites, 5th and Commerce streets) that “features” a color scheme of beige and dark beige. Chow, Baby has visited several times since the move, each time charting its happiness level against the personalizations that owners Tina Vorachack and Jay Jennings are gradually implementing. Turns out that colorful throw pillows count for a 3 percent gain and Thai statuary a whopping 8 percent. That put Chow, Baby’s latest visit up to 99 percent – the walls are still beige, but the tom kha (coconut chicken soup with cute straw mushrooms, $4.95) and pineapple fried rice with pork ($8.95) were tropical-tastier than ever. If only Tina and Jay could make the ceiling drip, Chow, Baby’s atmo-happiness would be complete.
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