I live in the Bay Area, where we’re known for our restaurants, our food “scene”. Every week, some chef who cut his teeth at Chez Panisse, Coi, Aqua, etc. bounds onto the scene with another “hot” restaurant announcement. The produce – the cow, the hog, the chicken, the beet – is sourced (usually from within 100 miles of the Bay Area.) The name designer is hired. Publicists go to work. Lines form. People are grateful to be having dinner at 5:30. The cookbook is written. The chef appears on Top Chef, and opens another restaurant, perhaps in Vegas. Or Miami. I love eating. I love going out to restaurants. I love tasting new foods, styles, and being served in beautiful, interesting places. Going out to a restaurant should be a gift to myself, my small luxury, a source of utter pleasure. But at some point, it’s begun to feel a little Disney. And maybe that’s right: one the star chefs began to set up restaurants in Vegas, it became very much about entertainment. Maybe we should call it eatertainment.
Now it’s always been fashionable and in vogue to be able to talk up what “hot” restaurant you had gone to, had “scored” reservations at, etc. But the hype has become even more hyper these days. And frankly, I’m over it.
The scene is just that: so much spectacle, so little substance, so much pomp, so little pleasure. I have better ways to spend my time, money and energy. I don’t want to have to fight my way into a place to be charged $150 to eat at 5:30. It’s probably my age but by the time I get in there, I’m exhausted and cranky and my expectations are set way high. And not much will survive that.
The staff . . . oh my god. Just because they’re wearing denim, sporting tats and some cooly frayed eco organic t shirt doesn’t mean they’re chill or laid back. They’ve clearly been told that we’re lucky to be there, and come to expect gratitude, compliance, and tolerate nothing that will get in the way of a deftly turned table or an extra smile from Chef (no substitutions please).
Guess what? I expect service. I expect an inkling understanding that I’m the one paying the bill (stunning.) I don’t expect someone to be obsequious or to put up with abuse. But I still expect a little sense that we are guests. Graciousness would be a lovely thing. The food. At most of these restaurants, the food is good. As in fine (and all you guys know what it means when a woman says, “fine”.)
But much as I am about backstory and provenance and terroir, sometimes I just want to eat. I don’t need to know the story behind the cow, the broccoli, the grain. (One restaurant, which used to smash all this into the menu under the dish descriptions, has taken to putting it in the back of the menu, so the interested can find it, but the less interested can just get to ordering. Much better.)
I think where it boils down to is that I think that restaurants should self-classify (or reviewers should review them) in three ways: Art restaurants. These are temples to the chef. The chef is the artist and food is self-expression. They are not – most definitely NOT – about the guest. While I’m not a fan, I think that Japanese omakase restaurants get it right. They are completely clear that they’re about the choice of the chef. After all, omakase means “I’ll leave it to you.” These kinds of restaurants are great, but I want to know when I walk in, or more aptly, before I try to book.
Eatertainment. These are the palaces to “experience” not necessarily dining. That’s fine. There are lots of restaurants like this in the mass arena – Cheesecake Factory comes to mind – but it seems that the high end, more “artisanal” restaurants seem to believe that’s not what they’re about. Any restaurant that puts concept ahead of food and service starts to fall into this territory.
Dining. These are the places I return (or plan to return) to. The food is exceptional. There can be a concept but it’s lightly – even subtly – applied. It’s a balance between what the chef wants to serve and what you want to eat. (Reasonable accommodations made.) You can get in (happy to make reservations.) The service is professional but not utterly devoid of personality.
One of the things I’ve realized is that for me, restaurants have a relationship component to them. I want to eat and support in the places owned by friends, where I’m treated specially, where I feel good about being able to give feedback. That’s pleasure, both on the palate, and for the soul. God forbid I should form a relationship with an Art restaurant (that’s not really the point of them . . . your role is to be patron, not part of the tribe). And as for the high concept eatertaineries – what’s the point? But a real restaurant, where I have a relationship with the staff, the owner, the chef . . . oh yes.
And that comes from spending time there, from having multiple meals there, from getting to know the staff. That’s what adds that critical dimension to eating: real, deep pleasure. It’s the umami of dining. The only thing that beats it is staying in.