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Opinion

Restaurants Don’t Belong To Us Anymore

There was a time not too long ago when you could grease your way into a trendy restaurant by slipping a crisp $50 bill into the maître’d’s palm. I suspect there are still a few impressionable gatekeepers willing to trade a cozy corner table for a generous bribe, but the good ‘ole days of buying your way into a restaurant are pretty much over. Scoring a reservation at everyone’s favorite place is becoming harder without connections, and many restaurant owners work hard to keep the velvet rope as short as possible. In today’s luxury-driven market, access to restaurants must be earned, and guests are expected to prove their worth through consistent spending habits.

Contrary to public perception, restaurants aren’t democracies. Conventional wisdom suggests that anyone can make a reservation, so we should all have equal opportunity to dine in every restaurant. However, the truth is that restaurants, especially high-end ones, function more as meritocracies. That means that people who consistently spend more money will often have an easier time getting a reservation. I can also tell you from experience that management in fine dining restaurants cultivates these relationships, establishing private lines of communication to facilitate the exchange of preferred access for generous patronage. Most restaurateurs won’t admit that they arrange such favors, but rigging the reservation book for the rich has been going on forever.

Restricting access has historically been an effective strategy for restaurants to build a reputation on exclusivity. In Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants, Katie Lawson and Elliott Stone note that, even in the late nineteenth century, restaurants like the one in the Waldorf Hotel in New York City were known for limiting access to curate a certain clientele base. “Fine dining establishments, especially those at the very top, thrived not on friendliness, but on gatekeeping,” they wrote. “By being selectively welcoming, these places created prestige and demand.” The dynamic they describe sounds remarkably contemporary.

Gold-plated steak from Nusr-Et Steakhouse

I’m sure you’ve noticed that restaurant prices are skyrocketing lately. In a recent post on his LO Times Substack newsletter, former Eater food critic Ryan Sutton notes the corrosive effects of surging prices, lamenting how recent hikes are pricing people out from dining at their favorite restaurants. “Some of these increases are simply the unfortunate byproducts of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities,” he writes, of New York City, “and yet sometimes it feels as if more and more operators are saying to themselves: let’s go “whale hunting.” It’s true that many restaurants have become more whale-friendly than ever, but the “pivot to the rich” he’s describing is hardly a new development.

Reservations have become status symbols, especially in affluent circles, and the ability to get into a restaurant has become a form of social currency. For years now, high-end restaurants have been experimenting with alternative reservation systems to exert greater control over who has access. It started ten years ago with ticketing apps like Tock that treat dinner reservations like rock concerts, where securing a table requires guests to prepay their meals in advance. Today, third-party concierge services like Dorsia provide exclusive reservations to customers that are willing to meet spending thresholds that help insure restaurants against costly no-shows and provide a boost of adrenaline to their bottom line.

Companies like Major Food Group in New York City have been actively developing private membership models that cater to their most affluent clientele. The buy-in at Major Food’s ZZ’s Club and Carbone Privato in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, for example, starts at $30,000 with recurring annual dues of $10,000 (250 members were offered “Founder’s Club” status for a $50,000 initiation fee). Similar members-only restaurants like the 60,000 square-foot Core Club in NYC (and soon to open in San Francisco and Milan) are popping up all over the country with membership fees that range up to $100,000 annually per family. Carbone Privato provides curated experiences that include a private “chef concierge” service that will cook any dish of the menu for members (including personal family recipes with ample notice).

The privatization of restaurants seems exclusionary and classist, but the pay-to-play model was already firmly in place long before this new wave of membership models. Luxury restaurants create a club-like atmosphere by inflating menu prices to a level that only a certain caliber of clientele can afford. I had an experience recently at a swanky midtown Manhattan restaurant that reminded me of how prices can be exclusionary. The menu was littered with gratuitous upsells labeled “enhancements”—like adding king crab to any salad for an extra $33 or upgrading from the run-of-the-mill $27 burger to a Wagyu version for $37. The add-ons seemed designed as flexes more than anything that improved individual dishes in a meaningful way. It also made the default settings, expensive in their own right, feel pedestrian. The restaurant’s signature prime rib cost a full $100 and a lobster pasta with a few paltry chunks of meat sold for $75. It would be virtually impossible to have a proper meal for less than $200 per person, even without drinks. There was no big-name chef in the kitchen or farm-to-table ethos to justify the astronomical prices. Everyone present seemed to understand that we weren’t only paying for the food but for the privilege.

Caviar served with everything, except a reason.

Aside from booking high-end fine dining destinations like Noma or Alinea, most restaurant goers still reject the idea that they should be expected to pay in advance for the privilege of dining in a restaurant. Average guests still view a restaurant reservation more like a gentleman’s agreement than a contract. The same people will happily pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars above face-value to see a Taylor Swift concert or for tickets to the latest Broadway smash. For some reason, we reject the idea that restaurants should ever cost more than what we order from their menu.

Anyone who thinks that online reservation platforms like Resy prove that everyone has an equal opportunity to dine anywhere should be reminded that Resy was recently bought by American Express (presumably to ensure more exclusive access for their wealthiest clients). Heavily in-demand restaurants also often withhold a percentage of their tables (especially the more valuable prime time slots) from those online reservation services, to make sure they have availability for VIP guests, affluent regulars, friends of the owners, and celebrities. Once someone has demonstrated themselves to be a reliable guest who spends a lot of money, management tends to find ways to get those people in, even when reservations are tight.

These developments collectively portend a sad reality where average people are losing access to their favorite restaurants. “This is an era when becoming a regular, or even going to a nice restaurant once a year, can feel like an unattainable luxury,” writes Sutton, in his newsletter. He’s right that the days of our favorite restaurants always being there for us when we need them to be may be gone forever. The truth may be exactly the opposite: that we will need to be there for restaurants whenever they want us to be. Don’t forget to bring your wallet.


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Categories
The Service Bar

Has The Negroni Lost Its Way?

I don’t need my Negronis to be fancy. You can keep your boutique small batch bitters from Brooklyn that uses organic cochineal from Peru. Campari is just fine for me. After years of being inundated with countless Negroni variations — coconut fat-washed Negronis, cold brew coffee Negronis, Cosmogronis, Negronis named after every city in the world, white Negronis, black Negronis, green Negronis, and Negroni foam — it’s safe to say we’ve reached peak Negroni. I actually stumbled upon one Negroni recipe recently that calls for the batched cocktail to be steeped in Cocoa Puffs for 24 hours.

I had an epiphany earlier this year when I attended a swanky Campari event with various cocktail stations manned by a Who’s Who of celebrity bartenders including Dale DeGroff, Don Lee, and Julie Reiner. After sampling various different Negroni expressions — a chocolate Negroni, a vintage Negroni, a mezcal Negroni Jell-O shot, and Negroni cotton candy — I retreated to the station that was serving the plain old classic Negroni. It felt like stopping at a Gatorade station on a marathon course. I hate to sound like such a purist, but the classic Negroni was just perfect the way it was. It was by far the best cocktail I had that night, a simple recipe made from three equal parts (Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth) that play well together and don’t need to be micromanaged.

All of this had me wondering if our fixation with the Negroni has gone too far, resulting in bartenders tinkering with the template too much. The White Negroni, which has become a modern classic, is a nice drink, but without Campari it’s technically not a Negroni. Bon Appetit recently lauded the frozen Negroni as “a better Negroni.” Aside from the fact that it’s a blended drink, the recipe calls for orange juice, a heretical twist that corrupts the spirit-forward profile that has long been the Negroni’s calling card. There’s nothing wrong with creating riffs on classics. But is there a point where the experimentation gets out of control, and the DNA of the original drink is lost?

The cocktail writer and bitters expert Brad Thomas Parsons asked the very same question last year in an article for VinePair. “Are we at a place when a Negroni, in name, strays too far from the original template to risk diluting the spirit of the original drink and all it embodies?” Parsons asks. “What is the tipping point when a Negroni is no longer a Negroni?” Not every bartender he interviewed was as dogmatic about showing respect for the original Negroni recipe as I am, but almost all of them believed that it made sense to lay down some guardrails (like using Campari or a Campari-like proxy, for example).

I can distinctly remember the first time I took an order for a Negroni as a young waiter in the late ‘90s. I’d never heard of the drink before. Neither had the bartender. We didn’t have touchscreen phones in our pockets with access to every cocktail recipe known to man on the Internet at the time, so of course he needed to consult the tattered Mr. Boston book behind the bar. After finding the recipe, he dusted off the sticky Campari bottle that probably hadn’t been opened in years and pulled the oxidized vermouth from the back of the lowboy. I marveled at how the drink looked like a high school chemistry experiment made with phenol red or a glass of cherry flavored Kool-Aid. The old head who ordered it was pleased. No one used large square ice cubes back then, so there wasn’t much he could complain about.

How the Negroni became hipsterized in the ensuing decades is a more complicated story. The drink on its own doesn’t have much populist appeal. Perhaps, the public had grown tired of drinking syrupy sweet Cosmos and Lemon Drops. By the early 2000s, the craft cocktail movement was influencing mainstream drinking habits, and the public was embracing more bitter flavors. The Negroni had also become a secret handshake among restaurant industry types, who had already adopted the cocktail as the anti-Cosmo before it went mainstream. The availability of higher quality vermouths like Carpano Antica, Dolin, and Noilly Prat made Negronis more complex and drinkable.

Meanwhile today, craft gins, small batch vermouths, and Campari clones have flooded the market with boutique ingredients that, when combined, often make inferior Negronis. Many of these gin recipes have exotic botanicals and regional flavorings which are too busy to work in the traditional Negroni template that favors a London Dry. Nonetheless, we now have an entire week dedicated to Negronis. While “Negroni Week” has noble philanthropic underpinnings (it raises money for Slow Food International), the whole affair still feels like a giant PR gambit by Campari. The gambit’s paid off, Campari sales have risen by almost two million cases since 2009, almost doubling its sales to 4.5 million cases in 2022. The product’s astronomical growth in recent years would not have been possible without the rising popularity of the Negroni.

I do believe there’s still room for experimentation and creativity with the Negroni template. One of my favorite examples is the Sour Cherry Negroni at Hawksmoor in New York City. The recipe, by maintaining the core trio of ingredients, hews tightly enough to the classic version that it honors the drink rather than reinterpreting it. But the addition of acid-adjusted cherry juice accentuates the natural tart red fruit of Campari, and a wisp of Tempus Fugit’s Crème de Noyaux (liquer made from apricot and cherry pit kernels) rounds out the flavors with a base note of nutty marzipan. The cherry element is subtle and surprising, but you still feel like you’re drinking a Negroni.

In recent years, we’ve driven the Negroni off a cliff with an obsessive need to create yassified versions. The biggest names in the bar world have weighed in with their own interpretations like the Negroni Tredici (Tony Maloney), the Jitney Negroni (Leo Robitschek), the Sweet Milk Tablet Negroni (Ian Griffith), and, even a Negroni that goes into the microwave, the Nuked Negroni (Ryan Chetiyawardana). Perhaps it would be less unnerving if bartenders would simply stop naming their Negroni riffs after the Negroni, especially when many of these recipes hardly resemble the original. There’s a reason that some of these classic cocktails like the Negroni have stood the time. Reinventing the wheel doesn’t necessarily make the car go farther or faster. The constant need to reinvent the Negroni often makes this car feel like it’s going in reverse.


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