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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Restaurant Life

The Enduring Beauty Of Family Restaurants

Returning from a beach vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my family’s convoy stopped at an unassuming local spot just across the Roanoke Sound called T.L.’s Family Restaurant. Our weary group couldn’t stomach another gut-busting combo meal from Bojangles, so we settled on good old-fashioned American comfort food with sit-down service. From the parking lot, the restaurant looked like a community center or a pre-school, with a boxy roof and wide eaves that looked on the verge of collapsing. As we walked through the glass door at the entrance, I noticed the word restaurant misspelled (resteraunt). I’m guessing it’s been that way for decades. But the moment the scent of sizzling bacon hit my nostrils, I stopped proofreading.

The interior is well worn—more like a favorite t-shirt than a banged-up car—with nautical paraphernalia hanging on the walls and a giant stuffed swordfish over the kitchen window. Hungry locals come and go without urgency, mixed in with beach tourists and interlopers like us. The staff of mostly older women floats between tables with pots of piping hot coffee to keep everyone’s cups warm, greeting every new face cheerfully. I live in New York City, so these moments of southern hospitality are like taking a bath in lavender salts to a jaded urbanite like me.

“You ready to order, honey?” our waitress asks, referring to our party collectively as “honey.” She slips a small white pad out of her apron and sets it down on the ledge next to our table. Her movements are pure muscle memory, so routine that her body performs them automatically. Even though she doesn’t seem to be paying careful attention as we go around the table declaring our menu preferences, I feel confident she won’t make any mistakes. Experienced servers are unflappable—the great ones have been around long enough to be prepared for every possible scenario that could possibly happen in a restaurant. They don’t get flustered.

The menu at T.L.’s is comprehensive—omelets, sandwiches, salads, local fish, and entrees. Breakfast is an all-day affair, a proper feature of any beloved neighborhood eatery. I cavalierly order something called “Breakfast in a Bowl” for $10.95, which is served more literally than I expected—a mound of crumbled sausage, bacon, eggs, grits, and cheddar cheese formed over a gargantuan biscuit smothered in gravy. The food takes a while, but I remembered the caveat on the bottom of the menu: “This is not fast food, all our meals are cooked to order,” it read, “Please be patient or you can come in the kitchen and help.”

American family restaurants are dying

Family restaurants don’t have their own category in award shows, fancy food festivals, or “Best Of” listicles. I’m talking about places where you have a choice between a cup of soup or a bowl (which is usually cheddar broccoli made with a gallon of heavy cream). By definition, they offer Ranch or Thousand Island dressing with any salad, and not ironically. The hash browns are always crispy, seasoned with the carcinogenic flavor of a grimy griddle. Family restaurants are never chef-driven, vegetable-forward, farm-to-table, or nose-to-tail. Their secret sauce is choice (and to appeal to families, they often don’t serve alcohol). It’s the kind of restaurant where when the staff asks you “How was everything today?” they really mean it.

Obviously, any restaurant can be considered a family restaurant if families eat there, but I’m referring to a uniquely American institution, mostly found in small towns (the kind Jason Aldean sings about, minus the racist innuendo). Perhaps if it existed as its own culinary category, this cuisine could be identified as “Casual Caucasian.” There are, of course, other restaurants across the country, equally cherished, that cater to families—BBQ joints, pizza parlors, hot dog counters, taquerias—in communities of color and ethnic neighborhoods, but those are different. The bland flavor palate and the lived-in spaces of this kind of family restaurant has its own unique persona.

I can’t stand when the word family is co-opted to assign piety, the way the modern conservative movement has co-opted “family values.” No restaurant automatically becomes more sanctimonious simply because the word family is attached to its name. But there is something special about these timeless places that you can’t bottle, a patina that can only be earned by serving the community over a long and unhealthy lifetime. The family restaurant, in its purest form, is the restaurant equivalent of the dive bar. When it exudes the same grizzled charm, it deserves the same reverence.

Somewhere along the line in this country, we lost respect for the staying power of independent restaurants. Today, you can exit any interstate highway in the United States and find the same rotating cast of 8-10 chain restaurants repeated ad nauseam. Many of these corporate franchises, like Denny’s and Cracker Barrel, are designed to emulate the family restaurant esthetic.

Corporate restaurant groups are aggressively investing in small town growth. Last month on their quarterly earnings call, Chipotle executives revealed plans to open 800 new locations in cities with populations of under 40,000 people (or one-fifth of its total new stores) over the next few years. Expansion has become so rampant among chain restaurants in small towns, that corporate brands are beginning to cannibalize each others’ sales. But it hurts family-run restaurants the most. Choking off local competition is one of the oldest, dirtiest tricks in the corporate playbook. Multinational companies that run folksy places like Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday can afford to lose money in the near term to focus on market share and building consumer habits. It’s the same way that Amazon prices goods below market (sometimes at a loss) and invests heavily in warehouse expansion to ensure we buy everything from them. Small restaurant businesses can’t afford the same near-sightedness.

The family restaurant is an endangered species

The pandemic should have taught us that independent restaurants are the nervous centers of our communities and integral to the health of our local economies. Family-owned restaurants create better jobs and reinvest on the municipal level, while corporate monoliths siphon money out of communities to enrich shareholders. (Not to mention that many large restaurant companies also invest in robotics and artificial intelligence that will ultimately destroy jobs.) Family restaurants sponsor softball leagues, donate services to local charity events, host birthday parties, and support school districts. Corporate restaurants do nothing but create more corporate restaurants.

Over the course of my nourishing meal at T.L.’s (which I learned originally opened in 1999), I thought about the eroding restaurant landscape in the United States. It’s become a gaudy reflection of who we are, and who we aren’t. In our manic quest to chase food trends and score impossible reservations, we’ve lost the appreciation for restaurants that are just as good as they need to be. These days, the restaurants we say we love don’t all deserve our affection. They haven’t earned it. Too often, we mistake love for lust. We ignore struggling independent restaurants that desperately need our support, while at the same time, we wait in line for hours for cookie cutter versions of chain restaurants like Jollibee and In-and-Out.

The pandemic was the nail in the coffin of many independent family restaurants. To make matters worse, our insatiable appetite for corporate convenience food is shoveling dirt over their graves. When these cherished places close, new ones don’t pop up in their place. The American restaurant industry—with its combo meals and lab-tested recipes—is a monoculture of mass-produced mediocrity. Just as heirloom crops don’t thrive in over-farmed land with infertile soil, generational family businesses with strong rootstock can’t survive in a chicken finger economy. As with many man-made disasters like climate change and global warming, if we keep sponsoring the wrong kinds of business, we may not have any nice places to eat left.

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