Restaurants Have Become Too Important

The joy of dining out in a restaurant is based on a simple equation: You pay money to have a group of total strangers relieve you of your kitchen duties for the evening. When a restaurant lives up to its promise, its charms are irresistible. You finish your plate without having to clear it, have your food seasoned and cooked more precisely than you can achieve in your home kitchen, and—the icing on the cake—enjoy the privilege of excusing yourself from the table without having to worry about doing the dishes.

In the Age of Internet and Social Media, however, the exercise of dining out has become something greater than it was originally intended. With the proliferation of 24/7 Food TV and sudden-death kitchen reality shows, the dining public is no longer a humble audience. For most restaurant enthusiasts, sitting through a meal without passing judgment takes the fun out of it. Most people now visit restaurants with the purpose of evaluating them rather than for pure enjoyment. This new generation of foodies has a forum to broadcast its amateur opinions on personal blogs and in Yelp reviews. Restaurants—which once offered the community a gathering place to convene for the purposes of nourishing itself—are now arenas for sport. A reservation is your ticket to the rodeo. No jacket required.

The term restaurant is derived from a French word that refers to a type of restorative broth or bouillon that was traditionally served in France to weary travelers. The modern concept of the American restaurant, as we know it, is actually a somewhat recent phenomenon. The word restaurant did not become common parlance in America until the late 19th century. Historically, the growth of restaurants can be tied to the explosion of urban populations where tight living quarters forced people to seek comfort dining in larger public spaces. Political upheaval in France led to many private chefs being released from the confinements of their aristocratic households. What followed was an era of Nouvelle Cousine, a movement catering to an emerging bourgeoise class hungry for a more exciting and fresh approach to cooking. The modern restaurant experience and the elevated status of the Chef owes debt to this culinary French New Wave. Somewhere between Marie-Antoine Carême and now, we have lost our ability to enjoy the act of dining out.

“This smoked Uni dish is off the chain, brah!”

The modern restaurant has morphed into a perverted spectacle—where the audience delights in the sadistic pleasure of commoditizing food and kitchen professionals scramble in their quest for one-upmanship. In this new voyeuristic world, we like to watch. Social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram are saturated with food porn. Whereas in the past the restaurant would function as the pre-cursor to the evening’s entertainment, now going to a restaurant is like attending a live performance. As the price of admission rises, the consumer feels more entitled to experiencing something that transcends the plate. Your choice of restaurant is not something to be taken lightly; it’s a status symbol (“Guess who’s going to Per Se tomorrow night?”), a political statement (“Oh my god, Marea is totally overrated!”), or even an extension of yourself (“I can’t live without the pork buns from Momofuku.”) But lost in our obsession, we have forgotten how to enjoy dining out.

Any time you set foot in a restaurant, you hope for profundity and you risk catastrophe. But our experiences only stand to be successful if we approach it with the right mindset. As diners, we need to accept how our energy affects the atmosphere around us. If you make a conscious decision to observe the dining experience rather than engaging with it, you disregard your role in giving it life. Don’t just sit there as the parade marches by, grab a baton and start twirling! You won’t have nearly as much fun watching from the sidelines.

Opinion Restaurant Life

Critics Under Review

Restaurant reviews, like movie reviews, can make or break the commercial ambitions of their subjects.  Highly anticipated openings in the culinary world are usually followed by a parade of media hype and scrutiny.  “Review season”—as we affectionately refer to it—is a stressful time.  Influential food critics arrive with their scorecards the moment we open for business—their mugshots plastered to the kitchen line and wait-stations like wanted criminals.  We understand that major periodicals have a responsibility to their readers who are hungry for the skinny… but why the rush?

Most major news outlets with a commitment to covering culinary arts will file a review within the first three months of a restaurant’s infancy.  Critics risk being perceived as out of touch if they are slow to weigh in.  But new restaurants are like toddlers that need time to shed their baby fat; they must learn to crawl before they can walk or—in the most hyped cases—learn to fly up to their lofty expectations.

The unfortunate result is that many restaurants with real ambition never get a chance to grow into adulthood without judgement already having been passed.  In most cases, if the quality of a new restaurant improves after review season has ended, it will happen without much recognition from the press.  With as many technological advances in mobile communication it’s puzzling that a critic’s views would not evolve over time.  Is it really fair to file one definitive review based on a few early experiences and be done with it? Isn’t this akin to reviewing a piece of theater based on the quality of its dress rehearsals?

Restaurants are complicated ecosystems with a lot of moving parts.  We make it look easy when the machine is well-oiled but the choreography isn’t as easy as it looks.  Like a sports team, it takes time to develop chemistry.  Expecting immediate success in the restaurant’s first year is no more realistic than a winning season in a new franchise’s first year in a pro sport.  It takes time to fine-tune systems, to get individuals with diverse levels of experience to act in concert.  Why do so many new restaurants prefer a “soft opening” where they can assure themselves of greater control of the elements with minimal fanfare?

In sports as in restaurants, assuming that a team that loses its first few games can’t turn things around and win a championship is a mistake.  But most new restaurants don’t have this luxury after their review season has ended.  For the ones that begin to pull things together and start firing on all cylinders, sadly, it may be too late.  The book on them has already been written and closed with very little chance of changing the narrative.

Let it grow, Let it grow...
Let it grow, Let it grow…

The flip side is that many restaurants flourish in the early going, are showered with accolades, then take their eyes off the prize and decline.  After a string of positive reviews, many restaurateurs use the press as a springboard for new projects while the older ones are set to auto-pilot.  But while this occurs, it’s unusual for a critic to risk embarrassment by revoking his stars or periodicals to issue revisions to their earlier praises.

As consumers we have a very short attention span and so we rely on simple metrics for evaluating restaurants.  Perhaps it harkens back to the days of potty training, but we’ve unanimously embraced the star system as the de facto measure of success or failure.  It’s not about a memorable dish or a knowledgable staff, it’s about how many stars you have pinned to your lapel.

Ultimately, the current system ignores the complexity of a restaurant’s development.  It is a living organism and diners should learn to be more forgiving of its formative years.  Over time, should an adolescent restaurant turn into a tempestuous brat or a defiant teenager, it should answer for the quality of its performance and be subject to reassessment.

Perhaps this is why services like Yelp have become so popular—the crowd-sourced feedback loop is much more efficient.  Of course, Yelp has its drawbacks, too, but its success represents a sea change in the way diners get information about restaurants.  The traditional food media should recognize this and stop fumbling over each other to get the scoop and start worrying about serving up a better dish.