Opinion Restaurant Life

Don’t Ignore the B-Sides

Most nights in countless restaurants all over the globe, a healthy collective of random tables will order the exact same thing. They’re commonly referred to as the Chef’s “Signature Dishes” in today’s foodie nomenclature. I despise the term and so should you—if not for the simple reason that it sounds like a line of frozen microwaveable entrees. These tables don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. “We heard the [blank] is a can’t miss—best in the city,” they’ll tell the waiter as they hand back the menus they never bothered to consider. It happens everywhere. They say they “heard” about it, but they really mean they spent three hours scouring articles on Google and swiping through countless Yelp images and reviews of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

When people order this way where I work, our staff jokingly refers to it as the “Number 1”—our version of an upscale McDonald’s value meal. You learn to forgive them. They might never have a chance to dine with us again—whether because of the herculean task of securing a reservation or the trans-Atlantic distances they’ve traveled—but it doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t really experiencing the restaurant as it was intended. Signature dishes are poisoning our dining experiences. Our meals are becoming monolithic and our choices driven less by our personal tastes and more about the flawed wisdom of the masses.

Chefs put together their menus with the same thought and care as musicians do conceiving an album. Everything matters—from the order of the songs and the cover art to the recording equipment and the personnel in the studio. Our dining habits mirror the way we listen to music in the digital era—more and more diners follow popular trends and choose the hits over the deep cuts. We are more apt to click on the songs we know or the ones that come up at the top of the “Most Played” list when we search a particular artist. On the surface, we’re robbing ourselves of the joyful unpredictability of a spontaneous dining experience but, on a deeper level, of the possibility that we might actually prefer the tracks on Side Two. So why have diners become so fearful of flipping the record?

Take the time to read the menu. Making too many obvious choices can lead to disappointment.

My dear friend the late, great Gina DePalma would occasionally stop serving her wildly popular Maple Mascarpone Cheesecake at Babbo—an embargo against the general public for ignoring the rest of her pastry menu. She poured so much of her heart and soul into her pastry program and loved all of her desserts like her children. If you asked her which dessert was her favorite, she’d demure like a proud mother. Eventually, she’d cave in and reinstate the Cheesecake just so she wouldn’t have to listen to everyone complaining about her taking it off all the time. Maybe she was also playing a little hard to get. Either way, selling thirty cheesecakes a night while a seasonal tart she’d labored over for weeks went unsold drove her nuts.

Is there a statute of limitations on how long an iconic dish is still essential to the experience of the restaurant? There should be. As time goes by, some chef’s “signatures” don’t have the same luster—like a graying 70’s lite rock artist signing the same song over and over years past his prime. The song doesn’t always remain the same. Yet like pop musicians who have throngs of fans, well-known chefs face backlash if they don’t cook the hits. It incensed the Bob Dylan faithful when he plugged his guitar into an amplifier. But it was necessary to his evolution as an artist; and he was probably sick of singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” every night. As much as his fan base yearned for the old Bob, most of those people didn’t stop listening to him. His updated sound also brought new fans into the fray. They understood that experimentation is part of the creative process. It’s the same with food, but we’ve become too casual as listeners. The best way to get to know a chef is by tasting the dishes on his or her menu that aren’t popular.

As an audience, we affect the type of music chefs play. If we order conservatively, they’ll cook conservatively. We need to be more supportive of chefs when they have the courage to abandon the past and carve new paths. To accomplish this, we need to rearrange our mindset about what it means to be disappointed with what we’ve ordered. Dining is fraught with risk. It costs the same money whether you like what you’re eating or you don’t. As the expense of dining out has risen, so too has our proclivity to hedge—making safe choices and following the herd. But we need to understand that hedging, while limiting losses, also limits profits. Having someone you don’t know cook for you is already a leap of faith. But, in a restaurant, it’s so much more exciting to jump without a net.


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.