Hey restaurant operators! Let's all agree that you do not, I'm 98% sure, own a fine dining establishment. You know how I know this? Because in more than a dozen years I have seen only one. In France at Les Jardin des Sens in Montpellier. I actually wept at what I had been missing my entire life. They have since closed their French location and reopened in...Saigon in an interesting twist.
And that is where fine dining ended for me. All others have been Restaurants, and in the last few years, those too are a dying breed.
There have been other food experiences that were fantastic for sure (single digit enumeration to be generous) but not 'fine'. Great dinners. Fun nights. Cool places. Great design. And lots of Average. It's rare to get that zen buzz from confident and competent wait staff, gracious and elegant front of house management and beautifully executed and organized kitchen panache. That experience has a transcendence. It is its own Being. It has a Soul and beating Heart. The sum are greater than the parts and all that. Most of these are good solid Restaurants. Nothing more, nothing less but sadly, a disappearing breed. Oh, but there are thousands of restaurants, you're nuts! you say. But are there? (and don't bore me with tales of Charleston and New Orleans, we get it. They're great. But have you noticed the vast swaths of the country in between?)
After France all those years ago, back in the real America (for you bubble dwellers) we are drowning in a muddy pond of El Crapitan and China Buffet. There are Koreans running Japanese steakhouses with Guatemalan sushi chefs. Fast food is still growing as fast as an American waist line and even the funeral parlor is a franchise.
Here's my round up.
I've been 'fast casualed', a humiliating experience where one stands in line like cattle going to slaughter to order something like a burrito or an indoor taco (contrasting the truck taco where you stand outside like cattle and eat on the sidewalk). Much like we've stood in line for decades at Subway, plodding our way down a sneeze guard while some tech school drop out in plastic gloves assembles a "sandwich" out of refrigerated pre portioned 'meat' slices. But if you rebrand it (!) with better uniforms and a catchy slogan, and put a 'bowl' in there with some ethnic 'chispa!' people go ape shit. (tm Beyonce)
I've been 'neighborhooded' ---where a chain feeling place goes 'bistro' and 'homey' and makes things like meatloaf and shrimp scampi that makes us all feel warm and cozy for the 90s, when we made restaurants that made us wistful for 1970s. Some of you will recall your mom's cooking which was no great culinary moment in U.S. history. (see: Scalloped potatoes and cream of mushroom soup on everything) We hated the 90s but it's so much better than the funeral pyre we're stoking now, we'd all gladly get the flannel out of the attic and hum Jeremy.
*An 'eatery' is a close cousin to the 'neighborhood joint' and also ridiculous. You've never actually seen one of these in an actual neighborhood which is why they have to put neighborhood in the title because no one knows what that is anymore. A lion doesn't have to tell you it's a lion. Seven layer dip dumb.
I've been 'regionalized' ---where people with no business being in the SERVICE INDUSTRY bore me with the provenance of the bird I am about to eat and the growing practices of the cultivated pea shoots garnishing same. These establishments are the worst, as they are woefully proud of themselves AND cannot get any product in front of a diner in a timely manner because they're so busy congratulating themselves for sourcing beyond the Sysco truck.
*Craft cocktail bars are a close, irritating understudy. Oh, what I wouldn't do for a joint with a bottle of gin and a soda gun dispensing a balanced gin and tonic with ice maker sized cubes in less than 15 seconds from an old man with no beard. When I see a muddling stick, I wish I had brought my own canteen.
Let's go back to basics for a second.
#1 A restaurant is a service.
You, restaurant person, are putting things in my hand that I can eat or drink because I am too lazy, tired, burned out or incompetent to do it myself. Or maybe I want to see other human faces not on a screen because I'm freelance and can feel a little batty at the end of a day/week/month of going nowhere. Or maybe because we've been tricked into thinking it's fun. For me, next to a salon visit and the dentist, it's one of the more stressful events I can think of. Will I get food poisoning? Will I be there for hours and leave hungry? Will it cost more than my mortgage? Will it even taste good? Will I get in a fist fight with the waiter? It's kind of a big commitment. If you have a palate and care, that is. And the problem is, a lot of you don't care. The bar is set so low that you actually stand in line for an hour to get a taco. You still talk about portion sizes. You still pack in to Mexican joints with a Speedy Gonzalez #23 and a margarita that tastes like it was made with Fabuloso because the chips are free. This America, is what you've 'hand crafted'.
#2 Restaurants used to be fun.
I have been in love with the industry of food and its preparation my entire life, since I was old enough to deconstruct my cheeseburger at Frish's Big Boy. I loved the plastic giraffe on top of the bun, the thousand island dressing on top of that disc of gray meat mounted with orange cheese and then ribbon thin shredded lettuce pouring over the sides. I loved the claret hue of my Shirley Temple bobbing with cherries and the sunny side up river of yellow that my dad made on his plate. It was the best part of Sunday mornings and I even put up with Catholic church in Latin just to get to the Frish's part (until I was 14. Then not even the pickly delight of diner food was enough to sit through that droning). I remember the plastic tubs holding orange juice that cascaded over and over and over, that aquarium style display of available orange or yellow with a big FLORIDA sticker on the side boasting Orange and Grapefruit. Of course there was a spinning tower of pies and cakes. They knew how to engage kids (coloring books) and parents (free coffee refills). It was a carefully orchestrated moment in time. 1973. I still love a diner like no other. It made a recent 2 year stint in Florida almost tolerable.
#3 Know Your Audience. Know Your Role.
Recently, I joined a friend at a pub in a pretty shabby neighborhood. It was late and it was open and we were under dressed and cranky from a day of moving furniture, painting and meal skipping. It is a pub. It has pub in the name. It is one of those places that sits at the intersection of Ethiopia, Laos and Hillbilly in Dekalb County. It has several televisions hanging over the bar, where we sat. We ordered patty melts. We both ordered a 'glass of house red' and were told verbally by the bartender that they had a smoky Malbec from Argentina, a spicy Tempranillo from Spain and a chocolately Cab from Napa, all at $10/glass. Would we like to see a wine list?
My friend is currently a bartender going on her 18th year in the business and I have been a bartender, server, waitress, caterer, chef, restaurant owner, wine buyer, food writer and farmer for my entire career which is rounding my 35th year in the business. It took all I had not to say, do I look like I give a fuck?
So I said, Malbec, because it's fewer syllables and my friend is always biting her nails thinking I'm going to say something inappropriate. Which happens.
Knowing your audience and taking a temperature on the room is good advice in comedy, improv and restauranting. This is a lost art. Is it tech screens? Are people so disconnected from facial cues and appropriate behavior models that they just blurt out whatever whenever it pleases their AI souls? I'm glad that you can get a charming Argentine red at a pub playing NBA playoffs so loud I can't hear you say Malbec, but am I ? Nah. I don't care. Not now. And I care about that stuff. I can say with confidence that no one else in there cares about the subtle differences between Malbec and Tempranillo. NO. ONE. And if you're going to run a pub in Dekalb County near the highway and be a secretly disgruntled Napa Valley wine bar purveyor you have a long row to hoe.
#4 Restaurants used to be an Art. Art, you'll recall, is necessary in a civilized society and what separates us from the squirrels who want to just stuff their mouths full of nuts and forget where they put them 2 days later. Culinary Art is lost in the temple of doom.
I have not experienced Art for some time and it breaks my heart. I believe, in the end, that is what killed Bourdain. A broken heart. Not from that DList groupie clinger what's her Italian name. Nah, he died from a broken heart because no one gives a shit anymore. He saw the future. And he's been all over the world. It made good TV but I'd guess that it took an army of fixers, producers and researchers to put together even a handful of establishments that were worthy. We loved them for trying. But it's not real.
The Millennials don't care. They grew up microwaving their own hot pockets after school calling it dinner because mom and dad were at work or didn't exist. They won't have any money so marketers are scrambling to figure out how to relieve them of what they do have. That's why there's a Starbuck's on every corner. The boomers are on their way to the barn to eat up the last of Social Security and they never had much of a palate anyway. At best they were bougie if they made bank but I blame them for the whole mess they brought on from Bennigan's. True to the Boomer ethos "we'll never die off" Bennigan's is "relaunching" with a "return to relevance" tour branding itself as Legendary and proving my point further. True restaurants are a dying breed. Concepts are all we have left. And the rest will be left to Asian and Central American immigrants. Exactly what we deserve.
--Michele Niesen, is the former chef/owner of The Supper Club and Billy Goat's Cantina in Decatur, GA and current owner of The Habersham Hacienda farm and wellness botanicals. She has written for Travel & Leisure, ATLANTA magazine and the New York Times.