Culture, Nostalgia, Cuisines as Living Things
More thoughts on "concept" restaurants
Earlier this month, I wrote in The Spectator World about what I call “concept restaurants.” I’ve touched on this before, but every time my wife and I go into Washington, D.C., I think about this again. Me, I prefer the suburbs, at least when it comes to restaurants. The fact is that, at least in this region, they’re extremely diverse and interesting places. Look at this tweet from an urbanist in Montgomery County, Maryland:
In my article, I compared the restaurant scene in the D.C.-area suburbs with the trendy dining scene in D.C. itself, which I’ve never been much excited by:
DC is widely seen as a “foodie city,” and its restaurants generally get more coverage and hype than their suburban counterparts. The popular press has taken a long time to update its impressions of suburban dining options, and suburban demographics more broadly, with the increasingly eclectic and diverse reality.
Why don’t my wife and I prefer the DC dining scene? Well, many of the city’s hyped restaurants fall into a category that you might dub “concept restaurants.” Rather than pick up a template, tweak it a little, and try to execute it well (like our favorite Thai restaurant near Fairfax), or simply offer a relatively unfiltered menu representing a more unusual cuisine (like an Uzbek restaurant in Gaithersburg, Maryland), they instead have a unique “concept” — a schtick.
For whatever reason, I have trouble liking this, personally. Part of it is the feeling that you’re paying for the branding and the theme, and the food itself, while probably very good, ends up overpriced for what you’re actually getting.
In a piece at this newsletter last year, I wrote:
I think I generally prize value over pure excellence. That doesn’t mean I prize low prices. Value is that sweet spot where you get just the right combination of price and quality. So I tend to like relatively cheap and very expensive restaurants, for the same reason, in a way.
Let me be clear that the “concept restaurants” I mention in the piece are actually good ones, although there are a lot of imitators that deliver less value. Unless you’re really good, it can come off a bit snobbish, I guess. It’s reminiscent of architects who only build “original” buildings—which is often to say different for the sake of being different.
Here, from the piece, are the kind of places I’m talking about, though again I’m not criticizing them:
For example, there’s Lucky Danger, a reimagination of Chinese takeout with the tagline, “American Chinese by a Chinese American.” “At various points over the past six years, chef Tim Ma has rolled out holiday pop-ups that show off an earnest appreciation of American Chinese takeout,” writes Eater DC. “Ma says the dishes at Lucky Danger are ‘unapologetically American Chinese.’” The cute, pricey menu is a mix of classic Americanized takeout fare, dishes you might actually find in China, and a few creative twists, like duck confit fried rice.
Or you can pay a visit to Call Your Mother, a take on the classic Jewish deli with the tagline “A Jew-Ish Deli.” You can get Latin pastrami, Passover tacos, and quirky bagel sandwiches at the local DC chain founded by a Jewish American and his Argentine (and non-Jewish) wife. Call Your Mother has “won accolades from food publications and chefs around the country.”
There’s also Caruso’s Grocery, declared by the Washington Post to be “the old-school Italian restaurant of your dreams.” The schtick embraced by Caruso’s Grocery is that it has no schtick. Eater DC writes, “Matt Adler has no desire to reinvent the Parmesan wheel. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity, or simply the confidence that accompanies experience…he’s a preservationist. His cause? The classic ‘red sauce joint.’” The Post’s Tom Sietsema elaborates, “The creators of Caruso’s Grocery — Michael Babin, founder of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, and chef Matt Adler, a veteran of the upscale Osteria Morini — aimed for something that was neither cheesy nor cheffy.” They got it right, judging from the establishment’s online reviews.
One of the things you’re seeing here, which is actually really interesting, is that chefs with a certain ethnic or culinary background are taking the “standard” version of that cuisine in America, and iterating on it or paying homage to it, in some conscious way. You can see cuisines and menus evolve, as immigrant groups in America go from newcomers to established communities, and as a wide swath of Americans become familiar with the “standard” versions of those cuisines.
Contra my argument, a little bit, it’s worth pointing out that the “standard” menus in a lot of restaurants are themselves simply fusion that has become familiar. Americanized Chinese food has an interesting history, arising out of tweaks to please the American palate and resourcefulness or inventiveness with the produce and products that were available in the United States.
Meatballs and a lot of “red sauce” Italian-American staples are just that—Italian American. It isn’t not Italian, but it was influenced by a lot of distinctly American characteristics. For example, meatballs were popularized because of America’s cheap and plentiful meat. In Italy, “meatballs” might have been this.
I suppose, for an Italian American a few generations removed from that period of evolution and creativity, it’s natural that it might become either the product of nostalgia, or a launching pad for some new creative forays. A cuisine, in some ways, is a living thing. Just like nobody today can ever experience Star Wars in the theater in 1977, nobody can sit down and experience spaghetti and meatballs quite the same way someone in the 19th century might have.
It’s interesting how experiences that once existed can become impossible to experience, as things change. A bit of a tangent here: I think a lot of nostalgia, and a lot of what we call NIMBYism, is some sort of awareness of this.
Here’s an interesting piece at Washington City Paper from last year, “Four D.C. Restaurants Put Nostalgia on the Menu When They Opened This Spring.” One of them, mentioned above, is Caruso’s Grocery. While that restaurant has a sort of concept (“The schtick embraced by Caruso’s Grocery is that it has no schtick,” I wrote), it also aims to execute classic dishes really, really well. From that WCP article:
Chefs feel a different kind of pressure when they try to serve a dish most people have tried, according to Adler [Caruso’s owner]. “On face value, this should be super easy,” he says. “You’re making chicken parm and spaghetti and meatballs. But this is harder than if I went out and opened an Italian restaurant and a creative menu of dishes I came up with or pulled from my travels. That’s about me as a chef, but this isn’t. This is about the dishes and the memories people have.”
As I wrote in the original Spectator piece, a classic menu can be a formula to channel and enhance creativity, in a way. And as a customer, I enjoy trying the same basic dish at a lot of different places, seeing who does it well, if one establishment adds some nuance, etc.
I understand that preferences and feelings about food and restaurants are very personal and particular. I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just thinking out loud about mine.
What do you think?
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