What does it mean to be a restaurant today? What is hospitality, and what is the point of dining out? Over the weekend, two articles came up that beggared these questions. Several of last weeks articles about the restaurant of "Salt Bae", Nusr-Et, featured a restaurant where the cooking is off kilter, the cost is well above market rate, and that the appeal seems more the instagram moment of the man himself rather than the actuality of dining or sating hunger. The other, the review by Jay Raynor in this weeks Guardian, looked towards Henry's in Bath, England, which ruminated on the way fine dining (and some fast-casual attempts by the same industry) has become almost preternaturally concerned with data capture and information gathering in ways that seem leery, rather than useful for guests. As Raynor puts it:
While I disagree with the overly glib phrasing of the thing, I do agree with the overall sentiment: one can run a restaurant with the concept of offering good food, good environment, and good treatment. This can be done without having to resort to the variety of data retrieval that tends to feel one leaving cold rather than being taken care of -- the restaurant equivalent of algorithmic reminders of your parents passing or repeat photos in a non-chronological timeline -- or to the type of theatrics that contains everything from Salt Bae to Unicorn-ification of nearly every food imaginable.
If you think that these two phenomenons are not connected, you're half right; a lot of these trends we see are determined by marketing groups and metrics that are seen in sales data. A lot of personalization that we see in fine dining is measured on the same variety of metrics, attempting to predict our desires on the table. These twin trends -- whether GrubHub or Gramercy Tavern -- are placed as a way of improving guest or customer experience, refining the preferences and options of the kitchen, and helping guarantee fewer missteps from a service team. Sometimes this is possible; working with Resy at USHG allowed for us to confirm allergen information, birthdays, and other information that allowed the team to not only surprise and delight, but also to ensure no one got an epi-pen or something they couldn't eat over the course of their night with us. But many times the effort overshoots -- it attempts to predict what a diner wants before being offered the possibility; makes assumptions about them based on past experiences (and headspace), and lacks the immediacy and presence of seeing where a guest is in that moment in favor of a strange form of optimization, treating the guest as a metric rather than as, well, someone visiting your home.
(The marketing of market-trend and social influence-driven foods and restaurants is also an issue, insofar as the foods are boring, usually without culinary merit, and are predicated on being flash-in-the-pan social media sensations for a news cycle, only to burn out and often disappear. As such, they make issues for others insofar as they're the bushfires of the culinary landscape in cities, taking them by storm and taking business away from other places, only to shut down themselves not too long after the trend has ceased to be at the front of the news cycle. Like bush fires, they burn fast, and they take up a lot of oxygen. In doing so, they represent one of the stranger threats to the dining and food landscape, as they take up real estate and get charged, typically, higher than average rent rates for shorter than average times, and that creates issues for brick and mortar businesses in it for the long haul.)
This would be, in a way, less galling if it weren't for the fact that many sectors of fine dining are not delivering on their premise of value. This was intrinsic to Pete Well's takedown of Per Se two years ago, but has been reflected in a number of places, including personal experience. I've been lucky; a lot of my early dining experiences were in fine dining establishments. Gramercy Tavern, at 17, was one of my first big name dining experiences, and taught me a lot about the overall nature of dining; meals out elsewhere over the following decade informed much more as I began to explore the industry as a professional calling. Eleven Madison under Meyer. The Progress and State Bird Provisions. Providence, L'Orangerie, the deceased Cyrus -- all of these places talked to me about the nature of fine dining versus the more everyday dining experience one could have at a Pizzaiolo, Frances, Northern Spy, or the like. And as those developed, it became clear the types of things that made restaurants that provide a value and distinction to diners versus those that do not, or cannot.
My recent experience at Nightbird reflects this. The restaurant in Hayes Valley is the home to Kim Alter, whose food we enjoyed at Haven, where she was working on behalf of Daniel Patterson. Her food was bold, impressive, and featured a broad palate of flavors. The portions were generous, as were the staff and their give. It was always a delight to eat there, and served a (somewhat underserved) Jack London Square. After she left there was a wonder where she would end up next, and Nightbird, opened in 2016, ended up being the place, her own restaurant. Fixed menu restaurants tend not to be my bag, but I was interested in seeing what she and her team could do; the price tag, higher than I tend to be able to afford, also left me a bit off, but was willing to dive in having had positive experiences in the past. I went with my sister, probably one of the few people who would dig it as well.
This is not to say the food was bad; it was fine, well executed, technically proficient. But for the price, fine doesn't cut it. Precious ceramics and steak knives don't cut it. A takeaway with 2.5 grams of granola not only doesn't cut it, but feels disingenuous. Cold formality and mechanical service don't cut it. And for what you ended up paying, there was no sense of where you were dining; this meal could have been at any fine dining restaurant of a certain class under any chef. It was anonymous. It was without personality. And if it did, the personality didn't signal anything I'd like to remember. The flavor was beige, like the lighting, the woven napkins, and the personality of the service. As someone with (presently) limited income, the frustrations of such meals are not only reminders of the ways that much of the broader public perceives and engages with fine dining, but also the attitude around their treatment around service and hospitality employees generally; when value fails to be delivered upon, it can leave folks with a sour taste in the mouth.
That's the frustration behind too much trend and too much specification. It can, without fail, end up robbing the experience of dining from the guests who its intending to serve. It would be one thing if the lived record showed that most staff are trained to be considerate to modifying such information as it comes in, or pivoting when intuition shows that the specified information may be incorrect or undesirable in that moment. But as the meal at Nightbird showcased, and many others in recent memory show, most staff are not trained that way, or lack the emotional intelligence (or perhaps, are disincentivized from utilizing it by untrusting and ineffective managers) to be able to use a suite of technology to that effect. The technology becomes a crutch that too many managers see as a replacement for intuitive and emphatic service, and in turn limits the entire guest experience; dining becomes less of a jewel-box experience of delight than a Skinner box of behavioral determinism.
It is this flaw I want to avoid and hope more restauranteurs, hospitality professionals, and coffee folk choose to avoid in our coming future. Technology is a tool in the box; it is not the box itself. It can inform our actions, our menu building choices, our offerings, but is not the be all end all of such things. Doing so leads to the ubiquitous menu selections, the never-ending assault of shitty avocado toast, wan matcha lattes, and spaces that feel as if they were designed by algorithm than by an individual personality. They lead to spaces that end up suppressing rather than supporting staff growth. As I learned at USHG, it can be done -- but it also comes with having to build up staff and training that helps them utilize it effectively, and empower staff to be able to provide the wonder, excitement, and true theatre of good dining.
Beyond that, it's about asking ourselves why do we do restaurants, cafes, and other places where food and drink are served. What is our desire and intention? And much like stakeholders in a community planning capacity, what are the needs and wants of the people we serve? Because if there is one thing that the Nightbird case also showcased, its that it feels as if "chef-driven" restaurants are failing at the basic premise of the restaurant itself -- to restore, or otherwise provide sustenance, literal and figurative -- to diners. Specialty ceramics, imported cooktops, and specially designed cutlery don't do anything to work on those particular issues; instead, they just add cost to the diner, and do so without adding much to the overall experience. And in this period where commercial rent increases, employee welfare, and costs of good product all have an impact on the cost of doing business, one wonders if the focus on those kitchen and dining room treatments aren't simply another costly indulgence of chefs, rather than something that could be saved for staff, guests, or both.
I have my disagreements with Danny Meyer, having seen the inside of that organization, but one thing remains clear: people want to be listened to, and heard. Staff want the ability to rise up and perform to their utmost, to be trusted with the responsibility of taking care of people, with the proper support and training. Guests wish to be taken care of, and while they're there for a performance, they are not there for a paint by numbers experience. Both parties want sustenance of the physical sort (food made well, interesting, something just beyond the reach of what they could do at home, with a point of view) as well as the, for lack of better word, spiritual (the sense of being taken care of, indulged, to be caught up in the theatre of the restaurant experience). This is as true in cafes as it is in fine dining -- spaces and people can make for magic, leading to inquiry, engagement, and the creation of buy-in from guests, the type of investment that leads to regulars and a community of diners. And this should be the goal of our restaurant and cafe work: to build these communities, to be the places where people feel an investment as diners to do more, be more, than simple consumers of food. Its good for business as much as it is for our communities and our staff.
Which takes us back to the Craft Restaurant of Raynor, which at its core, is a restaurant of everyday dining. It does not lack ambition, nor skill, but it does emphasize the traits that best exemplify warmth, familiarity, and community. It's not a one and done; it is a space that holds the line between that special occasion joint and the weekly go to when you don't want to be in the kitchen. It feels like a treat, even when its a regular occurrence (this is the goal of any future coffee endeavor of my own). And most importantly, it is human scale; unlike The Pool, Quince* or TFL, these are places that aren't charging you for real estate and kitchen grandeur, but for qualities that are what most people seek out in dining, with some degree of flair and personality; more a quirky comedy of players than some tightly wound-up drama. Something that gives excitement without the need for gaudy trimmings or over-wrought marketing tricks, but satisfies at 110% the physical and emotional needs of guests.
My hope is that there is still room in this world for those restaurants and cafes; that we're not trapped into a world of fly-by-night sensations and too-expensive-to-correct institutions of dining, cafes designed by the same brush and Eater-centric menu plan, where the notion is the consumption of experience rather than sustenance. When we view our guests as members of our communities rather than pieces of data, it pays dividends; it also influences how we actually interact and build our relationships with guests. Regulars and our communities are the people who build the everyday profitability of food enterprises, and the hows and whys they come back to us is, at this moment, one of the most important questions we can ask of ourselves. Data is important, but it remains the tool, not the product, just as instagram and press-worthiness have their perks but are not the reason we do the job. Can restaurants, cafes, and hospitality be about flash in the pan trends and data-driven decision making? Sure. The question becomes whether or not we sustain ourselves in pursuing that route, and what we lose in doing so.
* Quince, it should be noted, is also one of the places which represents this particular transition, perhaps even mores than Nightbird. Quince, while not cheap, was still very accessible, its dining environment warm and pretty well integrated when it was up the hill in its original location. When it moved downtown, it got an amazing kitchen makeover with tons of imported cooktops and marble, and an interior design makeover which made it look a less less rustic Italian farmhouse and a little more like the inside the Tower of Isengard. The a la carte left in place of a fixed price menu, and a boost to the by the glass offerings. It had Michelin stars at both locations, but the new space was devoid of warmth and whimsy, and coupled with the nearly doubled ticket price (I could leave the old Quince for around $100, the new fixed price was $250 when we last went, now $275, and it feels like most of that ticket price comes from paying for the interior design and imported kitchen tops), makes it an impossible go-to now. And while they have Cotogna as a casual counterpart, it lacks the finesse that Quince brought to the table.