Why Restaurants Matter (the bourgeois social compact) @EatingOurWords

Above: I spent an obscene amount of money taking Tracie P out to dinner at the Tour d’Argent in Paris three years ago. But when you consider the fact that we still talk about it and how much fun we had, there’s no doubt that it was worth every penny — one of the most memorable meals of our lives. Here’s the link to my post on the lunch.

When I was an undergrad at U.C.L.A. in the late 1980s, my great uncle Ted, a Beverly Hills commercial developer (motels were his thing), loved to take me to his favorite “continental cuisine” dining spot. The only catch was that we had to finish dining by 6 p.m. so that we could take advantage of the “early bird special” (think beef Stroganoff and baked Napoleon). I’ll never forget his anxiety when the bill arrived: did the server already include the gratuity? did he charge us the correct amount? had he cheated us for a dish that didn’t arrive? I was too young at the time to drink legally but there was no way that uncle Ted was going to spend money on a bottle of wine. The prices for wine were “highway robbery,” I remember him saying to grandma Jean (his sister).

I loved uncle Ted a lot, especially for his humor and his loud snorts when we would eat at his favorite Chinese restaurant. “The mustard really helps to clear your sinuses,” he would say to my delight as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

He was from a generation that believed — across the board — that the restaurateur was going to try to swindle their patrons.

It’s important to remember that he was the child of people who never went to restaurants: he was born in the first decade of the twentieth-century in New York to Jews who had fled antisemitism in Austria (and the limited opportunities of their station in society). Even when they landed in the U.S., the thought of spending money in a restaurant was abhorrent in their view.

Today, the culinary landscape has changed drastically. When, in the late 1990s, our enogastronomic culture shifted from Julia Child and James Beard to Molto Mario, Lidia’s Italy, Kitchen Confidential, and Bobby Flay, our food “writers” and taste-makers had become themselves restaurateurs. And a new restaurant culture was born in our country: instead of being taught what we could make at home, they began to teach us how to make the dishes that they made in their restaurants. And they also opened a window on to the inner workings of restaurants.

For my generation (and for yours as well if you’re reading this), the thought of not going to restaurants would be abhorrent. Just contemplate what Sex and the City would have been without restaurants as a backdrop for the soap opera (where a diner was the backdrop for Seinfeld. a show that ended in 1998, the same year that Babbo opened).

This is just one of the reasons that I’ve been surprised and frankly upset by the reaction to my recent post on Corkage, a Privilege not a Right for the Houston Press.

Today, I followed up with a post on Why Restaurants Matter (and Why You Should Tip Generously). One of the things that occurred to me as I wrote it was that for the first time in history, the patrons and servers in the social compact of restaurateurship are social equals and intellectual peers. In other words, where the servers were once proletariat and the patrons bourgeoisie, today both are members of the bourgeoisie.

Here’s the link to the post, which includes some notes on how the Industrial Revolution shaped the restaurant experience as we know it today.

In other news…

Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of Sunday’s earthquake in Emilia-Romagna, which had its epicenter in Finale Emilia (above).

Here’s the NY Times coverage.

As I was looking around the internets this morning looking for information about the tragedy, I was reminded of the terrible 1976 earthquake in Friuli and I found this chilling YouTube video.

In it, a young man, who was taping a Pink Floyd album using a microphone, captures the terror of his family as they react to the shaking of the earth.

3 thoughts on “Why Restaurants Matter (the bourgeois social compact) @EatingOurWords

  1. I’d argue that our consciousness changed with Alice Waters, the CA culinary revolution in the 1970’s, and with Wolfgang Puck, with Spago and his creativity, plus all of his disciples, including Nancy Silverton. And in one Seinfeld episode, Jerry discussed going to Pò on Cornelia St., where Batali was the chef before he opened Babbo w/Joe Bastianich. If I remember correctly, the signage of Pò was shown during the episode.

    • Adrian, I totally agree with you and I remember Po on Seinfeld.

      But I do think there was a shift in 1998: remember Alice and Wolfgang and Nancy weren’t TV personalities… You had to go to their restaurants to experience their cuisine…

      Seinfeld may have gone to Po, but the “stage” for the show was Tom’s…

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