The problem with new restaurants is that they suck. But that’s all anyone asks me about.
Every 80 days I try to explain this to my orthodontist, who waits until my mouth is propped open by some blinking gadget to ask, “Been to any good new restaurants?”
Because I earn what a writer earns, not what an orthodontist does, eating out is a luxury, not a sport. And I don’t want to spend my money on new restaurants, because — despite all the hype — they are rarely good.
Most new restaurants will fail. Some, because they don't know what they're doing. And some, despite doing everything right. Those that survive, even the rare gems that show the potential for greatness, won’t have developed yet. Even worse, the handful that are blessed to be the “new hotspot” are likely under-prepared and overwhelmed by demand. The person who greets you at the door was just hired today because the manager didn’t have time to interview anyone else. And the kitchen, strained to the breaking point by an unrelenting wave of diners, without a slow Monday or Tuesday to catch its breath, lets standards fall.
Unlike precocious species of animals — horses, giraffes, elephants — that are miraculously able to walk on the day they are born, restaurants are more like humans, who need about a year before they can stand confidently on their own. The occasional restaurant that is born ready to gallop, usually operated by an industry veteran rather than a first-timer, is an anomaly.
And that’s not a flaw, but a function of an open design system.
Movies, for example, are a finished product by the time they reach the market. With the exception of George Lucas, a director will not change a movie after its release. When it hits theatres, it is ready to be judged.
Chefs can and will tinker. That’s their nature, and it’s also how they get better. Like Prince’s mother, they’re never satisfied. Unworkable ideas will be thrown out. After a year of operation, if a restaurant is still in business, the entire front-of-house staff has usually turned over. Restaurants are built to age gradually into their best selves. And it takes time to grow from hip and hot to venerable and respected. The moment at which we shower them with attention is precisely when they’re not ready for it.
Our obsession with newness is not constrained to restaurants. We fawn over new technology, new musical genres, and new friends, always ready to celebrate as shiny and exciting what may merely be cosmetically refreshed or rebranded.
It’s understandable. We want to be where things are happening, surrounded by a crowd that reaffirms our choices. We want to feel relevant.
We love new things so much we’ll even pretend old things are new just to buy and sell them. The top three movies right now are a live-action version of Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, a feature version of schlock '90s kids show Power Rangers, and the thousandth iteration of King Kong. The current enthusiasm for Hawaiian poke and tiki cocktails marches forward as if Trader Joe’s and Polynesian food hadn’t happened in the 1950s.
Back when I reviewed restaurants for a living, the debate still raged over how long to wait once they opened. Two months, I’d say. Two weeks, editors would counter. Zero days, concluded the good people of the internet, with all the compassion of an exterminator sprinkling out poison.
“If they’re charging money, they’re ready for a review,” went the refrain of the amateur critic, drunk on the power of social media and without the sobering empathy of having worked to open a restaurant.
While writers and editors were busy with high-minded debates over their duty to readers versus their duty to restaurateurs (who for the most part are not corporate fat-cats with a just-launched product, but private citizens who have poured their life savings into a business), online behaviour quickly rendered the debate irrelevant. Social media was not going to hold back opinions for any journalistic principle nonsense.
As Chowhound and Yelp chatter capitulated to the immediacy of Twitter, and then the visual demand of Instagram, criticism mattered less than documentation.
No one was asking “What’s good?” anymore, only “What’s new?”
It took a few years for digital media to play catch-up, to learn that the crowd-sourced star ratings of Yelp had usurped critics, but that establishment publications still had a role, if they wanted it, as promoters. The “just opened” feature became standard: non-critical descriptions that tell you where the hot new restaurants are and show you what the food looks like, but don’t actually tell you if it’s any good.
And the industry has adapted to our superficiality. A chef told me recently that he plans every new restaurant with one feature, food, or interior design element specifically conceived to be Instagrammed, knowing that the photogenic prop will help his customers market his business.
I’ve been on the dining end of those dishes designed to be photographed rather than eaten — pork belly fried rice inside a hollowed out pineapple, noodles that seem to float in the air, soft serve ice cream topped with cotton candy — and they taste as good as the circus barker hucksterism that inspired them. Like the rubes who paid P.T. Barnum to see the “Feejee Mermaid” or the “Cardiff Giant,” we don't question, with a mouthful of gummy pork belly, what we paid for and whether we are suckers.
After experiences like this, I yearn for the warm embrace of an old-school restaurant. Not merely in age. But restaurants that value substance, and that put the quality of their product before the promotion of it.
Like dating an older person, eating at an established restaurant is like keeping company with someone who knows who they are. They’re dependable. When a dish tastes sweet one week, it’s not going to be sour the next. After years in business, they don’t just switch suppliers overnight, slices of lamb suddenly showing up on the plate leaner or fattier than before.
I don’t mean this entirely literally: it’s not about catering to an older crowd with quieter music. One of my favourite places has been around nearly a decade and it’s still too loud to carry on a conversation. But it’s consistent. The service is based on training and protocols, not just hiring transient attractive people.
When friends dine out, the process of restaurant selection often begins with asking what’s new and good. A better question to start with is, “Do we want to check out a new restaurant or a good restaurant?” Yes, new restaurants need public support to thrive. But if you approach dining like an angel investor, you’re going to spend a lot of money on garbage food. And if it’s one of the rare new restaurants that really is good, it’ll still be around in six months. And it’ll be better.
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