What makes a restaurant glamorous, and why isn’t it the food?
Prolific restaurateur Keith McNally received another profile last week, this time in Grub Street. The media boys just love him, and so despite his rather bland but still offensive commentary on Instagram, he is getting lots of attention. Most of the attention is about how he’s kept Balthazar humming as a wildly popular restaurant for glamorous celebrities and media folk since its opening in 1997. I think the more interesting question is why do glamorous people like restaurants where the food isn’t interesting.
I’ve been to Balthazar once, for lunch, and I ate at the bar. I wanted to understand what was significant about it, and I understood that it’s the scene. I also went to Lucky Strike once, to feel like I was Parker Posey in the late ’90s, and ate a salad. Though not a McNally restaurant, I went to Lucien in the East Village once before I left New York on my way to a shift at a nearby wine bar, because I’d noticed on the internet it was popular with a similar albeit more downtown crowd. I have never made it to Mr. Chow or Cipriani or Nello or Nobu. Someone else would have to pick up the tab.
At none of these places did I eat a good meal, or even have a good martini. I understand it’s not the point, but unfortunately I am neither chic nor rich enough not to care about the food. (The exception here to the rule of “glamorous restaurants have bad food” could be Frenchette, from what I’m told, but when I lived in New York, the menu was all meat and I wasn’t interested.) On some level, I wish I could get over it and enjoy a place just for the scene. I want to be able to take on the posture of Rene Ricard in his uproarious 1978 Times piece “I Class Up a Joint,” but I cannot. I simply love food. I am one of those people who is happiest eating dumplings in a basement in Flushing—a true food writer cliché! When I get dolled up for an expensive meal covered in truffle, I really am there for the food.
In Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain explores the question of why rich people eat bad food in his essay “The Rich Eat Differently Than You and Me.” He was on St. Barths with a rich, unstable woman, and writes: “What they [the rich] want on St. Barths—as elsewhere, I’m guessing—is to feel secure among others of their ilk. Secure that they’ve chosen the right place—the place everybody else in their set will choose. Secure that, if nothing else, everyone else in attendance will have bought into the shared illusion.” Conspicuous consumption, quite literally.
This makes sense. There is, as Toronto Star writer Karon Liu joked, a clear connection here to a childhood desire to go to the Rainforest Café, which was a very hard sell to my mom and likely most moms for how expensive and bad the food was, and which only appealed to me because of the vibe. There’s also fabulous insight into this phenomenon from last week’s paid Vittles from Jonathan Nunn on “the Salt Bae economy.”
Meaning there’s a collective illusion that cannot be broken. When I tweeted about this topic, people replied to this effect, and also noted that rich people don’t eat because they want to be skinny. Others said that if they wanted the food to be good it would suggest that the money spent on it would need to add up, and they can’t be seen to concern themselves with a $200 lunch tab. All these responses are satisfactory, if a bit boring and disappointing. But then again, so is the food.
And so I don’t care, really, what makes glamorous people not care about food. I do wonder why good food isn’t glamorous. Bourdain got very famous by caring about good food and still remained, at heart, a nerd for doing so—extremely cool only by food nerd standards. There are, of course, famous and expensive restaurants that are known for their food, all the Michelin-starred ones and whatnot, but it remains a niche concern to see or be seen at these, and for a celebrity to care about food does suggest a down-to-earthness, a hipness. Don’t ask me why I know Lily Collins was recently at Noma, but she was—this signaled insouciance, an anti-glamour! It’s usually comedians or actors synonymous with the exported concept of “Brooklyn” who are into natural wine, for example, not anyone cashing checks for their roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It makes sense: Do we want Rihanna to go to Ops? (No, it makes more sense she’d try to get into Barcade.) Do we want to see J.Lo and Ben Affleck canoodling at The Four Horsemen?
No, because even if those of us who love food don’t have their money, we do have taste, knowledge—we know when the martini is good or bad—and that is its own form of currency, cachet. Or so we can believe.
I suppose it’s a good thing that to eat and drink with joy and care are the concerns of only those who love these things—let the glamorous folks have their garbage, expensive food in places where they feel comfortable and where the wannabes can spend. To really love food, to know food… leave it to the nerds.
Throughout October, Friday conversations will be available publicly thanks to Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Encyclopedia, out 10/12 from Workman Publishing. Purchase this encyclopedia of incredible ingredients, food adventures, and edible wonders here.
This Friday’s interview will feature award-wining pastry chef Paola Vélez, host of Food & Wine’s “Pastries with Paola” and one of the folks behind the Bakers Against Racism initiative. We discuss growing up in the Bronx and moving to D.C., using baking as a way of helping folks, accessibility in recipes, and more.
A piece in T: The New York Times Style Magazine about bakers who are approaching cake as an ephemeral art object. I also wrote about dinner parties for Bon Appétit. Who’s glamorous now???
Wildly scatter-brained right now. I have no idea.
Last week, I did a scheduled meal plan to keep myself from losing my mind. It included the usuals: homemade gnocchi with marinara, black bean tacos in homemade flour tortillas, hummus with flatbread and harissa eggplant, leftover gnocchi pan-fried with kale sauce, a noodle stir-fry with lots of local bok choy, and eggplant parmigiana.