This Is the New Year
And I don’t feel any different. I have been writing about food for more than 20 years now between this gig and my prior website. In that time we’ve had a lot of changes in our restaurant scene. I think things were in the works at the start of the century, but obviously everything was reset by Hurricane Katrina.
Restaurants have closed, and restaurants have opened, and for the most part those that have lasted have been more casual than upscale. That is indicative of national trends, I think, but I will admit that I have not conducted independent research on the topic.
What I’ve observed in my travels and my perusal of the food media nationwide is that most of the notable restaurants that have opened here and elsewhere are chef-driven, casual places as opposed to “white tablecloth” joints. When I’ve interviewed the folks behind these places, I have heard the same thing over and over: “We’re just cooking the sort of food we like to eat.”
I am not writing this to cast doubt on that assertion because I believe every chef who’s said it to me. What I think is interesting is that so many chefs who’ve trained in fine-dining restaurants prefer, when they open their own businesses, to cook comfort food of one sort or another.
I don’t know whether this is a result of economics, though that’s certainly part of it. Rents are out of control in neighborhoods that are popular for restaurants. Chefs and restaurateurs have told me over and over how difficult it is to find good employees in every aspect of the operation. “Fancier” restaurants tend to require more employees, and as those employees are harder to find these days, they’re demanding (quite rightly) more pay.
Then there is the challenge of location. If you open a fine-dining restaurant, you’ve got a much better chance of succeeding if you are in a neighborhood frequented by tourists on foot. Those, of course, are the neighborhoods where rents are the highest.
So, if you’re a human who loves food and wants to cook for a living, it makes perfect sense that you’d look for a spot where you can afford to pay the lease while making the sort of food you want to eat. This is why we have so many restaurants focused on burgers or charcuterie or interesting takes on “ethnic” food. It’s why even the most ambitious restaurants to have opened in the last few years are cooking regional Italian, “Southern” or some other “unpretentious” food.
I am not opposed to this trend because I like almost all of the restaurants that have opened lately. I do wish that I could have a conversation while dining, but I am 50 years old, and I am not the target demographic for most of the restaurants I’m discussing. Most restaurants are delighted to be loud because it means they are busy and busy is good in every industry.
I don’t see the trend toward casual restaurants changing any time soon because the restaurants whose openings I’m looking forward to are in the same category. I’d be delighted to learn that a truly fine-dining restaurant was on the horizon, with elegant service and old-school haute cuisine on the menu and where I’d feel out of place if I wasn’t wearing a tie, but I’m not fool enough to believe it’s going to happen in the next few years.
And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford to eat in such a place more than once anyway. I suspect that explains a lot.
I hope your 2019 was good, and I hope your 2020 is better.