Thursday, February 5, 2009

Where Have All The Diners Gone?

For those skeptics who believed that New York would become a culinary wasteland in the wake of the economic tsunami, well, you're not all wrong.  The recent closings/announced closings of restaurants like Fiamma and Fleur de Sel speaks to a market oversaturated with haute cuisine and undersaturated with cheap eats.  Every day a new closing hits the press, and even the most hailed and established spots are not immune.  Yesterday's New York Times reported that Chanterelle and Gotham Bar and Grill, two New York landmarks, have experienced marked sales drops this January.  And by marked, I mean a drop in sales between 10 and 15 percent.  These restaurants have survived decades of muddy city water.  But survival, even for the fittest, looks bleaker and bleaker these days. 

I'm going to throw a little blame in the direction of the New York Times.  I believe that this moment in time is different from any other moment in the past 20 years.  I believe that this is no mere changed current of economic insecurity; it's a veritable tidal wave.  I believe that New York has to do what it can to stay in the black, even if that means switching out truffles for tacos.  

But I also believe that a complete shift away from fine dining will mean a final and inevitable change in the way we dine.  The luxuries of sitting in a quiet room with nice things will no longer be a luxury afforded the average American.  Do we really want the Chanterelles and Gotham Bar and Grills of the world to close?  Do we really want to sever all ties with the uncommon opulence of classic restaurants? 

These places are sanctuaries and, like any other sanctuaries, they deserve our attention and attempts at preservation.  We put plaques in the silliest of places, honoring the land that our forefathers tread upon hundreds of years ago.  But we dismiss the importance of dining rooms that have played host to our most important Americans, our presidents, our writers, our personal heroes.  No one would ever dream of suggesting we fell the Metropolitan Museum of Art, no matter how bad things get.  Why, then, do we ignore our restaurants when they, too, preserve memories and artifacts of life in this city?

It's Frank Bruni I really want to take to task here.  Week after week, Mr. Bruni reviews tirelessly, offering a do-or-die opinion of New York's scene.  Lately, his reviews have become downright predictable.  If you happen to run a restaurant in the east village, and if your aim is more causal and less haute, you, too can receive two stars from the New York Times.  For the past few years, Bruni has tried his hardest to reestablish the criteria for good eating in the city.  And while such brute ambition is admirable, ambition for ambition's sake alone is not enough.  I understand wanting to make food and restaurants more approachable.  I understand plebian-izing fine dining.  Ok.  I get it.  I do not, however, understand why making the lower end cool must come at the cost of making the higher end suffer. 

I consider yesterday's review the perfect example.  Every review I have stumbled across touted the virtues of the recently renovated and reopened Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel.  It's a restaurant that speaks volumes of New York's history; what little girl didn't own Eloise growing up?

The Oak Room also happens to be the quintessential old New York dining experience, replete with ornate dining room touches, tablecloths, silver, china.  It is the kind of restaurant that is supposed to remind us of the kind of place that this city used to be: dazzling, majestic, opulent, fancy.  It is the kind of restaurant that no doubt stirs in people the same nostalgia I feel when I think back on all the lovely and fancy Chinese restaurants I dined at as a child back before Chinese meant greasy takeout, where the bowls were porcelain and the chopsticks like ivory, where Shirley Temples came in fluted glasses, where lychees and stemmed maraschino cherries arrived with the check.  There is a certain other-worldliness to places like these, reminding us of a past that has all but disappeared in this fast and furious digital age. 

Mr. Bruni gave the Oak Room--who was no doubt reaching for three fine stars--a pathetic one.  Despite all of those other reviews I read, the ones that discussed the technical brilliance of the Oak Room's food, Bruni's single star may be the review that resonates.  

And so people will stop going because, in an economy like this, why would they waste their time and money on a place that Mr. Bruni believes is far from achieving greatness?  And as our critic continues to review the cheaper haunts on the New York beat, people will stop caring about the finer restaurants because they will believe that in an era like this you aren't supposed to care about things like fine dining. The thing is, the cheaper places, well, they would have survived anyway, just like the local pubs will do just fine.  Now, more than ever, it's the pricier places that need a plug.  

I hold critics to high standards.  I've seen how a critics 500 words can affect the welfare of a restaurant.  The juggernaut of economic loss cannot be controlled or remedied by any one person, but if we value the style of dining that has defined us as a city and if we believe that the future holds a place for these restaurants just as it holds a place for the funkier and fussier molecular gastronomy hangouts, we have to protect what is ours.  In that respect, I think Mr. Bruni has failed miserably in communicating what it will mean if the most important places here cease to exist.  

I love ramen just as much as the next blogger, but I'm not prepared to face a Tokoyan future, where tablecloths are replaced with quick-fix noodle bowls and pork buns.  There is room in this fragile world for remembrance of decadence past.  It is a small window, but it still exists.  For now. 

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