Food & Wine Thursdays: On Cynical Restaurants

I was out to dinner with a few friends last week at an excellent new neighborhood restaurant in Echo Park and I mentioned how much I appreciated its honesty and heart and remarked that Los Angeles had too many “cynical restaurants.”

Now, what a “cynical” restaurant means to me has always been something that I knew when I saw it but was hard to quantify. But, faced with the task of explaining my definition for my inquisitive friends, I came up with the following:

A cynical restaurant is a restaurant that, by all appearances, looks like a very good restaurant. The menu is ambitious and contemporary. The space is designed impeccably (often, though not necessarily, at great expense). The staff is attractive and well-versed in the restaurant’s concept. It is a restaurant that by all appearances and by every metric should be an excellent restaurant; the owners and investors have hired the finest team to come up with an excellent restaurant. It is a restaurant that is going through the motions with the firm belief that that is all that is necessary to part a customer from his money.

What makes the restaurant cynical is that once you scratch the gilded surface, everything about the restaurant falls apart because it lacks heart and soul. It is cynical because its proprietors believe that all they have to do is open an excellent restaurant but not actually operate one. The lack of passion, training and supervision in the kitchen and of the front of the house staff becomes evident. Expertly described menu items are haphazardly prepared, beautiful bartenders spend more time texting than serving customers and waiters leave plates dirty and water glasses empty. In short, nobody tasked with actually running the restaurant cares.

Some characteristics of a cynical restaurant:

  1. Concept First. If a restaurant bills itself as a “concept,” that’s already a red flag. Chances are this means that expensive designers and consultants are running the show and once the restaurant opens, nobody will be nurturing the soul of the restaurant.
  2. Off-Site Chef. If the chef who conceives the menu isn’t working in the kitchen full-time, including every day the restaurant is open during its first two months, that’s a very cynical move. A kitchen staff can’t be expected to execute a complex menu from a checklist without training and supervision by the man or woman with the culinary vision. This cynicism reaches its apotheosis when well-known chefs “consult” on a menu for handsome fees without ever setting foot in the restaurant.
  3. Off-Site Wine Director. A lot of very expensive restaurants hire an individual with a bunch of letters after his or her name and pins on his or her lapel to assemble an initial wine list and then leave the task of reordering to a beverage manager or assistant GM. But maintaining a world class wine list is different than reordering vodka. Good wines are not available in perpetuity and wines also need to change with the seasons (as does the menu), so you need someone committed and passionate to keep the list current and respond to the needs of the restaurant and its customers. There is perhaps nothing that will keep me coming back to a restaurant more than an interesting, constantly evolving wine list and there is nothing that turns me off more than getting a sealed and bound wine list that clearly is printed, at most, once a year.

There are chefs–Thomas Keller and Mario Batali, for instance–who have successfully built nation-wide restaurant empires and every restaurateur should follow their example. By all reports, these men spend a lot of time in the kitchen ( the kitchens at Keller’s French Laundry and Per Se are linked by closed-circuit cameras) while simultaneously giving large degrees of creative autonomy (as well as ownership interest) to the individuals they task with running their restaurants day-to-day, ensuring that stakeholders are always present. 

And one can only look at businesses like The Dolce Group or Gordon Ramsay Holdings as counter-examples. They both boomed for a brief, PR-driven period of time, only to contract again.

You can’t build a sustained business on customers who merely chase the next hot thing and  to open a restaurant with that objective is the utmost peak of cynicism.

And LA is riddled with those types of restaurants.


About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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