Thursday, September 23, 2010

One Person's Boredom is Another's Excitement

I missed this blog item on Diner's Journal last week in which Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton drew attention to a letter from a reader commenting on an article about recent changes at Eleven Madison Park. The reader worried that the service and menu changes, which the restaurant made to elevate its status in the dining world, would make it a boring place with exciting food.

It's an interesting move on the part of EMP to switch to a prix-fixe-only menu, something that I do associate mostly with very high-end places, and to reduce the number of seats, making the reservations harder to acquire. I have dined at EMP a couple of times and although it has been on my list of places to return to, especially after it received a good re-review from The Times last year, I haven't made it back. A change in the way the restaurant operates provides me with additional incentive — I know I would not only be testing out the food again (I had dinner there shortly after the current chef, Daniel Humm, became the chef), but that I would now also have a new experience.

A restaurant that has become a destination deservedly, likely has a devotion not only to food but to its diners. Why wouldn't you want to eat in a place like that? For me, dining out is a complex affair that entails more than just eating and drinking. I want to be able to gain a sense of what the place is about, understand and appreciate the chef's philosophy and mission. And the food that is on the menu, that is put before us, is the way a chef communicates with the customers. 

The reader wrote:
Foodies as diners are way too concerned with the food. They are quiet, reverent and studying, not boisterous, interesting or fun. One of the best parts of eating out is seeing other people, enjoying your meal and having an experience. ... However, I think when a restaurant is too focused on food you lose passion and soul.

I imagine that serious chefs want an audience that cares deeply and that pays attention. "Foodies" are such people. But I quibble with the reader's characterization of quiet studiousness. Yes, I want to observe carefully and absorb every aspect of the meal, but I get excited and I'd like to think excitement can be contagious. Food is a passion, so I find it hard to understand how focusing more closely on it could detract from the essence of the restaurant.

When I think of neighborhood dining, I think of the local joint we head for when we want to grab a bite with less regard for how esteemed it is or whether it actually serves the best food. We go when we don't care as much about our experience, when we are weary and have the basic need of sustaining our bodies. Yes, we may return more often to those places than to the destination spots, but the destinations
raise expectations and engender conversations — were those expectations met, how did the chefs pull it off? We are interested to see how other people react and to measure that against our own responses. It's why we might want to read reviews of these restaurants. And in the end, it's the experiences that make memories.

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