Salt, Fat, Acid, Defeat
The restaurant before and after Covid
Have you eaten here before? Well, have you? Since I can tell from your hesitation that you haven’t, I can’t help but wonder: What are you doing here?
Generous as I am, I will guide you. Tonight’s meal will take the form of a series of liquid and solid comestibles served in vessels made sometimes of ceramic, sometimes of wood, sometimes of glass. Ingredients are all seasonal and humanely produced, in the modern tradition, and our chef is an explosive asshole of moderate talent whose best ideas were stolen from less connected cooks with inferior financial backing, as is also traditional. Dishes will appear as they’re prepared, according to an ancient and mysterious protocol known as “making food to order in a restaurant.” Service will be obsequious to the point of viscosity; the waiters will laugh at even your most painful attempts at conversation, mostly as a means of securing a large tip, their only balm for employment in a service economy that regards them as less than human. Despite this, it will be impossible to understand their descriptions of the food, which will sound less like words than a series of tuneful sighs. Dishes will include an amuse-bouche of insipid “soup” in an espresso cup; a signature dish that’s been on the menu for too long; an innovative “take” on an “ethnic” foodstuff spuriously linked to the chef’s bio; a palate cleanser that’s unintentionally the most satisfying part of the meal; and a dessert that’s designed to be witty but just tastes like dessert. Some dishes will arrive on moving vehicles. Others will include strobe lighting. Allergies will be tolerated, but only with contempt. You will be charged for drinking water. Nothing will meet the expectations you have created by feverishly consuming online reviews in the days leading up to this meal. Any questions before we start?
What was the restaurant? To put the question in the past tense implies that it’s no longer possible to ask what the restaurant is. In time that may come to seem a ridiculous position; in many parts of the world outside the United States, where restaurants are holding firm in the face of the coronavirus, it already seems moot. But for now, anyone walking the center of any major city in this country would find it difficult to dispute that the American restaurant as we once knew it is an artifact of history. The US hospitality industry lost almost 5.5 million jobs in a single month at the start of the pandemic; 2 million fewer people are currently employed than were pre-Covid. In New York, over a thousand restaurants have perished since March 2020. This massacre has disproportionately affected workers of color, who made up more than three-quarters of the city’s pre-Covid restaurant labor force, and the working poor, which is the only way to describe the vast mass of people employed in an industry with an average salary of $33,700. Restaurants have been brought to their knees at precisely the moment when the nourishment of the country is most in peril: since the start of the pandemic, the number of Americans facing food insecurity has climbed from thirty-seven million to fifty-four million.
This year of death and hunger closes a period in which the restaurant, aided by social media and its mimetic logic of aspirational consumption, enjoyed an imperial phase of growth and influence. Neither inhospitable margins nor a famously high rate of failure for new businesses had, writ large, held the restaurant back. In the decade before Covid hit, the net number of new restaurants and bars in New York alone increased by more than 7,000, to 23,650, twice the rate at which businesses citywide expanded. Since the turn of the millennium, the public’s appetite for news about the restaurant industry—for openings, reviews, recipes, and anything that took us closer to the chefs and their journeys into the culinary unknown—grew even more quickly, and a powerful new institution, the “food media,” was salivated into existence. Competition quickly emerged as the food media’s dominant narrative mode, touching off an explosion in competitive cooking shows, awards, and new systems of rating and ranking that turned food into a sorting mechanism for the consumer as well. Food functioned as both a prestige destination for the idle lifestyle dollar and a kind of prize. Over the past two decades restaurants were more than simply a growing industry; for many they became a totem, a lodestar of in-group identification, a shorthand for cultural savvy and openness to experience. The person who frequented the right restaurants was living their best life. The restaurant agnostic was a cultural heathen, left behind by the great hungry tide of progress.
Among those restaurants still standing, or huddling by the feeble warmth of their outdoor heat lamps, forbearance rules the day, since survival through the pandemic is both an exercise of endurance and a cry for financial mercy—mercy that, whether in the form of further state assistance or rent forgiveness, increasingly looks as though it will arrive too late, or never. The shells that pass for restaurants today, grimly subsisting on trickles of revenue from sidewalk seating in the hope of salvation-by-vaccine, look nothing like the teeming, raucous places that used to line many communities’ streets. Their interiors empty or rearranged at quarter capacity, these half-restaurants present 2020 as a conclusive volemic shock to an urban patient that was already, in many cases, losing blood fast. In the laughter of today’s outdoor brunchers, gamely throwing back mimosas in pustular sidewalk bubbles and military-style dining tents hastily assembled over street gutters—some of these structures so secure they’re more indoor than the indoors could ever be—there’s a bleak determination to prove that despite the cold, despite everything, the show must go on. But it’s difficult to avoid the uncomfortable sense that these people are simply holdouts, and that the restaurant as we have come to know it will not survive the many months—Six? Twelve? Who knows?—that the pandemic still has to run. In a country such as this one, so reluctant to redistribute in any direction other than upward, the pandemic represents not a state of exception but a state of extension, an acceleration of the economy’s guiding inhumanities. What may be the restaurant’s final chapter was already prefigured by the excesses of its recent past. The story is not uniformly pretty.
It’s important to be clear-eyed about what the restaurant became in the years before the coronavirus hit.Tweet
The first restaurants date to mid-eighteenth-century Paris, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the modern restaurant, born of an alliance between capital, power, and the press, was set on its course. In the aftermath of the Revolution, French culinarians—responding to directives from Napoleonic state censors to suppress coverage of politics and instead promote articles about “pleasure”—remapped France and Paris as geographies of edible abundance. Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt’s 1809 Course in Gastronomy presented a “gastronomic map of France” that redrew the country as a place of indulgence: cattle, ducks and hare now populated the Vendée and Versailles, rather than royalists and counterrevolutionaries. The restaurant—a still-new institution whose primary points of distinction from the inns, taverns, coffeehouses, and tables d’hôte that also offered food to the public were individual seating and individual choice in each diner’s selection of dishes off a menu—figured prominently in this depoliticizing initiative. In a Paris awash with “new fortunes,” Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière promised that his Gourmands’ Almanac, the first volume of which appeared in 1803, would guide the epicurean middle classes through the “labyrinth” of new food shops, restaurants, and caterers that had emerged in the previous three decades, while specifically avoiding all discussion of governance: “For the last 15 years we have spoken about politics too much, and things have only started going well for France since we left the trouble of government to true statesmen,” he wrote.
As Rebecca L. Spang writes in The Invention of the Restaurant, her history of Parisian gastronomic culture, the inspiration for these early culinary reimaginings of France and its capital was Cockaigne, the mythical land of plenty depicted in the art and literature of medieval Europe. In the Land of Cockaigne, food is everywhere: fences are made of sausages, beams are made of butter, windows and doors are salmon and sturgeon, and the streets are paved with spices. Pâtés, cakes, pears, and loaves of bread grow on trees, while fish, fowl, and swine roam the streets offering to cook themselves. Paintings, poems, and plays of the Middle Ages depict a world where tables are piled high with prepared food, a variety of beverages flow continuously into rivers, and it rains eels and meat pies three times a day. Food is without limit or cost, nobody goes hungry, and work for nourishment is a foreign concept. In order to get fed, all people need to do is open their mouths.
The image of the big city as a latter-day Land of Cockaigne has been a staple of food writing since French critics first mapped the world as a feast in the early 19th century. In the decades before the outbreak of the coronavirus, few cities wore the analogy better than New York. Prior to 2020, the streets of the five boroughs offered gustatory riches on a Cockaignian scale, and the sheer variety of options available to the New York diner was a theme on which many of the city’s restaurants consciously played. But at some point in the past decade or decade and a half—the restaurant’s pre-Covid moment, we’ll call it—this culinary confusion, originally a natural and spontaneous feature of life in a wildly diverse city, hardened into cliché, and eventually dispersed far beyond New York’s borders. Nowhere was this cliché more aggressively pursued than among the kind of award-worthy, big-night-out restaurants that generated the food media’s most fanatical attention.
One of the more ridiculous pieces of food journalism I encountered in the past decade was a 2012 interview with the founders of Major Food Group, published to promote the opening of their new restaurant. Major Food Group had shot to New York food-world prominence in 2010 after its founding partners opened Torrisi Italian Specialties, a small restaurant downtown offering a fine-dining spin on traditional Italian American cuisine. Two years later, “the Torrisi Boys”—as Major Food Group partners Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick were by then known—opened Carbone, their latest adventure in red-sauce revivalism. “We’re paying tribute to what we call ‘moves,’” Carbone told New York magazine. Instead of registering the grandiose inanity of “moves,” and why anyone would pay tribute to them, the writers explained: “When the waiter at Il Mulino in the Village attacks your table with freebie plates of sautéed zucchini, chunks of Parmesan, slices of salami, and garlicky bruschetta practically before you’ve had a chance to sit down, that is a move. . . . The Scalinatella waiter who stands majestically before the table and rattles off 25 specials without breaking a sweat? Classic move.” Zalaznick demonstrated a typical tableside “move” diners might expect from the waiters at Carbone: “We can do lobster—we can do it grilled, we can do it stuffed, we can do it fra diavola.”
When I eventually made it there a few years later, Carbone was exactly as advertised: an exercise in pure kitsch, a kind of theater restaurant offering the food, decor, and waiterly patter of an Italian American dining hall of the 1960s, only at many times the price and with none of the neighborly bonhomie. The restaurant existed as a riff on the Cockaignian theme of abundance: a long, leather-bound menu, carts carrying cocktails and condiments, shrimp and lobster and steak done “as you like it.” But it was all for show; transformed into culinary cabaret, these “moves” illustrated only the chasm between a true society of abundance and the reality of an American economy tailored to the whims of the rich. “What can I get for youse?” the waiter asked after my dining companion and I were seated, and for the two rote and underwhelming hours that followed it remained difficult to detect the line between reality and simulacrum. Was this guy really a crotchety Italian American wiseass, or just playing one? There was something joyless and cynical about Carbone’s evocation of the American restaurant’s—and by extension, America’s—bountiful history. Here stood a restaurant with the self-confidence to treat its patrons like idiots. Here was all the richness of the Land of Cockaigne, but only for those who could afford it. Here was America as a land of plenty, whose best and most generous days were firmly in the past.
Shortly after visiting Carbone, I made the financially disastrous decision to quit my job and become a freelance writer. From that point, restaurants became something I read about more than actually visited—an experience common, I suspect, to many people in New York. Meanwhile, Major Food Group went on to open a string of ragingly successful restaurants around the city in a similar revivalist mode, exploiting the public’s nostalgia for everything from the mid-century steakhouse (The Grill) to the New York deli (Sadelle’s), the seaside clam shack (ZZ’s Clam Bar), and the food of the Italian Riviera during the 1980s (Santina). The success of the group demonstrates something important about what restaurants in the pre-Covid moment became—and what, despite the economic and epidemiological ravages of the pandemic, they might still be.1
In the two and a half centuries since restaurants emerged as distinct institutions, every generation has imagined that it eats better than its predecessors. “Few places are more changed, and changed for the better, in the period of my memory, than the dining rooms and restaurants of London,” wrote Edmund Yates in 1885, a judgment that writers in all major Western cities, in the decades before and since, have reproduced about their own era with remarkable consistency. I’m not sure the same can necessarily be said of American restaurants in the years before the coronavirus struck. Sometime around the turn of this century, as Shake Shack and Momofuku, two of the emblematic restaurants of the pre-Covid moment, got going, the gestalt of restaurant food became less an exploration of the frontiers of taste than an exercise in reclamation. The best food belonged no longer to the present but to the past.
Restaurants became stages for chefs to display their mastery of the highbrow-lowbrow genre via the deconstructed taco, the reimagined gyro, the momo given a helping hand, and the pumped-up pupusa.Tweet
To be fair, these were also the years of molecular gastronomy, trick desserts, liquid olives, the dry-ice appetizer, and rule by tweezer. But there was a historicist streak to much of this future food, which often mixed the jingoistic localism of terroir with the desire to rehabilitate forgotten traditions, ingredients, practices, and experiences. Such was the frenzied baroque of molecular innovation: to mandate evolution beyond nature and the past through their fastidious replication. René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma fancied himself the poster child for foraging and the “new” Nordic cuisine, inspiring a generation of mimics. Following the closing of the orgasmically hyped El Bulli, which he ran with his brother Ferran, the Catalan chef Albert Adrià opened Tickets, a mock amusement park presenting diners with a selection of tapas in the form of carnival snacks. In 2012, Daniel Humm relaunched New York’s Eleven Madison Park as “a gastronomic paean to New York City, full of dishes and gestures that make reference to the four-century saga of the metropolis,” as a New York Times review put it at the time—including a card trick–based dessert “inspired by the fast-talking scams, like three-card monte, that used to be a fixture of the New York streetscape.” The high-end dining world’s nostalgie de la boue was so intense that many dishes produced at acclaimed chef’s tables counted edible “soil” among their cleverest additions. Through long pre-meal disquisitions and relentless promotional campaigns in the food press and on social media, the new chef-gods promised gastronomic experiences unlike anything diners had known before, while all sounding exactly alike.
Many restaurants, not just those pushing quasi-innovative, social-media-famous degustation “experiences,” transformed themselves into vehicles to reconnect with a lost innocence: the innocence of childhood, of a culinary past, or of “authentic” food locales like the diner, the street cart, the roadside stall, and the snack stand. Hence the curious obsession, among chefs and the food media apparatus that recycled their PR, with “elevating” existing ethnic and historical cuisines: elevated red-sauce Italian, elevated Korean, elevated dim sum, elevated cucina povera, elevated soul food, elevated diner food, elevated street food. Restaurants became stages for chefs to display their mastery of the highbrow-lowbrow genre via the deconstructed taco, the reimagined gyro, the momo given a helping hand, and the pumped-up pupusa. Even French brasserie food got the elevation treatment, which raised the question, if only intellectually, of exactly how high seafood towers really needed to go.
It didn’t matter that most of these cuisines were already perfect and had no need to operate beyond their existing altitude (and that in many restaurants, outside the capitals of taste, they didn’t). The point of these exercises in digestive manipulation was to promise the diner something more while delivering, on the plate, an experience at once less satisfying and more expensive than the original. In New York, places like Momofuku, Pok Pok, and Mission Chinese Food were at the vanguard of a new generation of supercharged “ethnic” restaurants. Their success did not, however, represent a victory for the subaltern, or some dramatic turning of the historical-culinary tables, but a recolonization—another way, ultimately, of pining for the past. Chefs like Empellón’s Alex Stupak domesticated the foods of the Other, rendering them acceptable for white tastes while stripping away everything that made them interesting to begin with. “Elevation,” with its connotations of jet setting, hockey-stick graphs, and compound growth, became a fitting mode for a decade in which the advancement of the wealthy and the debasement of everyone else, though traveling in opposite directions, both showed signs of tending to infinity. The rich got asymptotically richer, drunker, higher, and happier, while the rest of us, imagining we were joining their gastronomic party at high altitude, remained as earthbound as ever, and sold a lie. In theory there were card-trick desserts for everyone, but only one side was getting duped.
We might read the epidemic of food nostalgia as an example of what Zygmunt Bauman has called “retrotopia”: the turn in the public mindset “from investing public hopes of improvement in the uncertain and ever-too-obviously untrustworthy future, to re-investing them in the vaguely remembered past, valued for its assumed stability and so trustworthiness.” The restaurant industry’s embrace of history-as-endless-menu coincided with a moment (the curdling years of An Inconvenient Truth and the subprime mortgage crisis) in which a growing majority of Americans were coming around to the realization that future generations would in all likelihood be worse off than today’s. When the present offers only a slow-motion catastrophe of rising inequality, environmental collapse, failed crisis management, and bubbling popular rage, and the future promises to be even worse, the past is often the only source of comfort—in politics as in food.
No surprise, then, that even the earthbound class sought the safety of history in restaurants. Shake Shack—whose founder, Danny Meyer, had deftly identified a collective yearning for a lost America fed on double cheeseburgers, crinkle-cut fries, and frozen custard—exemplified the lower end of the polarized pre-pandemic restaurant industry. At one end were the calorie-laden consolations of what industry types reverently refer to as “quick service” or “fast casual.” On the other was the brushed world of fine dining. The industry was becoming a dumbbell, the restaurant gnomes informed us, with value increasingly squeezed into these two extremities, and both “casual” and “premium” ends of the market catered to the collective fatigue that triggered the surging demand for food nostalgia. Private dining rooms and eventually members-only restaurants emerged as a prominent part of the fine-dining experience, offering their patrons the pleasure of momentary secession from the hordes beyond the frosted glass. Quick service, meanwhile, complemented the craze for Instagram-ready viral food (rainbow bagels, cake-and-cream-encrusted milkshake ziggurats, cronuts, and other mutant pastries) and the shift to an online, app-driven takeout economy. The delights of Cockaigne gave way to the grim inequalities of the cloud.
The year 2008 was notable for two events in the food world: Shake Shack, which started as a cart in Madison Square Park, opened its second brick-and-mortar location, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; and major supply disruptions saw global food prices soar, leading to popular unrest in a number of countries dependent on imports for their nutritional security. This was the “crisis” over which the developed world’s Serious People fretted in the first half of 2008. Before long, however, this crisis was forgotten as a larger one, closer to home, lurched into view. The Federal Reserve’s response to the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009 was to slash interest rates and pump money into the financial system through the purchase of low-risk assets like government bonds, dramatically increasing the global supply of US dollars and launching the era of “easy money.” Favorable credit conditions and the sheer quantity of cash sloshing through the pipes of the financial system led to a stock market boom, and investment in private companies, especially high-growth tech start-ups, took off. Grubhub, which today controls more than half of the food delivery market in New York City, was founded in 2004 and completed a series of private financing rounds in the early years of easy money, before eventually going public in 2014. Shake Shack, which quickly expanded from Madison Square Park and the Upper West Side to all corners of the city and country beyond, held its own IPO a year later, joining a fleet of other fast-casual chains (Chipotle, Domino’s) that went public in the early 2000s. Easy money was good for businesses operating at both ends of the polarized restaurant market: tech-driven app businesses like Grubhub and chains like Shake Shack took advantage of loose credit and low interest rates to rapidly “scale” and take themselves public, while a buoyant stock market kept the tweezer temples and expense-account omakase houses flush with fat-walleted customers.
What easy money was not good for was the people left hungry by the food crisis of 2008. That crisis was the product of a combination of factors, some secular, others cyclical: growing demand for resource-intensive foods, especially among developing countries; the impact of climate-change-induced natural disasters on crop yields; high oil prices; and financial speculation. No one in the American restaurant industry seemed particularly bothered by any of this at the time; search the news archives for any public intervention from any prominent chef or restaurant owner about the 2008 global food riots and you’ll come up empty-handed. But the structural causes of the 2008 crisis did not disappear in the years that followed. Once policymakers flooded advanced economies with cheap money, the search for yield forced investment capital offshore, into the “emerging” markets of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, where rates of return were higher. Torrential flows of capital into these countries, combined with already high rates of economic expansion, created inflationary pressures, which prompted local policymakers to raise interest rates, further heightening the attractiveness of these markets to the developed world’s financial speculators. This led, in turn, to further capital inflows, setting the whole process off again.
Stacked on top of the still-present structural forces that created the food-price crisis of the pre-Lehman era, these capital pressures led inevitably to disaster: food prices spiked again from 2010 to 2011, affecting many of the same countries most financially attractive to a developed world hungry for yield. Food inflation contributed to the wave of popular unrest later known as the Arab Spring; at the time, activists in the Middle East and North Africa described it as “the Hunger Revolution.” A vicious cycle took hold: the low-for-long interest rate environment that allowed a new breed of food start-ups and chain restaurants to prosper also contributed to higher food prices offshore, the ultimate inflationary transfer. The feeding of America—a process both figurative, since the US financial system was frequently imagined as an ailing body requiring an infusion of vital “liquidity,” and literal, since easy money was a boon for all those companies aiming to satisfy the country’s appetite—left other parts of the world undernourished. The “frictionless” food experience of the post-crisis years was procured at the cost of other people’s hunger.
Domestically the new food economy was equally zero-sum: the brutalities of the pre-Covid restaurant may have been outsourced or hidden behind closed doors, but they were no less present for the efficient and comforting eating experience offered to diners. Financialized and marketed for nostalgia, restaurants amplified many of the same repressive economic and social conditions from which people were driven to seek solace in food. This was the era, let’s not forget, in which many successful chefs were outed for being abusive sociopaths, even as they were lauded by a mostly uncritical press for building “empires”; Gordon Ramsay became a household name purely on the basis of his temper. Meanwhile, the self-dealing of the delivery-app businesses, which withheld tips from their workers and charged fees far in excess of most restaurants’ margins, was thoroughly exposed. Among additional staples of the ante-pandemic restaurant scene was the reliance of the altar of fine dining on unpaid interns to keep its mega-rich clientele fed, the celebrity chef fighting for the right to continue paying his staff poverty wages, and the white food whisperer who sententiously declared food to be “political” while secretly being a racist. There was terroir on the plate, and terror in the kitchen.
The restaurant monsters who reigned throughout this era, whether in kitchens or the “rape rooms” they kept for their dilettantishly psychotic entertainment, were indulged as their own kind of charming throwback. The brigade system has long mandated military-grade lines of hierarchy and discipline in the kitchen, and it’s fair to assume that for much of restaurants’ existence, military-grade abuses of power have been tolerated as a result. But in recent decades the violence of the kitchen has also been celebrated as a kind of muscular corrective to a society grown too weak and too sensitive for its own good. Anthony Bourdain’s early writing portrayed kitchens as literal bloodbaths in which burns, cuts, fractures, and verbal humiliations were as much tools of human resources management as scars of the job. The media reacted to these stories not with horror or disgust but a kind of glee at the primal savagery of chef life, at being offered the chance to sit ringside with these alphas of the pass. When British critic Jay Rayner described Kitchen Confidential in a 2000 review as “a coruscating account” of Bourdain’s “years in combat,” he applied the military metaphor approvingly.
The figure of the chef-tyrant satisfied something deep in the id of the food media and perhaps in the media establishment as a whole; after all, Bourdain, Ramsay, and their ilk rose to fame at the dawn of the never-ending war on terror. At the same time, glorification of kitchen cruelty ratified a profoundly shitty reality for all the cooks, dishwashers, servers, and food runners who, already scraping to survive on appallingly low pay, had to suffer under a whole generation of chef-bosses, almost all of them men, who were encouraged to see their personality defects as marks of unalterable genius. And public righteousness was no guarantee that a restaurant had shaken free of the industry’s pathologies. Of the “virtuous” restaurants that proliferated across America during the pre-Covid years—establishments offering healthy, bright, organic, humane flavors on the plate and progressive politics on the Instagram grid—perhaps none was more popular than Sqirl, which Eater once described as “the indie star of LA’s restaurant scene.” In 2020, however, the moldy truth emerged: the restaurant made famous for its ricotta toast and for serving food “both virtuous and delicious” (Eater again) was in fact a black site of manipulation, abuse, and crimes against jam.
Restaurants, in a strange and unintentional way, have helped subsidize the cultural vitality of nearly every American city.Tweet
Stroked by an adulatory press on one side, restaurants found themselves squeezed on the other by the rapacity of Silicon Valley. Whatever the VCs wanted at the outset of tech’s invasion of the restaurant, it’s certain that good food wasn’t high on the list. Beginning with Groupon, the company responsible for making the years 2009 to 2011 perhaps the saddest time in history to go on a date (“I have a $20 voucher for ramen, maybe we could use that”), Silicon Valley flooded the industry with a succession of growth-hungry food startups, each worse than the last. More than anything else, the rise of online food delivery typified the anti-Cockaignian spirit of the pre-pandemic restaurant. Catering to diners who were insular, withdrawn, and exhausted by the ravages of financialized capitalism, delivery apps promised to deliver us into a world that was safe, comfortable, and seamless. Instead, they enlisted the restaurant in the neoliberal project of gutting the public sphere. As restaurant meals increasingly became something to consume at home, in private, cocooned from the frictions and humiliations of the gig economy, “ghost” kitchens—commercial kitchens with no retail shopfront designed to service shell restaurants invented exclusively for the app-driven delivery market—drifted into America’s cities, creating competition for traditional restaurants while benefiting from far friendlier overheads.
The apps offered a diverse menu of disasters for the industry they purported to serve. Grubhub, which owns Seamless, is nominally a delivery company, but its real business is extraction. Over the past decade it’s worked diligently to enslave restaurants in its online delivery midden, buying up businesses’ domain names without permission and running interference on their phone lines to prevent them from going independent, then charging ever-rising marketing fees to ensure visibility on Grubhub’s apps. Foursquare “gamified” the digitization of dining culture, turning restaurants—via a system of check-ins, points, and seignorial rights more complicated than the US tax code—into status symbols to be claimed and possessed like colonies. Then there was Yelp, which, to my knowledge, remains the only company in the English-speaking world that includes a page on its website with an address ending in the path “/extortion”—a distinction that feels emblematic. (The page is designed to respond to accusations from restaurant owners that Yelp hides positive reviews for businesses that don’t advertise on Yelp, a shakedown that the courts have nevertheless ruled entirely legal.) In the years before the pandemic, the spirit of yelp.com/extortion came to pervade the restaurant industry, as the tech economy’s promise of democracy, freedom, self-expression, and virgin experiences crashed into the reality of scavenger economics and the unconquerable embarrassment that is online “creator” culture.
Yelp emerged in 2004 with the aspiration of crowdsourcing restaurant ratings, but soon discovered its true vocation: allowing people to humiliate themselves online for free. People did this by writing reviews (beginning seemingly every one with some variation on “so I decided to check out this place with the boyf last week” or “Omg best. Burger. Ever.”), uploading inexplicably foggy photos of their meals, and reveling in their status among the Yelp “Elite,” a club granting the platform’s peak performers access to . . . what, exactly? Other Yelpers. Under the mucosal watch of the VCs, restaurants became incubators for the particular brand of presumptuous online exhibitionism, since taken up on far slicker surfaces like Instagram and Twitter, now known as “cringe.”
The rest of us—the non-elites, both on Yelp and everywhere else—were just as captive to the app economy. Online recommendation services like Yelp and Google Maps may have been cringeworthy, but for the most part we still used them, which was the true humiliation of the matter; through sheer market muscle they established themselves as the permanent infrastructure of taste. Restaurant food in the Yelp years became a consumer experience designed as much for enjoyment online—through videos, reviews, and menus downloaded, studied, and memorized with near-theological fervor—as in real life. Even the physical experience of actually ingesting food was somehow filtered through the lens of the internet, which was constantly devising new and better ways for us to consume. It was not enough to simply shovel, say, noodles down our throats; only if we aggressively slurped them or lifted them, photographed them, then lowered them from a great height into our upturned mouths were we, omg yassss,2 eating the right way. Suddenly, every grilled cheese and slice of pizza became an opportunity for the “cheese pull,” perhaps this century’s most grotesque aesthetic gesture. Pizza bloggers went even further, referring to photos of the bottoms of slices (a measure of char quality and consistency) as “upskirts.”
All this in search of pleasure and escape! Instead of delivering shelter from the storm of too-late-stage capitalism, the anonymizing maw of the delivery apps brought the storm home. Rather than bringing us together—the restaurant’s nominal function—the delivery economy encouraged us to move further apart and eat in isolation, undisturbed by human contact, weakening whatever measly bonds of social solidarity had survived the post-Reagan apocalypse. Eating during these years became less an exercise in replenishment than erosion, a relentless food-lubricated bruxism mirroring the grinding deterioration of old social certainties. The “mechanics of movement has invaded a wide swathe of human experience,” Richard Sennett once wrote. “Ease, comfort, ‘user-friendliness’ in human relations come to appear as guarantees of individual freedom of action. However, resistance is a fundamental and necessary experience for the human body: through feeling resistance, the body is roused to take note of the world in which it lives.” Seamlessness, the freedom from resistance that was at the core of the new gastronomic escapism, was not the coping mechanism against the depredations of the economy that many of us—thumbing for the delivery app in end-of-day debility—may have imagined it to be. It was only ever a strategy of avoidance and delay. Hovering over all this was the elemental question: Who gets to eat? Or rather, whose eating deserves to be witnessed, chronicled, elevated, and celebrated? The answer: The eating of the famous and the rich. The pre-Covid restaurant gave us David Chang, who once filmed an entire documentary series whose sole premise was that celebrities eat. The rest of us were exactly where the masters of the competition economy wanted us: in their miserly employ, or if we were lucky, gorging on takeout at home, left to fend for ourselves, alone and unseen.
The pandemic’s destruction of the restaurant industry, so swift in practice, is entombed on the maps on our phones. Though they are listed as “permanently closed,” the restaurants that Covid has killed still pop up across the digital graveyard of Google Maps, offering:
- “upscale American pub fare & cocktails in a compact space with bar seats & a couple of tables,” or
- “oysters, cocktails & small plates in a New Orleans-styled setting with an atmospheric garden,” or
- “Korean-accented eats & a cozy back garden,” or
- “wood-fired pizza & grilled plates in cool digs with an open kitchen,” or
- “Creative Thai eats & cocktails in a small, funky cafe with brick walls and Bangkok flea market-decor,” or
- “Chinese seafood specialties with a Cajun twist amid hip, rustic decor,”
or perhaps even lassy cocktails & elevated American snacks amid eye-catching, tile-&-wood decor their zombie kitchens all stuck in a simple or continuous present, forever “drawing crowds” and “slinging drinks” in a state of kinetic paralysis.
Not a single one of us with any kind of taste for experience can claim they don’t miss restaurants. But amid the understandable yearning for nights out with family and friends, communing over wine and food in rooms crowded with strangers, it’s important to be clear-eyed about what the restaurant became in the years before the coronavirus hit. Hospitality labor was always precarious, dangerous, and under-valued, and the restaurant a site of unvarying inequalities—between patrons and servers, air-conditioned dining rooms and equatorial kitchens, tip-compensated front-of-house staff and non-tipped back-of-house staff, hourly employees and those on a salary, workers with citizenship and those without. The one factor in restaurant work’s favor was its dependability. However bad or unequal the pay, restaurants were always there, offering a solid font of income for hospitality industry lifers, the undocumented, and all those artists, actors, writers, and musicians looking simply to stay alive while pursuing their primary passions. Restaurants, in a strange and unintentional way, have helped subsidize the cultural vitality of nearly every American city. Post-Covid economic collapse is a threat not only to the survival of restaurants but to all those sectors and communities that rely on restaurant income to survive.
The sad pantomime of dining culture under the pandemic does not represent a radical break with what existed before. The smarmy fiction of food-industry virtue has survived the carnage, even as restaurant leaders publicly make all the right noises about supporting local business and protecting the hospitality “family.” In spring 2020, it was not uncommon to hear from restaurant workers left high and dry while their former employers thrashed away on social media, pleading for pity and money that their furloughed employees would never see. (In March, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group laid off two thousand employees then junked its no-tipping policy, originally introduced in a high-minded quest to address unequal pay, a few months later; Meyer capped off a year to remember by offering, on the day that Joe Biden was declared the victor of the presidential election, a “big virtual hug” to supporters of Donald Trump, the man who did more than anyone to compound Covid’s destructive impact on the hospitality industry.) Pandemic-era restaurant culture extends and amplifies forces that were already apparent under the old regime: the numbing frictionlessness of delivery food, the retreat into private spaces, the appification of everything. By raising the cost of staying afloat online, Grubhub and Yelp have contributed more to the demise of Covid-era restaurants than to their survival. Delivery workers’ labor is now deemed essential, but their paychecks remain as murderously trivial as ever. It’s possible that this moment could represent not a hiatus for restaurant culture but its terminus: the permanent tech-driven evacuation of eating as a public activity.
In The Phantom of Liberty, his 1974 satire of bourgeois manners, Luis Buñuel depicts a group of friends seated around a table, in the main room of the host’s house, on toilets. Pants down, they spend the evening amiably pissing and shitting in each other’s company, chatting away amid the regular churn of the flushes. At one point, one of the guests excuses himself and discreetly asks the host for directions to “the dining room.” Locking the door of the small, cubicle-like room behind him, he sits down, procures a leg of duck and a baguette from a shelf hidden in the wall, and tears into his meal with ravenous abandon. Wandering the streets of New York during the pandemic, bladder perennially full and food options limited, I’ve often thought back to this scene and its depiction of an ass-first reality in which nourishment is a source of individual shame and the landscape of shared experience fully defecatory. The street as a space of waste and danger, in need of warzone policing, and the relegation of eating to the private sphere, to be performed at home in an indulgent state of relief and embarrassment: in many ways, this is the urban nightmare to which restaurants, well before the pandemic, were already propelling us. Whatever release New York City experienced early in summer 2020—when takeaway drinking was in its infancy, the new rules for bars and restaurants were still in flux, and protests supplied a cathartic urgency to life on the streets—has since been snuffed out. The pedantic killjoys of the state liquor authority and thugs of the NYPD are firmly back in charge. Normality has returned.
Of course, people will still need to eat, they will not always want to cook for themselves, and the restaurant will survive. But in what form? As the pre-Covid restaurant became, like many other social institutions, a tool for economic dominion, resistance was gathering. The food-security and food-justice movements gained strength, amid a broader resurgence of the left, pointing the way to another path for the restaurant once the pandemic passes. During these long, strange months of the city’s somnambulism, one of the few joys, for me at least, has come from helping out as an occasional line cook at various pop-ups run out of semi-resuscitated bars and restaurants around Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. What these exercises in culinary improvisation have taught me is that food still has the power to knit communities together, but only if the institutions delivering it have a stake in the local outcome—if the aid between restaurants and the people they host really is mutual, anchored in a hospitality whose highest calling is always the duty of reciprocity. As Rebecca L. Spang has shown, the earliest restaurants fulfilled something like this function: during the French Revolution, restaurants emerged as sites for the fraternal suppers and people’s banquets that helped establish, however briefly, the egalitarian ideals of the new republic. Restaurants became, during these years, venues at which the people could figure out how they wanted to rule themselves, the kind of society they wished to live in. Questions of collective subsistence and collective government were coterminous.
Today the opposite is true: the restaurant is a depoliticized realm of pure pleasure-seeking, a refuge rather than a front line. With the coronavirus raging uncontrolled across the country, the New York Times chose as the subject of its first pandemic-era restaurant review . . . a wildly popular New American bistro in gentrified brownstone Brooklyn serving food around the back-to-childhood theme of “summer camp.” The lure of infantilizing nostalgia remains strong. Plainly, repoliticizing the restaurant—restoring its place at the center of local public life, engaged with questions of common welfare and material redistribution—will not be easy, requiring courage, imagination, solidarity, and generosity at all levels of the hospitality industry, from chefs and owners to journalists and diners. But for many restaurants, recovering a lost political vocation—along with the exigencies of resistance, discovery, and human contact that are critical to the act of feeding people—might be the only hope for life after the virus. The future is seamful.
At the start of the pandemic, Carbone was forced to call the police twice to control crowds amassing outside the restaurant for takeout. On the second occasion, managers had to shut the restaurant down and turn people away, which led to a near-riot as hungry customers faced the prospect of missing out on their $32 spicy rigatoni, $22 chopped salad, or $69 veal Parmesan. The idea of eating the rich has never seemed more appealing than when the rich are trying to eat. ↩
I thought for a long time, too long really, about how many S’s to include here, which is another effect of internet food derangement syndrome. Eating is not really eating unless it is eeeeeating. The popular five-E food hashtag #eeeeeats, introduced by the restaurant website The Infatuation, now has 21 million posts on Instagram, though some confusion around the correct number of E’s to apply remains: four-e #eeeeats counts 1.4 million posts, while 220,000 suckers have committed the embarrassing error of going completely overboard and tagging their posts with #eeeeeeats. ↩