GILBRETH COLUMN: Whole concept of world–class restaurant just plain silly
As Iíve remarked any number of times over the years, Charleston has changed from a city with relatively few culinary options into one with so many that itís sometimes hard to decide where to go. Letís face it, now itís difficult to find a truly bad meal among the many restaurants catering to middle-of-the-road dining and beyond. Iím sure itís possible, but I havenít found any recently. (Not that Iím looking.)
I canít say the same for certain menu selections that have gone into the stratosphere pricewise at a few select restaurants (Midtown Manhattan pricewise) and they donít deliver. In other words, if youíre going to be asking world-class prices, youíd better be prepared to deliver a world-class product. And weíre not there yet. But in a few instances, it may be getting close.
Nevertheless, it begs the question as to what it takes to elevate a restaurant to the next level. The usual trend in this city is for a restaurant to open, generate excitement, curiosity, publicity (sometimes manufactured) and a packed dining room until customer familiarity or managerial complacency settles in, at which point business slowly begins to fade. There are notable exceptions, of course, and several local restaurants continue to improve year after year while others at least maintain a fresh and exciting approach to what they have to offer.
But what does it really take to compete with the top restaurants, the worldís best? Well, the obvious ingredients include talent, geographic locale, a profound work ethic, a good publicity machine, word-of-mouth advertising, business management skills, good reviews and, possibly the most important thing of all, the correct awards.
Really? Do people take them that seriously? I always thought with the right connections you could pretty much get any award you wanted. But donít tell the San Pellegrino judges that. They come up with an annual list of the worldís 50 best restaurants, and the list is taken very seriously, so much so that any restaurant making it stays booked weeks in advance. Restaurants near the top of the list tend to reshape the way people think about cooking. El Bulli in Spain held the top spot from 2006-09 with Ferran Adriaís chemistry experimentation (frozen ďair of ParmesanĒ with muesli) but was displaced, as fashions changed, by Noma in Copenhagen with its somewhat obsessive preoccupation with foraged ingredients (crispy deer lichen dusted with mushrooms on a bed of moss).
So now Noma has the distinction of being labeled the best restaurant in the world. Is it truly the best restaurant in the world? And by what definition? No individual or entity could possibly make that determination and speak for generalized preferences, much less base the determination on any type of scientific data. The worldís best restaurant is whichever one happens to be particularly brilliant at any given moment. So the whole concept is silly, and yet people apparently put stock in it. And good luck trying to set foot inside Noma anytime soon.
As mentioned above, criticism is another one of those sort of intangible things that seems to matter. Even in Charleston. For example, an unfavorable review of Tomís restaurant in The Post and Courier in the mid-1990s created quite a reaction, including a banner protesting the review on the side of the building. The restaurant was closed by the next year, replaced by the very popular Hominy Grill.
In New York, Frank Bruniís criticism in The New York Times apparently wields unbelievable influence over who eats where, much the same as Clive Barnesí theater criticism for that newspaper used to dictate who saw what on Broadway. If Barnes said a play was a bomb, it was a bomb ó end of story ó and the show would be at risk of closing in no time. And if Bruni says a restaurant is a smash, people will tend to regard it as such, almost without question.
Another nebulous concept, and not as important, is that of conspicuous consumption. Again citing New York, where the cityís high-end restaurants can be outrageously expensive, just crazy. At Per Se, Thomas Kellerís restaurant in the Time Warner Center, a full tasting menu for two, with appropriate wine pairings, can cost $1,000. A similar dinner at Eleven Madison Avenue, $900. Practically all restaurants, from fast food to haute cuisine, experience thin profit margins with high expense and overhead. Those that survive aggressively cut cost and eliminate waste, and some deliberately raise their prices to exorbitant levels trying to lure in those who equate price with quality.
This may work, in the short term at least, but the quality better be genuine for that angle to perpetuate itself. And even then, who in his right mind would ever pay that kind of money? Only those who truly believe that the food theyíre eating is at least 400 percent better than the restaurant around the corner, which is almost as good but doesnít have the recognition. Such is human nature.
Much goes into the making of a world-class restaurant. As I say, we have much to be proud of on the culinary front right here in Charleston. But if Iím going to have to be inconvenienced by endless waitlists and wallet-busting prices to experience a certain kind of ďdistinction,Ē then I think I might simply choose to believe that we already have it and leave it there.
(I should add that some of the above info came from a recent story in The New Yorker by John Colapinto on creating a world-class restaurant and turning a profit.)
Regarding last weekís column on Cuban cigars, John Mood says that one of his tobacconist pals ďtells me that the Dominican cigars are as good, and sometimes better. Most of them being grown from seeds smuggled out of Cuba by Ďdefectingí tobacco growers. And grown in almost exactly the same lighting, soil and growing conditions. I have since tried them, and except for the Coorsian (beer) mystique, they are quite good. So I saved the Cuban bands (from overseas travels) and have my little Cuban fantasy and switch labels before (not always) I smoke the Dominicans.Ē
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at email@example.com.