Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Tragedy of Restaurant Rot

The Tragedy of Restaurant Rot

How do you explain the demise of a favorite eatery? I’m not talking about when the cook gets busted on 3 counts of possession, (1 count for cocaine and 2 counts un-pasteurized, smuggled goat cheeses), or when things finally come to a head between the Salvadoran dish man and the Guatemalan grill cook (Oh I tell ya, more kitchen fires get started over futbol scores and papusa fillings than you might guess). I’m not even talking about when entrance is shuddered and the last breath escapes from the swinging door of your local diner.

I’m not talking about restaurant death at all, that would be easy to explain. Most restaurants don’t make it, it’s the thing that keeps us all in day jobs. I’m talking cancer here, that slow ugly rendering of a formerly great restaurant into a suddenly sub-par placeholder on the block.

This is the seriously malevolent shit because you can’t spot it coming. You don’t eat there for a couple or six months and next thing you know the tuna melt has sweet pickles in it. A lot of the time, there’s nothing to indicate the change at all. The menu stays the same, the look doesn’t change, there’s no overt indication of a change in ownership and the cook is still that crazy bastard with the ponytail. But still, you can tell that the joint now sucks. It has succumbed to restaurant tragedy, it’s going down and it’s the worst when you’re the first to notice it.

This happened to me last night. I went into an old favorite cheap Indian joint, actually a relatively new offshoot of an old favorite, but still a place I have frequented, thrilled by three things:

1. I love cheap, dirty San Francisco Pakistani/Indian food (Naan and Chutney, Naan and Curry, Naan and Sense, etc.) and this was one of my favorites, though I hadn’t been in 3 months.

2. I have to make an effort to get to this place for several reasons. It’s kind of far from my house but this time I was lucky enough to be in the area for work, and in the evening, no less! I usually have to settle for lunch even though the dinners are much better since they are not serving the 5-dollar buffet lunch crowd. I have a waifish girlfriend with a New England palette, in other words she often negs it when we do have the opportunity to go for dinner: too dirty, too spicy, too much gee, and not worth the trip across town. Can you believe that shit? It’s not as if we didn’t drive 2 hours to eat at the French Laundry (that’s right, I’ve been, bow down) or fly to Paris for the weekend to celebrate my birthday at Robuchon (curtsy please)!

3. The most important thing is that I was alone. You never get to eat Indian food alone because it makes no sense to do so. You need a variety of dishes to satisfy an Indian craving but any one dish will fill a plate so you have to eat in groups. But I had cash in my pocket and gluttony on my mind. There would be no witnesses when I ordered three dishes all for myself and you have to take my word with no proof that I didn’t order 5. The best part was, I hadn’t eaten all day, so I was ready.

So I ordered chicken tikka masala, that most American of Indian foods, palak panneer and keema naan with a side of onion biryani. I’m not going to bother with describing the pathetic flavors or my reaction, you probably saw the aftermath of the fire on your local news and that image of me spitting spinach at the restaurant’s owner, as the cops hauled me in, was not at all flattering.

But it really made me realize something. This is the fate of almost all restaurants. It is, really. All you can do is hope the quality lasts long enough for the food to become dated. What the hell happens to a place when it mysteriously goes sucktastic? Now I’ve had my share of restaurant jobs in the front and back of the house, and maybe I was working when this phenomenon occurred, but I don’t know what causes it.

So today, when I get back from lunch, I’m going to call my buddy Rob Guarino in New York and ask him. He owns and manages several restaurants and has been in the business for 10 years. But the best thing about G is that he’s a food phreak too. When the New York Times reviewed one of his places, they called him “movie star good looking Robert Guarino.” And he is, but he’s a New York Italian guy who married a Chicago Jew so you know he’s gonna eat well and get fat. Bless karmic justice. I’m thinking he’s got some answers, not because he’s worked at restaurants that have failed (it’s okay, it happens to everyone sometimes, Rob) but because he currently has one that’s been great for a long time through several chefs and changes in style and menu. It’s called Marseille and it’s fantastic. It’s on 9th avenue at 44th street, go there and be happy and be sure to tell them I sent you so that I can feel like a part of the place even though I live across the country. Anyway, when I get back from lunch I’m calling him.

I’m going to lunch now, Boars Head sandwiches from the DeLano market around the corner, more on that later). Bye, wait for me to get back (see next sentence). Okay I’m back. I’ll call Rob now…

For the first time ever, I can’t get through to Rob at the restaurant. Maybe he doesn’t want to risk cursing the restaurant by discussing the inevitable future. That leaves me with a terrible alternative. I have to ask my idiot brother Vadan. He has theories about everything. Hold on, I’ll ask.

Here’s what that guy thinks and I hate to say it, but he’s defeated the question of this entire entry by making the answer seem so obvious that now I’m the idiot. Hooray, I just wasted a whole hour to report that the phenomena that I’m resenting is nothing more than the failure of inspiration and the loss of passion that results when good work becomes a job. I hate to think of chefs having jobs, but it does make sense. In the end, food is art that we consume in a moment after its birth. It has to have more passion behind it than any creative expression besides whistling. They are both only good when you really mean it.

“Ring, ring!” That’s my text imitation of my cell phone playing the voice of Julia Child saying, “First you take the chicken…”

“Ring, ring!”

It’s Rob. Please let him contradict my brother. Let there be mystery once more in this question of restaurant rot.

I just got off the phone with Rob and here’s what that guy says.

There are 5 big causes for a show dog getting the mange…What the hell was that? Crazy escapee from someone’s George Bush blog. What I meant to say was there are 5 major reasons that good restaurant to falls apart. I’ll call ‘em Robert’s Rules

1. People leave. Rob saying that made me realize, you never really know who’s anchoring a city kitchen. The staffs are large and the departure of a sous chef, while unannounced, may actually be a greater tragedy than a change in ownership or the death of the coke-snorting, cheese smuggling chef.

2. Things slow down. Restaurants have a rhythm and people need activity to keep their skills sharp. If things are slow and business is inconsistent, the edge can go and very frequently coincide with better talent that was drawn to the excitement of the “new hot gig in town” leaving for the newer hotter gig in town. Jesus, does that make restaurants the new club scene? We’ll discuss that another time.

3. Profit doesn’t happen. A restaurant can be open a long time on the anticipation of profit. Tired owners may try to make do with less cooks or tighter control of kitchen inventories, simpler recipes resulting again in a duller kitchen.

4. Profit happens. This one pisses me off. Things get good and the bosses start taking more vacations. They spend less time in the kitchen and on the floor and they don’t replace those roles well and things become unfocused. Booooooo! C’mon, with great power comes responsibility. My dollars, over the years, have paid for your damn vacations! Make sure my needs are met before you go off snorting coke in the Riviera and forget to smuggle my damn un-pasteurized cheese!

5. But of course the one that counts is none of these. The one that counts is the ridiculously obvious one that Vadan already told me about and the one that Rob actually mentioned fist: Passion. To quote Rob, “so much of it is love that if you get a little tired of it it’s kinda hard keep the fires burning.” And yes it is just like a marriage; maybe that’s why so many good eateries close after seven years. The spark goes. But still, how the hell do you stop loving chicken tikka masala, you cold-hearted bastards?! Fortunately the same passion does not die in the art of eating.

Oh well, eat well and when the place you love gets restaurant rot, euthanize that sucker.

Eat the World! -sirr a.k.a. Mr. Eat

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