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One Night Only: Dinner!

Making sense of the TMZ effect surrounding restaurant culture

By Troy Johnson

“Dinner would like you to remove all of the brown M&Ms from the bowl. Please use tweezers and not your awful, awful hands. Dinner will not leave its staging area until it is a perfect 98.6 degrees (the temperature of the mouth of its fans). It requires a hexagonal serving plate made from conflict-free Sierra Leone diamonds. Dinner would also like some sex. Figure it out. Failure to meet these requirements will void the contract, and dinner will have no choice but to cancel its performance for the evening.”

More than any other point in American history, dinner is a ****ing star.

If Billy Joel wrote “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” today, he’d be forced to find romance in people taking photos of their carbonara. Restaurants look like the staff of TMZ was having a shift meal when they discovered the world’s tiniest celebrities on their plates—miniskirts askew, rehab mascara, holding bongs like clutch purses. A man with a semi-pro Kodak adjusts a micro-green just so, trying to capture the emotional depth of his short rib. A woman takes a kissy-face selfie with a branzino. The entire scene is screened real-time on Instagram (named Food Penthouse before the lawsuit).

Doors don’t separate the stoves from the diners anymore. Instead, we have “performance kitchens”—literal stages for the knife-and-fire show. Chefs are expected to entertain guests with the circus flair of a sword swallower and the spiritual gravitas of Mr. Miyagi.

Knowledge of hip restaurants is now essential to your status in the American middle-class. That “topic of conversation” used to be held by politics, but let’s face it: that’s depressing. If you haven’t been to Hot New Restaurant X, you are flirting with cultural illiteracy. Haven’t had a Sazerac made with bitters containing the sweat of a lemur in heat? Get with it, Yeti.

Not having reservations is the new not showering.

And now the backlash has begun. People are tired of seeing your illicitly glazed short ribs in their timeline. Your doughnut porn is douchey.

“It’s just food!” scream the naysayers. “It’s just a restaurant!”

But is it? Or have restaurants replaced the family home?

Sure, home used to be where we entertained our friends and family. But, at least for now, those days are largely gone. The restaurant is where families, friendships, businesses and cities are made.

When was the last time you sat down at a family dinner—not in front of the TV or hovered over a smartphone? Even if you’re a do-gooder who answers, “Every night!,” it’s hard to argue that the art of the family dinner is at an all-time low in America. Restaurants are the only place left where Americans still pause, face each other for a few hours, and engage. When you pay for a dinner experience, you’re not just paying for food, service and décor. You’re paying for the undivided attention of someone who’s important to your life. It’s gotten harder and harder to get the entire family to the dinner table. That makes restaurants vitally important to progress. It’s one of the only remaining places where we truly commune.

Dinner is where you break bread with your daughter’s new boyfriend to determine if he’s marriage material or a temporarily dormant restraining order. Restaurants are where amazing nerds sketch out the next Google. It’s where city officials hatch plans to save or screw the city. It’s where we come together, talk ideas, commune.

Not everyone plays golf. Everyone eats.

In 2015, restaurants are not merely alternatives to entertaining at home. They have become the replacement. This is especially true now for a few reasons:

REASON 1: A lot fewer of us own our own homes.

In the ’50s, it seems most American professionals could afford a reasonable abode. With a sexist workplace and a stay-at-home wife able to spend the day preparing meals, the dinner party was a venerated tradition. It was how you let someone important—potential partners, bosses, friends, family members, etc.—into your life to see where and how you lived. They could go through your medicine cabinet during a trip to the loo. Now, we’re living in smaller spaces that are less equipped to host many humans. So we use home for sleep, and outsource the dinner party.

REASON 2: The new home-owning generation didn’t learn how to cook.

For those of us in our 40s, we grew up on microwave culture of the ’70s. We’re button pushers, not sauce reducers. We’re the generation who outsourced the chore of meals—whether it be to McDonalds, Van De Kamp or that killer bistro with five stars on Yelp. By the time we realized our lack of cooking skills was inconvenient, we were already too overworked and overtaxed by modern life to make it a hobby. Picking a restaurant, then, is how we entertain people at mealtime. It’s “skill replacement therapy” for a generation of shoddy cooks.

REASON 3: Fewer and fewer of us work in traditional offices.

The Information Age has drastically reduced the need for a proper office. Many of us are working from our laptops. “Third spaces” are where we conduct business. Our ad-hoc offices. Starbucks is the low-rent startup space. Meeting a client at Juniper & Ivy is like bringing them to your executive corner suite. Choose wisely.

REASON 4: We’re so damn busy.

Our day planners look like Guernica. Dinner is one of the only experiences in life that pauses the go-go-go, speed-dating ADD of modern American life. Even if we had a few extra hours, we treasure that downtime. It’s harder and harder to disconnect and be alone for a few minutes.

REASON 5: We don’t let people into our homes like we used to.

We didn’t used to jump out of our skin when people knocked on our doors. American neighborhoods used to have an open-door policy. But, thanks, media. News outlets love to put the creeps and psychos in headlines. The 24-hour news cycle lays out their gory details over and over while we’re on the treadmill. Based on reporting alone, it would seem 40 percent of America is one angry moment away from discharging a firearm in your living room. Because of that paranoia, the once-welcoming, social American family home is now a panic room. A bunker. A safe haven. Best to entertain potential creeps in a neutral, public location that’s not your home address.

For all of these reasons—smaller living spaces, two working adults, lack of kitchen training, fewer of us working out of traditional office spaces, weirdos in the news—restaurants have become one of the most important places in modern American life. The ones we choose say a lot about us—just like our homes used to do.

That’s why we pay such cultish attention to which chef and interior designer are behind a restaurant. That’s why we obsess over a photo of a sous vide quail as if it was Marilyn Monroe standing over the windy street gate. That’s why restaurants and chefs are such ****ing stars.

I’d love to say, “Oh, it’s just food.”

But it’s not.

Restaurants are home replacement therapy. Now, more than ever.

One Night Only: Dinner!

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