Balls Balls Balls: Does It Make Sense for Restaurants to Have Just One Menu Item?
The Frous Frous dish at mac-O-licious
Photo by Anne Fishbein
The menu tussle is one of those conversations we can't seem to stop having. "What are you going to have? The mackerel? I was going to get the fish, but if you're getting it, then I guess I'll get the steak." And so it goes.
For many people the point of dining out is choice: the notion that you can have something different from your tablemates. Eat at home, and everyone gets the same meal. Eat out, and part of the joy is variety.
Which is one reason the concept of a one-item restaurant is a little odd. Aside from foods you might share (like pizza) or things that have obvious potential for infinite variety (like burgers), the idea of such intentional deprivation is slightly counterintuitive.
Ah, but what potential for gimmickry. If it's sometimes hard to convey your business' concept and feel to potential customers, whose attention is likely to wander as soon as you mention "small plates" or "seasonal cooking" or whatever, focusing on one food certainly takes care of the marketing issue. It's a meatball restaurant! Who wouldn't remember a place with a branding that comes down to "balls"?
This is the actual marketing strategy for Ball & Chain, the new, yes, meatball restaurant in the heart of Hollywood. Dressed up to look like a slick tunnel with black subway tile covering arched walls, Ball & Chain's focus is on beer and balls. You can choose your meatballs a number of ways, but nothing matters so much as the opportunity to say "balls" a lot. Balls, balls, balls.
The servers offer a wink and a nudge as they ask you how you like your balls. Saucy? On a slider? As poutine? They give you little notepads with your check, encouraging you to scrawl balls jokes on the pages. Many people before you have already done just that, some along with helpful drawings so you can visualize the joke.
And all of this, while fun, is kind of a shame, because the meatballs themselves aren't bad, and it's hard to see how this stunt can carry a restaurant.
In fact, just months after opening, Ball & Chain is pretty dead at night. This might be a function of its location, right in the middle of the most commercialized and icky stretch of Hollywood's morass of bong shops and cheap lingerie boutiques. Despite the restaurant's shiny good looks, it already carries the slight whiff of sadness inherent to this part of town.
With its great beer selection and decent food, the place perhaps should have just gone the gastropub route, serving poutine as it should be served (namely, without meatballs) and enough menu options to make this more than a one-visit joke.
The potential for return visitors is also my worry about mac-O-licious, a mac-and-cheese restaurant that recently opened in Valley Village. Run by Kelly Chapman, the sunny little restaurant is in many ways the opposite of Ball & Chain. Mac and cheese isn't so much a marketing scheme for Chapman as it is a family tradition (she learned to make it from her grandmother), and mac-O-licious, in a storefront in a strip mall, oozes with good feeling.
The all–mac-and-cheese menu is a little silly, but the mac itself is rich and cheesy and somewhere between creamy and solid, giving you the best of both worlds. The cheddar-heavy original and its variations (with crabmeat; with bacon) is best — I found the five-cheese option less focused, more soupy. There are lunch specials with meat on the side, and fried sandwiches with mac and cheese inside.
But again, I wonder how long the mac-and-cheese theme will serve as an enticement and not a deterrent. Certainly, for now it's getting Chapman a lot of press, even some national attention in the "weird news" genre ("Restaurant Dedicated to Mac and Cheese Opens in L.A." — NPR). But what about Valley Village residents, who will ultimately have to support this place? How often do they really want to eat mac and cheese?
The food here is good enough that I bet Chapman is capable of cooking more than this one dish and its cousins — why not just open a Southern restaurant, one people might work into their weekly routine? The headlines wouldn't be as good for sure, but the utility of the place might be much better in the long term.
Of all the single-dish restaurants recently to open, the one that makes the most sense to me is L'Assiette, a restaurant that serves only (or almost only) steak frites. Modeled after, L'Entrecôte, the name of a group of restaurants in Europe (which has spawned many imitators), at L'Assiette you pay a fixed price and get soup or salad and a serving of steak frites that's replenished midmeal — more steak, more frites, more gravylike sauce.
This is a winning formula in France and beyond, and father and son Jacques and Marc Fiorentino decided to bring it to Los Angeles.
A bill of $25 for a full meal that includes a generous double serving of grilled sirloin is quite a good deal, and L'Assiette is worth paying attention to, if only for its bargain status alone. The steak is indeed tasty and cooked with care, and servers are thrilled to let you in on the ritual of it all. Like mac-O-licious, this is an incredibly friendly restaurant.
Where I think the Fiorentinos may have misstepped is in the place's feel, and perhaps in the small details. The room is 100 percent American bistro, down to the modern art on the walls and behind the bar, the big-screen TV silently playing sports. The wine list is barely French and fairly uninteresting. L'Assiette would work far better as a transportive experience — culturally, steak frites and steak frites alone is a hard sell, but it would be a lot easier if that wasn't the only French thing about the place.
And I gather that the owners learned their lesson early on, in terms of offering a solitary choice to the picky eaters of L.A.: You now can get salmon frites or (vegan) portabello mushroom frites as well. You're having the steak? Fine, I guess I'll take the fish.
BALL & CHAIN | 1643 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. | (323) 465-2255 | ball-and-chain-restaurant.com
MAC-O-LICIOUS | 5217 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village | (818) 814-6220 | macolicious.com
L'ASSIETTE | 7166 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | (323) 274-2319 | lassiettesteakfrites.com
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