This is not a restaurant review. It started out to be one: That is, I went to a fledgling restaurant with the intent of writing about it, but I won’t be doing that, at least not specifically. At least I won‘t be mentioning the restaurant by name. But what I found in that pretty but empty new room with its pert fresh flowers and tangible air of hopefulness is an old and recurring story, and not a very happy one.
The tale starts with a talented young chef who has already apprenticed in half a dozen kitchens, often in impressive ones. But the Dream, the never-ending nagging vision, however, is to have a place of his or her own — a small place for starters, nothing fancy, just a showcase for a young talent which, ideally, will lead to bigger and better things.
The dream, of course, is instantly modified by reality, when the chef starts looking for a location. Restaurant sites are hard to come by in this town; even restaurateurs with deep pockets and generous investors spend months, sometimes years, hunting down a space worth developing. The young chef, starting out solo, with his or her life savings and maybe the life savings of a few friends and family members, too often (but by necessity) settles for a poor physical location (no parking, for example, or a place that’s hard to find), or for a swell physical location with a different drawback.
The damning drawback is often, but not always, the same one: no beer-and-wine license. Often, the push becomes to stay open until the license is granted, which can take months, even years. Other young restaurants, faced with neighborhood opposition or lacking the requisite two bathrooms, may have no hope of ever obtaining a license, which in the restaurant world is virtuously synonymous with saying, no hope of ever seeing a profit.
Our young chef rationalizes: People can bring their own liquor. But the truth is that the lack of a beer-and-wine license profoundly discourages business. Not only does a wineless restaurant miss out on wine‘s high profit margin, it also misses out on customers.
The new small space is often minimally but beautifully ”done.“ The plates, for the time being, are sturdy basic restaurant china, the silverware possibly secondhand. The staff is selected from friends and even family; some may not be the most restaurant-savvy folks in the world, but they’re people willing to go the distance until business takes off. But not to worry, the chef reasons. At any rate, the food‘s the thing. The food will make up for everything.
And the food is good — really good. The young chef cooks his or her heart out for every diner who wanders in, even on the nights only two people come. The problem is, the chef now has to charge rather a lot for the food. The profit has to come from the plate, after all, and from a few bottles of mineral water and coffees — not from any 200 percent mark-up on wine or from volume sales. The startled customer realizes, after looking at the menu, that the prices are right up there with those at her favorite special-occasion restaurants.
The customer either leaves now, or her expectations ratchet up a notch. After all, this may become a new favorite special-occasion restaurant. The food comes and it’s clear that someone in the kitchen knows their tea smoking and timbales, their coulis and custards. So what if the portions are small, if the filet looks like one chunk off a standard kebab?
Then, slowly, other elements of the experience gain ground in the customer‘s consciousness. There’s the waiter‘s glaring inexperience. Or excessive cologne. There’s the depressing lack of other customers. Plus, who wants to eat a $22 entree with silverware so flimsy you can bend it with thought waves? Or eat a $50 dinner (food only) sitting in a white plastic patio chair?
As a restaurant writer, I have been to more of these restaurants than I care to count, and gave most of them rave reviews for the food even as I knew they were failing. Because the food was good. Because I want to see a city full of bright young chefs cooking their hearts out.
The new restaurant I‘m not reviewing replaces another just like it: great food, clunky service, no booze, and prices in the ether. It failed, of course. This new place won’t make it either, although I hope to hell I‘m wrong.