It has become a cliche of taste that restaurants with whimsical knick-knacks all over the walls aren’t very good ones, but sometimes those sorts of restaurants, done with the proper context, can actually be the best kind.
What is the role of truth in the restaurant? Should we want a restaurant to tell us the truth? Is it even possible? What do we want from a restaurant, anyway? This barrage of questions can only be answered if we start from the last. So, what DO we want from a restaurant? The Family Feud winning answer would probably be something like good food, good price- something like that, but not many of us would even try the best meal if the sound system was blaring Creedand cockroaches lurked in the corner. Good price? Sure, if you’re cheap and you go out to restaurants a lot- otherwise, go less and spend more. Really what people want is a nice experience. You want different restaurants for different occasions. The expensive wine spot downtown has great scallops provencal, but you don’t want to take a toddler down there. Well, what if you took a toddler to a place that was supposed to be for kids- I mean, the review online said it was and everything, and you look in, and it’s bright, safe, happy, and healthy- what if it’s supposed to be like that, but when you finally go and settle in, you find that it isn’t like that at all? First, all of the food has tartar sauce in it in some way, and then in order for your kid to get in the ball pit, they have to have a parent in there with them, and on top of all of that, there is a big fat guy, dead ringer for Stromboli, scary as hell (for kids), playing a deafening crank organ and filling the
place with his booming laughter. Well, now you’re upset, you’re partner is upset, and the kid is bored cause you won’t take him to the ball pit and terrified at Stromboli at the same time. All because the place tried for something and missed the mark. A restaurant does need some truth.
When we talk about Applebee’s and places like that, with garbage all over the wall, do we ever take exception specifically to the type of garbage? Let’s ask someone: Look, there is a copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” LP next to a snow sled. Why is it next to a snow sled? Does it matter? Well, was the food good? Sure, it was fine- not bad enough to stiff some high school kid on his twenty percent tip, that’s for sure. Well, what did you eat? I had the chicken alfredo. Did the presence of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and a snow sled enhance your meal? Gosh, I didn’t even NOTICE it until you pointed it out. Leave me alone and let me finish my appletini.
It would probably go much like that. But, during a recent sojurn to Denver, Colorado, I ate at a restaurant that had more
knick-knacks on the walls than any other, was far, far gaudier than most, and yet still somehow stood the test of good taste. Founded in 1893, the Buckhorn Exchange boasts a huge collection of paraphernalia from its extensive past in every space available to do so. Newspaper articles fill the walls. Souvenirs from past visitors rest in glass cases. Deer heads, bear heads, headdresses- it’s pure Wild West fantasy. And then, you realize, it’s all real. The articles, all about the Great Men and loathsome ne’er do’ells that came by and shot either at animals or each other. The headress, that’s been taken from the dead body of a Plains Indian! Murdered all the buffalo? Haw! Then how come you can eat a big slab of it here? It’s so authentic, but looking closer, we see that, no, not ALL of it is real. There’s a row of portraits of each year’s winner of the Buffalo Bill lookalike contest, dating all the way back to the seventies. Can you imagine something gaudier than that? Other than having anecdotes on their menu like they’re a gol’darned Bob Evans, I can’t! They DO have an anecdotal menu, a men’s bathroom with pictures of cowgirls, an appetizer of rattlesnake! It’s gaudy, but then one thinks- wasn’t the Wild West itself pretty gaudy? And, isn’t that just the fantasy the restaurant is presenting- that of a gaudy, dangerous, heroic, cheerful Wild West? Within the context, just about anything that feels right works.
There is a difference between an idiom and a theme. A theme is all surface; it doesn’t get into the character of the place. Kentucky Fried Chicken is Southern “themed” but it doesn’t carry a hint of the South with in interior or attitude. Panera Bread is bourgeois “themed” but the white middle class don’t actually like “Kind of Blue” or salty soup. Didja ever go to one of those French joints at Busch Gardens? Did it really feel French, or did it just have miscellaneous French stuff on the wall? But then, think about Cracker Barrel. Is that place not fully in the idiom of nostalgia, “the good ol’ days”, etc.? Sure, they got stuff on the walls, but it’s old stuff, because the place is about oldness. Tradition, they would call it. Sure, they have a shop out front, but sells stuff that appeals to people that might actually buy it: those on highways, old people, and the Right. You can’t buy Abbie Hoffman’s book there, but you can get some great W.C. Fields. Penny candy. John Grisham. Nothing is out of place, nothing jars you out of the fantasy.
Think about the restaurants in your town. Do they provide a sense of place? Is the local diner really a college bar in disguise, or is it really and truly a local diner, with pictures on the walls of people that don’t work there anymore? We have a place in Richmond, The Roosevelt, where you feel like you are eating pork cheek and drinking whiskey with
Andrew Jackson, Eugene Debs, and Johnny Cash. Do the restaurants in your town provide that sort of escape? With restaurants it’s always a fiction. Someone has put together a fantasy, and they are trying to sell it to you. One test of a restaurant is how well it tells the truth. Does it know what it is? Do you? Ask yourself, How well does this restaurant sell the fantasy it wants me to take part in? The good ones, keep going to- they need your money and you need to be there. The bad ones- well, they just aren’t telling the truth.