Making the Urban Scene: Restaurants

An old friend stopped by yesterday with a bag of Chinese food. She wanted to recreate the kinds of take-out food we enjoyed as kids on Saturday night, when our parents were too busy to cook. She had sought out a “Cantonese” restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown. The appetizers and entrees were her family’s favourites and she wanted to share them with us. This led to us sharing our childhood take-out stories. We had a history of common urban food experiences we could share, solidifying our common roots in a particular childhood experience. It started me thinking about food as something more than ‘good to eat,’ but also ‘good to think,’ and especially, ‘good to talk about.’

Why is a contemporary Foodie scene possible? It used to be that one went to a restaurant to only eat food, and then only with family and friends. (Restaurant dating was also a possibility and I promise a post in the near future about that. ) That’s still the case at franchise restaurants, local pubs and diners. The restaurant scene, however, is comprised of locales that actively seek to acquire a reputation as the ‘hot’ place, an “occasion” dining experience, a celebrity chef, or as offering a unique ambience. Local media review such places. They become the topics of conversation among friends looking to have a common experience. They can also be quite expensive. While I can get a wonderful meal at my local family-run Thai/sushi place for, say, $12, dinner at Greg Achatz’s NEXT restaurant in Chicago will costs me $140 and I must pay ahead, like buying a concert ticket, online when I make the reservation several weeks in advance. In return, I get a highly theatrical dining experience, one that purports to awaken and invigorate associations between food and life that can then serve as the basis of conversation for several years to come, as long as I’m talking to other members of this scene, that is. Otherwise, the NEXT experience is not any more meaningful than my neighbourhood Thai. It must be understood in the context of other restaurants in the scene to have its value fully realized.

Expectations of value and quality rise in direct proportion to the social fungibility of the experience. That is, the more social credit I get by telling my friends I ate there, the higher it’s value to me. I once ate at the restaurant of a celebrity chef in New Orleans. It was a quality roast duck entree, but it wasn’t that good. I had eaten better prepared duck in neighbourhood pubs in Vienna. Still, I was able to parley that experience into several good conversations with foodie friends, who contributed their experiences at similar restaurants, and together we created another brick in the wall that separates us from our neighbours who never invest in participating in the restaurant scene. We are using these shared eating experiences to forge a common metropolitan and middle class history for ourselves, and to solidify our relationships with other members of our class.

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