Is the press to blame for pop-up restaurants?

By Felix Salmon
August 17, 2011
My Gastronomics column today is about pop-up restaurants, and how they're generally what Ryan Sutton would call a bad deal.

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My Gastronomics column today is about pop-up restaurants, and how they’re generally what Ryan Sutton would call a bad deal. Essentially, you take the amount of money you’d normally pay at a polished operation which spends a lot of money and effort on what the Zagat guide would call “decor and service”. And then you spend it on food alone, with little if any attention paid to the decor-and-service side of things.

The piece is inadvertently timely, coming as it does in the wake of GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman’s mea culpa when it comes to the important question of service:

Everyone takes poor service personally. Get a bad table and you’ll wonder if the hostess finds you unworthy. Find yourself with a disrespectful server and you’ll feel worse, because you’re expected to tip…

Critics like me deserve some blame for the current proliferation of impossibly low service standards in so many casual New York restaurants. We tend not to censure lackadaisical conduct, thinking this is what customers want and that we would appear out of touch if we disapproved…

I wish I had never been so forgiving in my reviews of New York restaurants. I should long ago have paid attention to this disastrous decline in service. Casualness in restaurants does not automatically make customers feel more relaxed. It often has the opposite effect…

I appreciate an atmosphere lacking formality. I love Momofuku Ssäm Bar in Manhattan and Schwa in Chicago, both unpretentious and unfussy—but also attentive. They employ people who know how to take orders, fill glasses, clear plates, drop checks. Neither neglects customers. These days, too many new restaurants do. Their motto might as well be Too Cool to Care.

Well-run restaurants recognize that thoughtful service enhances an evening out, and that a bit of formality might be required in order to reach that goal. Customers these days tend to confuse discipline and manners with arrogance. Perhaps they are remembering the excess stuffiness of decades past. That hardly exists any longer. Arrogance today is exhibited by inconsiderate servers who do almost nothing for customers other than slap plates down in front of them and expect a generous tip. Arrogance is a restaurant believing it can prosper without looking after its customers.

I half-agree with Richman here: he’s right that restaurant critics are indeed to blame for much of the bad service we’re seeing. They nearly always concentrate on the food, with the rest of the dining experience something of an afterthought; what’s more, while they’ll say good things about good service, they do tend to soft-pedal complaints about bad service.

But in fact the food press more generally should shoulder an even greater part of the blame. Reviewers at least care about service — but outside of restaurant reviews it’s barely mentioned at all. Pop-up restaurants, in particular, get lots of buzz just before they open, when no one knows what the quality of service is like — and food reporters breathlessly detail their opening dates and their menus just because they’re new.

The desire of food bloggers and reporters to cover pop-ups is analogous to the desire of financial reporters to cover daily moves in the stock market: it’s happening now, it’s news, so therefore it must be reported — ideally as breathlessly as possible. And just as stock-market reporting is generally unhelpful when it comes to individual investment decisions, reporting about pop-ups is equally unhelpful when it comes to working out where to eat this evening. All that buzz makes the restaurant top of mind, even when you can almost certainly get a better meal for a lower price with better service and fewer kinks in the kitchen at just about any long-established place.

As a general rule, any food event is going to be a disappointment, compared to an old-fashioned meal at a polished restaurant — and pop-up restaurants count as food events. Leave ‘em to the hipsters: if you love your food and love your restaurants, best avoid pop-ups entirely.

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