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A Theory on the Nature of Restaurants

May 27, 2010

Conversations have momentum.  And on one hand it was difficult to take a break yesterday from the discussion we have been having about restaurants in Albany.  However, I had a sneaking suspicion that:

  1. People can only take so much of this culinary introspection, and
  2. AOA would bring a few more readers to this topic on Wednesday

There were a lot of comments, and Mr. Dave particularly is helping me understand more and more about the nature of food and its appreciation in the Capital Region.  The geography of the area and its cultural heritage clearly shape its character.  And I think there is some larger point to be made in this regard, which I am still trying to articulate.

But through this process, I have come to a unifying theory about our restaurants and why they are the way they are.  Perhaps it’s obvious to some of you.  But I’ve never really thought about it in these terms.

Here it goes.

There are two types of organizations: those that focus on the bottom up, and those that focus on the top down.  This is not limited to restaurants, and the distinction is more philosophical than organizational.

Here’s a non-food example: schools.

A bottom-up school would be one where the school is there for the students.  The teachers support the students, to give them what they need.  The administration is there for the teachers, to give them what they need.

A top-down school would be one where the superintendent has a plan.  The administration puts that plan in the hands of the teachers.  The teachers put that plan in the minds of the children.

Both can be good.  They are just different.

A top-down restaurant would be one where the chef has a plan.  That chef wants to surprise and delight their patrons with one delicious creation after another.  A bottom-up restaurant would be focused on the needs of the hungry diner.  They want to get fed with the food that they want.

Here in Albany, I think we are looking at a culture of bottom-up restaurants.  It explains both the gargantuan portions and the long menus, among other things.

Top-down restaurants won’t have six different chicken dishes, but rather the one most delicious chicken dish the chef can prepare with the best ingredients available.  And since the chef will want to get his food into the mouths of as many people as possible, he will keep portion sizes, and thus menu prices, down to a reasonable level.

Bottom-up restaurants will feed their guests’ need to prove their financial acumen, and base their prices on what will make people feel like they’ve had a good meal.  I am used to living in a place with more top down dining.  And I am not trying to besmirch places that are bottom-up.  Albany’s taverns are a byproduct of this culture, and I do love them dearly.

In my criticism of our local restaurants, I feel a bit like the young Robert Parker.  I don’t imagine that I have his remarkable palate, or his savant-like memory for thousands of wines.  It is just that at the beginning he thought people were paying too much money for wine that was said to be good, but really wasn’t.  For me, it’s not that the food is bad.  Yes, that’s part of it.  The bigger issue is that people are paying too much money for food that is said to be good, but really isn’t.

Now how this comes about, I think has to do with geography, and some of what Mr. Dave was talking about.  I also think it has to do with class, and some of what AddiesDad had to say in his follow up comment.

And for those who are thinking it, the answer is no, I do not imagine that I have class while others don’t.  To the best of my understanding this entire blog is a petit-bourgeoisie enterprise.

I’m still trying to piece it together.  But I feel like we’re getting closer.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2010 9:44 am

    Not a bad analysis. I’m going to pick on this though:

    “And since the chef will want to get his food into the mouths of as many people as possible, he will keep portion sizes, and thus menu prices, down to a reasonable level.”

    The idea of the plate dwarfing an expensive bite of nouvelle cuisine is a trope, but in many ways an accurate one. You have a problem with huge portions, actually I do too, I would rather have less good food than lots of bad food. But, there’s an economic reason large portions exist, and it’s not just because of a bottom-up structure. There’s a low marginal cost to increasing the amount of food on the plate by 50-100%. You know how the math works, so I’m not going to get into it, but obviously doubling the amount of food will not double the price. In fact, because of this, it also makes sense that plates of good, even excellent food, may very well get bigger.

    The only problem is that people disagree on what makes good food. I think you like arguing over what makes good and bad food, but it doesn’t change the fact that some people like what you don’t.

    Anyway, portion size has little to do with the final plate cost; without actually running the numbers I’d wager that a serving with average ingredients that’s 1.5x or even 2x the size of an otherwise indentical serving with great examples of the same ingredients will actually be less expensive. Happy meats, organic/local produce, small batch processes, these dramatically increase product cost until you get to the distribution scale of Sysco.

    I guess this gets back to your assertion that area restaurants are overpriced. I don’t have any data or enough experience to compare to other areas. Can you link to where you’ve covered this before, or show solid examples?

    • Elyse permalink
      May 27, 2010 10:37 am

      Admittedly, I don’t go out to eat that much, and I am not going to comment on overall quality of food around here (I have had great meals at some of the restaurants that I have eaten at, Provence, Blue Spice) but I just haven’t found the food here to be that overpriced compared to other cities (especially NYC where I have had many many mediocre and VERY overpriced meals).

      In Seattle, the concept of “small plate meals” became very very trendy- in fact, most restaurants that have opened in the last 4 years or so there use this format to some extent. There are a few that are very, very good (Sitka and Spruce comes to mind, also had a great meal at Joule) but I left so many restaurants feeling ripped off- a “small plate” could cost anywhere from $9-$20 and it was rare that one plate was enough to satisfy you- the idea was that one person would order 3-4 plates and end up spending a lot of money. Anyway, if done well, small plates can be excellent, but generally speaking I don’t miss this.

      On the other hand, I was talking to my co-workers about the enormous popularity of that all you can eat Sushi place around here- they went (they are the creators of capital-sushi.com so they go everywhere) and, as they expected, it was mediocre. The group they went with absolutely loved it. I don’t know what to say- quantity over quality? Low standards?

      • May 27, 2010 12:11 pm

        There are small plate sections of menus in some Albany restaurants too. They’re called “appetizers”.

        Okay, seriously now, when I go to New World Bistro I usually only order appetizers or other “small plates” and always leave very satisfied. For $25-$35 you can get a generous amount of food and have a some variety.

      • Elyse permalink
        May 27, 2010 12:19 pm

        I’m not talking appetizers, I’m talking menus where small plates are you ONLY option. Think $9 plate of broccoli.
        Gingerman is a local restaurant that has both large and small plate options and I appreciated that.

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 27, 2010 11:18 am

    Compared to Saratoga/Albany, I found that prices for comparable food in St. Louis, Kansas City, Austin, and San Antonio to be cheaper, and NYC and San Francisco to be more expensive.

  3. mirdreams permalink
    May 28, 2010 12:07 pm

    Dale Miller also has large and small plates. So does Shining Rainbow in that you get get Dim Sum or an entree. I like the mixed format, since I like to try a lot of small different things and my husband doesn’t feel like he’s had a meal unless he’s had a plate of food.

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