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Class Is In Session

January 8, 2013

I’ve come to appreciate the Capital Region for what it is. I have. Truly. I love its warm and inviting taverns. I delight in the whimsy of its signature dishes. I celebrate the diversity of its cities, towns and neighborhoods. The area’s farmers, distillers, cheese makers, brewers, bakers, and other artisans are incredible at what they do.

We are literally surrounded with great raw ingredients. So why don’t more of them end up on restaurant menus? And why do you have to pay more in Albany than you would for a much better meal in New York City?

These issues have been troubling me for years.

A corollary would be, why do Albanians continue to pay a lot of money for restaurant food that’s fine, but not worth nearly the prices it commands? And it was this question that led me down to the path of my most recent hypothesis.

[Note: The following three paragraphs of this post has been edited from the original. 1/16/13]
Over the course of the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time talking, listening and observing, all in the service of trying to better understand this phenomenon.

There are a lot of factors that could effect this. But one thing in particular has really stuck out in my mind which I think demands further examination. And that’s the pejorative use of the word “cheap” to describe restaurant patrons.

The first time I heard it, I kind of brushed it off. The second time I heard it, I thought it strange. But as I heard it applied more and more, I started to seriously think about the implications of this condemnation.

It implies that fine restaurants should be the purview of the well heeled. It also indicates an awareness and displeasure that these restaurants are being populated with members of a lower class, who may not be fully aware of how they are expected to act in a “proper” restaurant.

But more importantly it seems to betray a certain level of class anxiety, and I find that interesting. Now be forewarned, if you try to tell me class doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter in America today, I’m going to scream.

Class is an ugly word, but it’s a fascinating subject. Years ago I read a book by Penn professor Paul Fussell simply called Class. Now, I can’t squeeze over 200 pages of nuance into a couple hundred words in one post, so there will be further analysis after today. But just to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, here’s the dust-jacket definition of Class from the book:

It’s not your occupation, it’s not your address, it’s not your table manners. It’s not how much money you have or how much money you make. It’s a combination of subtle things that you can’t quite put your finger on, but that identify you to the world.

That said, in his research Fussell further breaks down the three major class designations of upper, middle and lower into nine distinct groups. In descending order, the upper class contains top out-of-sight, upper and upper-middle. The middle in descending order is composed of middle, high-proletarian, mid-proletarian and low-proletarian (just in case you were curious).

With its working class roots, I hope I do not need to argue that the Capital Region is largely made from members of the various strata of Fussell’s middle class. Here is a telling passage from the book on “eating out”.

A fixation with both middles and proles, since it gives you a chance to play King and Queen for a Day, issuing orders, being waited on, affecting to be somebody. And by frequenting a restaurant said to put out “gourmet” food–pronounced goor-may–the middle class can play the game it loves most, pretending to be in the class above, in restaurants especially inviting observers to identify it with traveled upper-middle-class people presumably of delicate and sophisticated tastes.

Here’s the thing. In this context going to a restaurant is not about the food. It’s not about the chef, and their training and skill. And it’s certainly not about being culinarily adventurous.

To me this helps to make sense of so many things.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of “You won’t be disappointed” used as a glowing restaurant recommendation, even though it offers no information on the food whatsoever. It also goes far to explain why dishes are most likely to be described by their absence of flaws. For example, “The pasta wasn’t overcooked at all.” Further, it illuminates why menus are so long, and why good, talented chefs have a hard time pushing anything remotely adventurous into the dining room.

The solution isn’t immediately obvious. I mean, how does one strip the deeply ingrained class consciousness of fine dining from a large segment of the restaurant-going public? And what incentive is there for restaurants to put in the hard work of offering better food at lower prices, when most of their customers are happy to pay a lot of money for meatloaf (gussied up with veal and a demi-glace) and macaroni and cheese (made fancy with lobster).

Maybe I can find some sociologist who is open to doing a little pro bono work.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    January 8, 2013 11:33 am

    I love that book; read it years ago.

  2. January 8, 2013 11:44 am

    Ok, I’ll buy it. This also explains why so many positive Yelp reviews comment that there was enough left over for a second meal. If you’re king for a day, it’s natural that you should be send away with a little gift.

    And it may explain why so many Yelp reviews contain the curious phrase “avoid at all costs.” What “costs” might be involved in NOT going to a restaurant? (That is a question.) Possibly giving up the desire for temporary elevation of status to avoid the larger risk of being disrespected by a surly waitress or embarrassed in front of your family by an overcooked lobster?

    Of course, this is the reason people buy insurance: they’d prefer to replace the possibility of a large unsustainable loss with the certainty of a much smaller and manageable loss. Which would explain why Olive Garden et. al. do so well.

  3. Awesomedude permalink
    January 8, 2013 12:03 pm

    While we’ll have to wait to see the rest of this series (since I’m interested if you think class is the overarching cause of Albany’s sub-par restaurant scene or another symptom,) I think class is a very interesting avenue to explore. I think Albany has a very bad mix of slightly upper class fixation as well as a middle class homogenization. And that leads to the chain restaurant domination, over priced restaurants as well as semi-local high end restaurant chains being set up. Every time Angelo Mazzone is mentioned as the Hubert Keller/Gordon Ramsay of upstate NY I cry on the inside. Prime is an ok restaurant. They serve well cooked slightly over salted steaks. They give you an entire head of roasted garlic and a chopped salad. Its still 2002 in all of their restaurants. And then we have Steve Barnes writing bizarro reviews about how Joe’s Crab Shack is actually pretty good and hey, maybe Kristi Gustafson is right that chain restaurants are great and we should eat Boar’s Head sodium turkey for thanksgiving.

    The reason we don’t have farm to table restaurants and an amazing food truck scene has absolutely nothing to do with lack of potential. If you go to the Union Square farmer’s market it is 90% purveyors with farms in the Hudson Valley. I travel to cities smaller and comparable to Albany for work and more than often I’ll find on Yelp a restaurant helmed by someone who was mentored in the high end environment of NYC and then broke off to make their name somewhere small. It doesn’t happen in Albany.

    Class could be a big reason. Class drove Albany’s ridiculous zoning laws and those certainly don’t help.

    • January 8, 2013 1:08 pm

      We Do have farm to table restaurants in Albany, Awesomedude. Ours, for one, with affordable prices and without the pretense. We get very little “off the truck” (we use Saratoga Hillcrest Foods – ny and organic flours, org. Oils, baking powder/soda/salt, fair trade organic chocolates and sugars, vegan butter). Otherwise, we work very closely with more than 20 small local farmers to procure dairy & produce, and other specialty small food producers for items like Seitan, jam, cheeses, etc.

      Daniel’s missive to cap region chefs, when read several years ago, was one of the reasons we felt opening a true farm to table cafe and bakery would fly in Albany. Our Delmar farmers market customers were/are very supportive of the idea as well. Here we are. Now we just need the masses to know!

      • January 8, 2013 1:09 pm

        I’m referring to All Good Bakers! http://Www.allgoodbakers.weebly.com

      • Awesomedude permalink
        January 8, 2013 1:20 pm

        I should have a star on my comment to say ‘in general!’ I don’t make it down to AGW often enough- thanks for reminding me Britin!!!

      • January 8, 2013 3:41 pm

        Agreed! So many more, too. Cap City Gastropub, Dali Mamma, Hungry Fish Cafe… Local farm to table is really being pushed.

  4. January 8, 2013 12:18 pm

    I don’t know. I mean, I can see the idea that people go out to eat as a rare treat, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t expect really good food — if you’re going out for an upper-class experience, you should expect upper-class food. (Or if you’re going out for mid-range, fairly-cheap food, fair enough, you get what you pay for, but it should still be pretty good for what it is.)

    • Stevo permalink
      January 8, 2013 1:02 pm

      KB, I think ignorance has a lot to do with it. It’s not that people don’t expect better food at an expensive restaurant, the problem is they have no clue what better food is.

  5. Stevo permalink
    January 8, 2013 12:44 pm

    My personal experience is that I know quite a few people who really like places like Olive Garden. And they don’t know the difference between Olive Garden and a better restaurant’s food.

    Better restaurants are “fancy” in their minds and are only for special occasions. And when they go to these “fancy” restaurants, it’s not for the food. It’s for the experience of eating in a fancy restaurant.

  6. January 8, 2013 12:46 pm

    Wow…if Steve Barnes actually said that and believes Joe’s Crab Shack was good, I must reconsider my opinion of his opinions. Granted, I don’t really look at Table Hopping that much, though.

    I fully agree with you on this. It also explains why those all you can eat buffet places do so well be they in Las Vegas or Westchester. In an area such as ours still largely comprised of the working middle class, feeling self important for that little bit of time in a restaurant can be a great feeling, and well worth the money you pay for that “experience.” Doesn’t solve the food problem though, but I feel the Capital District is in the middle of a sea change, and as it evolves, things will (slowly) get better. Bringing awareness to the issue can only help.

  7. Mikko permalink
    January 8, 2013 1:30 pm

    I find it interesting that you pinpoint class as a prime culprit in The Void of Excellent Eats in this region. Definitely something to think about. Right now there is a cultural backlash in Paris, where it isn’t all about the Michelin stars (weighted heavily for their King and Queen service points) when considering what drives the food scene, it is the food. The best part is we’re talking specifically about food that is local, fresh and inspired by the chefs of Brooklyn. Now, I can’t imagine that Brooklyn has dissolved its class boundaries enough to make everyone realize service isn’t where it is at. I lived in Brooklyn for 6 years… takes all kinds. But if the Michelin Gods of Paris are steering the ship towards a NY borough because of taste… well, perhaps there is big change stirring in the world.

    That said, this past weekend we spent a large chunk of change at one of Albany’s most revered restaurants with impeccable service and pillows for your purse. The food could have used something… such as a $10 drop in entree prices. I agree that there is change coming to the Capital District, but this glacier speed is killing me.

  8. January 8, 2013 2:05 pm

    I have no answers. I’ll leave that to you. I just know I’m doing my small little part as to the “great local ingredients” quip you offer.

  9. TheOakMonster permalink
    January 8, 2013 2:28 pm

    My hypothesis, Capital Region restaurants do not generate as much business as larger cities and need to increase average ticket price with higher meal price. In addition, the weak wine and cocktail culture in the area further driving down restaurant incomes.

  10. January 8, 2013 3:34 pm

    I feel as though you have not been in to NYC recently, or are not aware that fancy-ass mac’n’cheese and dressed up meatloaf, as you sneer at here, are all the rage in many trendy NYC eateries.

    I also do have to wonder about the idea of a meal being more expensive in Albany. Granted, I left going on three years ago, and it’s possible my lack of eating out all the time caused the food economy to collapse to the point of dramatically inflating prices…but I doubt it. And having spent several days in NYC in the last two weeks, I can reassure everyone – food prices are still through-the-roof expensive, and Albany is quite a bit less expensive for similar quality of food.

    • Sarah M. permalink
      January 8, 2013 5:10 pm

      I think you’re right to pick on DB’s imprecision there– it’s not the kind of dish that signifies the quality of the food. That said, the trendy restaurants focused on “comfort food” (in NYC, Portland, or Austin, where I live) emphasize quality of ingredient and technique in a way I didn’t experience while dining in Albany.

      Food pricing is harder for me to discuss since many of my dining experiences were in Saratoga (and no one would ever argue that pricing there is reasonable), and the places I did choose to visit in Albany proper (NWBB, Wine Bar, Avenue A [RIP]) seemed on point for what they offered. Maybe ridiculous pricing is more apparent when we’re talking about what’s on Wolf Road– that shit ain’t cheap.

  11. January 8, 2013 3:39 pm

    I think that a big problem is ‘upper class dining’ being synonymous with ‘good food.’ While surely it is to be expected, that tiny Korean bbq joint may hold a hundred times more promise than the tastefully decorated Asian fusion spot; that tiny shack that makes Belgian street food may run swift circles around all the ‘pomme frites’ in town. Just because it’s in a special location, there’s a maitre d’ and a wait list, does not mean it automatically deserves the stamp of good food.

    I know restaurants sometimes curse the modern foodie, what with all the potentials for negative blog, yelp, or urban spoon reviews, but I’d like to think that there has a movement going on for some time now that promotes the search for decent, wholesome foods that are prepared in a creative and evocative way. I can honestly say that reviews of dining experiences that are surmised as, “The food was delicious!” and even worse, “I don’t know why you didn’t like it, I thought the food was delicious!” are worthless and frustrating. But I think that a good chunk of our ‘class’ classification of Albany and many other places have begun to realize all of the options out there, and I’m so happy that they’re pouncing on them. Myself included. I pounce on anything with promise.

  12. January 8, 2013 4:52 pm

    Ever read Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier?” There is some good insight into class and food in there.

  13. January 8, 2013 6:42 pm

    Maybe this relates more to the comparisons to places like Austin, which is more isolated and can keep more of its top talent, but I wonder if a part of the issue of finding high quality, innovative food in the Albany area is that the best chefs see little reason to stay here–why not head to NYC or Boston, where you can be part of a more serious culinary scene?

  14. christine permalink
    January 8, 2013 7:32 pm

    Maybe it’s me but I just don’t get the whole restaurant snobbery thing at all. I’ve eaten at Angelo’s 677 and the Prime- the food was fine BUT I didn’t pay for it, my boss did. Had I picked up the tab I would have had to say it just wasn’t worth the money. Truely- it isn’t worth what they charge on any level and I have to think that their patrons continue to show up because it is a very expensive experience and they want their peers to know they frequently eat there. There can be no other explanation.

    My son cooks in an upscale restaurant. Just the other day he was on his way to the Halfmoon Diner. One of my all time favorite meals is their chicken and biscuits. I recommended it to him and he returned completely happy. He said it was one of the best meals he’s had in awhile. It will set you back $11.99 but it comes with a small cup of soup, a salad and a glass of wine.

  15. January 8, 2013 9:19 pm

    I think Stevo makes a really good point – people just may not know what good food is. Ignorance seems to play a key role here.

    Pricing an entree at 30$ doesn’t make it quality (or necessarily interesting) – it makes it a 30$ entree…

  16. Joseph permalink
    January 8, 2013 9:33 pm

    Daniel’s observations seem to be right on target. Yet I wonder why I can find better dining opportunities in economically stressed towns like Saugerties or Kingston than in Albany?

    • January 9, 2013 12:07 pm

      I also think that has something to do with proximity to the CIA. A lot of graduates of the CIA open restaurants in the surrounding areas.

      • Joseph permalink
        January 9, 2013 10:07 pm

        Perhaps. But one wonders why so few of them consider opening reasonably priced restaurants focusing on local ingredients closer to Albany.

  17. albanylandlord permalink
    January 8, 2013 10:44 pm

    I think the point has potential, but I am not sure why Albany would be any different than other metro areas in that regard which would make us more expensive for what you get. Don’t the same factors apply everywhere?
    Daniel – do you have any “proof” that food here is more expensive / not as good as other metro areas? Or is it just a feeling? If your points of reference are San Fran, and really cool off-the-beaten-path places in NYC than maybe it isn’t even a valid issue. On the other hand I think the discussion and thought process is very thought provoking.
    I’m not sure if I really care if most places aren’t very good and are overpriced for what they are. I go to places that serve very creative, very good, &/or local food. Some are fine diningish (NWB), some are not (Gastropub, CIty Beer Hall, Pho Yum). I learn about the good places here and at Table Hopping, check them out, and I don’t care if the other 98% of the places suck.

  18. January 9, 2013 7:22 am

    I think Albany actually punches quite a bit above its weight in a few areas – in particular, reasonably priced ethnic restaurants. Lower Central Avenue is almost a foodie heaven.

    I try to approach this area’s dining scene with reasonable expectations. If I want four-star, white-tablecloth dining, I can always hop on Amtrak and go 150 miles south. But if I want solid – and sometimes surprisingly good – cooking, there’s a lot of it around here.

  19. PensiveEngineer permalink
    January 9, 2013 12:53 pm

    Class is an interesting avenue to explore. I’m no expert on Albany history but to my knowledge the area has strong blue collar roots as both a port city and center of manufacturing. But we’ve expanded that economy long ago with many jobs now being centered around government, higher education (universities) and a growing high tech sector (global foundries, albany nanotech). These are fairly paid, educated and cultured professionals, the type of people who would relish the types of restaurants you strive to promote in this area. My wife and I love going to Burlington, another post industrial town centered around a university, to frequent restaurants such as the Farmhouse Tap & Grill. What I can’t understand is, it seems to me that there is a large customer base similar to that in Burlington that is going untapped. The customers are here. If you build it they will come. I can’t believe there aren’t business people that see this. Why? I hope I’m not too far off and that these are questions you will be addressing in future posts. Thanks for all your work Profussor.

  20. January 11, 2013 1:13 am

    Great, now I want to read a book. Thanks a lot, Profussor.

  21. January 17, 2013 12:35 am

    Y’know, I had a dining experience tonight that made me rethink this a bit. Maybe sometimes, places DO get by on being fancy and can pass lousy food off as “well, you just didn’t get it, it’s too fancy for you.” Ergh. Either that or I’m becoming that person, the one who’s never satisfied with the food.

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