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Tribal Restaurants

January 10, 2013

Class can be such an ugly word. Still, I hope our conversation from a couple days ago can show how class can be useful for helping to understand the current culinary landscape of the Capital Region.

Not everyone was convinced by the first shots I fired off the bow. So today I have two other examples, also from Paul Fussell’s book Class. Mrs. Fussy continues to remind me that this book is old and outdated, and I figured I should pass that information along to you.

However, as you will see, I find his observations to still have merit. Maybe not across the country, but in a place like Albany where time seems to stand still, it’s almost as if this book was written in the past few years.

It helps to not think of the different classes as better or worse than each other. It’s hard, because it defaults into upper, middle and lower, and those words have judgement baked into them. And terms like prole, which Fussell puts within his continuum of the middle class, sound entirely brutish and unflattering. I’m going to do my best to avoid using them.

Perhaps it helps to think of the classes like tribes. And each of these tribes has their preferred eating places. For the most part, I happen to love what Fussell would categorize as prole restaurants. Working class places like diners and taverns are among my favorite places to eat upstate, providing honest, deeply comforting and delicious food. And let’s not forget my affection for the pizza parlor, which can often involve eating while standing or on the go.

Sometime over the past several months, I encountered a restaurant ritual that really surprised me. It was during a conversation that I had with members of the On The Edge community, where I learned that some restaurant patrons pre-bussed their tables at sit-down restaurants to make the job easier for the server.

That never even occurred to me. And then I encountered the following passage in Fussell:

The prole restaurant, on the other hand, will at least be unpretentious…The help in such places are really just folks, like you, and you get into long, intensely friendly conversations with them. “How’s your mother’s sciatica, dear?” On both sides there’s a strong desire to be liked, rather than admired, and an ambition not by any means to be thought hoity-toity.

And I think this is quite illuminating in regards to people’s expectations of what qualifies as good service. The all too common refrain, “Hello, my name is ____ and I’ll be your server tonight” is not part of classic good service. Good service is invisible. It anticipates needs and doesn’t interrupt the flow of a meal.

But I care more about food than service and Fussell covers what this tribe looks for in a restaurant:

Proles never risk the unknown on the menu, which means they tend to feed on dishes familiar in Army messes or college dining facilities, things like meat loaf, liver and onions (sometimes “and bacon strip”), “Swiss” steak, fish on Friday, and macaroni and cheese. All these are flaccid having been kept some time in the handy steam table. In the higher kind of prole restaurant the stainless-steel cutlery will be cast instead of stamped out and there will be a salad bar offering iceberg lettuce and a variety of cut-up vegetables, all frigid and tasting alike.

This reminds me of a lot of restaurants. But let me tell you the story of one local place called The Butcher Block. It was old. They served steak. The food wasn’t fancy, but there was an extensive salad bar.

In an effort to update the space, the management group spruced up the interior, changed its name to Central Steak, and removed the salad bar.

Bad call.

The former patrons of the place never were able to let go of their lost salad bar. Ultimately towards the end of the revamped eatery, the management tried to bring back the salad bar. But it was too late. The restaurant alienated its core audience and weren’t able to attract enough new patrons to stay in business.

I’m still trying to figure it all out. And right now I think that class could be a helpful framework for considering the machinations of the local dining scene. The class behaviors that Fussell illuminates in his book certainly seem to be at play throughout the Capital Region. But the ultimate goal is to try and understand how all of this can then be stripped away, because it would seem that class anxiety is deleterious to having good food, at fair prices, in a nice setting.

Although that sounds like an impossibly daunting task.

I need more sociologists and maybe an anthropologist or two. Plus it may make sense to listen to Mrs. Fussy and explore why some other regions seem like they are able to rise above these class constraints.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric Scheirer Stott permalink
    January 10, 2013 11:18 am

    I never ate at Central Steak, but I thought the outside gave mixed messages. The sign was clever & a bit trendy, but the place was still shaped like a barn. I got the impression that I’d get a medallion of beef with a drizzle of sauce & a side order of irony. By the time I read your blog & decided to try it, it closed.

  2. Aaron M permalink
    January 10, 2013 12:11 pm

    I’m going to channel some Gold Five here: “Stay on target. Stay on target!” I may buy your take on why Albany proles eat unadventurous food, but as your Fussell suggests, this is true of most (white) American proles. But the Holy Grail was to explain why food prices in mediocre restaurants are so uniquely high in Albany. Ostensibly Fussell’s proles ate out, and enjoyed the status that came with it, without spending Albany prices, so why don’t Albany proles eat at prices that other cities’ proles eat at? Bring us home in the third act.

  3. -R. permalink
    January 10, 2013 12:20 pm

    I admit, I do most of dining out in Troy, although I live in Albany. Aside from containing my two favorite pubs in the immediate region, the city is stuffed to the gills with good, hearty, well crafted, unpretentious dining options. One can go to Ilium or Daisy Baker’s for a delightful dinner in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and never feel out of place or scrutinized by the waitstaff or owners. Likewise, I can wear a suit to Ali Baba, and feel right at home (I’ve done both). I would never consider going to Taste or 677 Prime dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and I think this speaks volumes about the inferred dichotomy of class in both places. Albany has stupidly expensive restaurants (some with rather mediocre food) because there is an expectation that such things will be available – the politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, bankers and upper echelon state employees who make our little city go ’round from 9 to 5 every day also demand these finerys before they get back into their Mercedes and speed back toward Round Lake or ensconce themselves in their McMansions in Loudonville. For them, such places outwardly boast of their status, and their ability to afford such daily affectations. Troy and Schenectady on the other hand (both of which have vastly superior food compared to 90% of Albany dining establishments) are proletariat cities, and while small pockets of wealth dot both places, the overwhelming thrust of dining in both places caters to the heart and soul of their residents; one could also argue that without the pretense of Albany, the competition is in fact more fierce for the fewer dining dollars that exist in these two places, so it had better be good. I happen to work for one of the excessively wealthy who calls Troy “home” (ahem), and I know for a fact that this individual can often be seen frequenting the Fort Orange Club for dining. Really? The wealthy too need places to fit in I suppose, and with Albany proper being the nexus of such things, it only makes sense that such ‘high-brow’ establishments should cluster mainly there. Don’t get me wrong, I too highly enjoy meals at Yono’s/dp, but they are an exception in my life out of pure financial necessity. However, as long as there is a market for it, places like Jack’s will persist simply because they can, not because they’re any good (IMO). As long as cash flows freely, there will always be a “core” of establishments that can serve mediocre food, at inflated prices – the names sometimes change (albeit painfully slowly), but these 6 or 8 places will persist and because of that, they’ll continue to sneer at your lack of a decent manicure, and we all know it.

    I think we are fortunate to have arrived in an age of information and better fluency regarding food in general. While the vast populace will continue to ignore all this in search of the next Olive Garden, there have been some fine developments in the local dining scene in the past few years – a move toward local, sustainable, clean food – well prepared and at an affordable price. However, to think this knowledge (or demand) will somehow dislodge the old dinosaurs is perhaps pure folly. Only with some sort of vast upheaval at the very fabric of our society will those old distinctions ever die away completely, and as the old cliché goes, “Money talks and bullshit walks” (no matter how correct you may happen to be).

    I’m still speculating about why larger metropolitan areas seemingly (with emphasis on seemingly) are able to overcome the class distinctions of our little corner of the world: sheer dint of population diversity and size? More rigorous competition combined with higher real estate prices drives quality? Or perhaps we ‘proles’ simply aren’t privy to such high-end establishments in larger cities. I don’t know, but it does raise many interesting questions.

    • albanylandlord permalink
      January 15, 2013 2:47 pm

      Nice comment, and well thought out. I think your observations on Troy vs. Albany are interesting and highlight the mediocre food / high prices problem in Albany and give weight to Daniel’s class theory. Makes me want to move to Troy – or at least drive further for dinner.

  4. TheOakMonster permalink
    January 10, 2013 1:46 pm

    Interesting post a well-thought out. But given what you discuss in this post, have you considered that San Fran, NYC, and Austin are the exceptions and that Albany dining (complete with “high” prices and average quality) is fairly normal nationwide?

    • January 10, 2013 7:17 pm

      Having been something of a nomad over the past decade, I feel pretty confident now in saying that I don’t think Albany is normal compared to cities around the country that I’ve spent time in–unpretentious cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus. I don’t know that it’s possible, especially as a newcomer, to pinpoint what exactly the big differences are, though I have bounced a few ideas around in my head lately.

      That being said, Albany definitely compares unfavorably to those places (and others I’ve spent a little time in across the south and midwest–I’m not even going to mention my native west coast) in terms of overall quality, cost, and creativity in restaurants. Doesn’t mean you can’t get a good meal for a good price here, but it’s definitely harder to do so than in many other places.

      • albanylandlord permalink
        January 15, 2013 2:55 pm

        Using -R’s comparison of Albany to Troy / Schenectady – It seems like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus are a lot more like Troy than Albany in their working class roots, and therefore perhaps their restaurants. What other cities might have a similar history to Albany that we could compare restaurant scenes? Historical merchant class, large government bureaucracy… Any thoughts? Washington DC? Philadelphia? Sacramento? Northern NJ?

      • January 15, 2013 3:50 pm

        I’ve often thought of the comparison between Sacramento and Albany, having grown up near there, but unfortunately don’t have too much experience in the dining world there to make a worthwhile, current comparison. There’s more there, I know that, but it is a much more populous area (20th largest metro market, I believe). That said, I’ve certainly heard a lot of criticisms of Sacramento on that front, too, but it helps that there are significant Mexican and Asian populations in the area.

        And yes, Troy definitely reminds me in some ways of those cities mentioned before, on a smaller scale. I’ll guess that the growth there will continue, too, because there’s a certain group of folks that are really drawn to what’s developing in Troy.

  5. Amanda permalink
    January 10, 2013 3:31 pm

    Mrs. Fussy is right…Paul Fussell’s Class is old and outdated. It has been twenty years since I have read the book, but I remember that a large component of the book was dedicated not just to the prol and the super-wealthy, but mostly to the middle class aspiring to be upper class, i.e.: the man with the perfectly burnished expensive shoes is decidedly upwardly mobile middle class, while the guy wearing the nasty scuffed up (expensive) shoes is probably a Rockefeller. With this logic, this middle class is probably eating at a flashy non-substance restaurant like Barton G. while the rich guy could be eating at the diner down the street. Not sure if liking diners says anything about one’s class status….

  6. January 11, 2013 1:37 am

    The Fussell book is sounding outdated to me too. Proles are so 1984. Give us another proof point, so we don’t think you are bending your arguments to fit the statements in this book. Not that I’m sitting in judgment or anything….

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