Restaurants’ style may change, but purpose won’t

admin | August 17th, 2017 - 5:41 pm

The interior of Trou Normand.

Today much of what was once familiar is changing, impacted by technology: Brick-and-mortar retail stores are struggling in the shadows of eBay and Amazon, and businesses such as Blue Apron, which delivers prepared ingredients to your home, are affecting how we cook at home.

And restaurants? The conventions are changing rapidly there too, the result of technology, economics and simple fashion. Online rating websites such as Yelp have made everyone an instant critic; reservations apps such as OpenTable and Resy allow diners to shop around for a table tonight or next month. Labor costs are making full-service restaurants a burden for owners, and more top chefs are going the more economical fast-casual route where diners order at the counter and the food is brought to the table — upending the idea that a good meal out entails a waiter and three courses.

It’s tempting to think that the restaurant of the future will become something different entirely.

But I would argue that, in fact, these changes do not touch what is fundamental about dining out — and that the future restaurant may be different in style but very much the same in purpose. Dining together creates an atmosphere that nudges us to let down our guard, and dining out in public at restaurants keeps us social in a way no app can. People may find each other on Tinder, or Slack each other at work. But ultimately, when they must come face-to-face, it’s often in a restaurant. I don’t think that will change.

Restaurants (or cafes or diners or any place where people sit across from each other with food) are where couples have first dates, orchestrate proposals and mark special occasions. They are also places where people find themselves on equal footing. There is something so basic about gathering people around a dining table with food and drink — and the atmosphere is often more productive than hiring a highly paid facilitator to bring parties together.

Each generation certainly adds its stamp to the dining scene. Today we share our dining table with our smartphones — sometimes more than with friends. Evan Rich of Rich Table earlier this year opened RT Rotisserie, a fast-casual, counter-service restaurant only a block from his full-service restaurant. At first he tried to apply the same standards to both restaurants — checking in with people at tables and trying to engage them — only to find out that at the Rotisserie customers more or less wanted to be left alone with their phones or friends.

“It’s taken a bit to get used to it,” says Rich. “At Rich Table our job is to give an experience, educate people, tell a story and make them feel at home. We initially did the same at Rotisserie. To be honest, most people have no interest in that part of the experience.”

Owner Evan Rich finds that his customers at RT Rotisserie mostly…

But this realization doesn’t discourage him. The customers just aren’t looking for the same experience, with the attendant attention, that more conventional restaurants provide. In fact, Millennials now spend more money dining out than Baby Boomers. A Food Institute study last year showed that diners ages 19 to 36 spent 44 percent of their food dollar on eating out, more than a 10 percent increase from 2010. In 2014, those ages 52 to 71 spent 40 percent dining out.

I used to look at the profusion of quick-service restaurants as primarily about economics. With rising labor costs, this style of service saves money and allows owners to offer better pricing. Yet I now realize it’s also cultural: Our attention span is growing shorter, and dining at these restaurants is less of a time commitment.

Then there’s the recent phenomenon: the merging of the bar and restaurant. Main courses are decreasing on menus; long cocktail lists and the small plates to accompany them are increasing. This is all about sharing drinks, sharing plates: a very different and highly social kind of snacking together.

Food trucks are the ultimate example of a communal experience transformed by technology. At the insanely popular Off the Grid, 30 trucks and tent vendors and two bars serve 6,000 to 8,000 people on Friday nights. Friends and family arrive together, perhaps prompted by tweets or Instagram posts from the mobile chefs, separate to line up at the truck of their choice for myriad cuisines including Korean, Indian, Greek and Japanese, and then come back together to sit at communal tables or to find chairs to pull into a circle.

Gathering around food, formally or informally, remains a primary force in nurturing our humanity. Maybe, in fact, we’re finding that sharing food in public — that is, at a restaurant — is becoming even more important as the rest of our lives see change.

Finally, restaurants can offer us something so necessary in an increasingly strained world: a neutral place where the enjoyment of food can bridge any divide.

No matter what technological innovations or economic pressures the future brings, the central role of the restaurant will remain: to bring us together.

Source:  sfchronicle.com, 8-11-17

 

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