"Oh, good Lord," my wife said as we left yet another newly opened restaurant, full but unsatisfied. "We should have just stayed home and cooked."
It's getting harder and harder to drag her out on restaurant review visits these days, and, truth be told, I sometimes find it hard to get excited about them myself. On far too many occasions, after going through the effort of securing a babysitter and driving downtown and finding parking, the meal we end up eating is not nearly as good as what we would have cooked if we had just stayed home.
Perhaps it's my descent into middle age and the realization that I have only a few tens of thousands of meals left ahead, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that a dinner is a terrible thing to waste.
When I do dine out and it's not on assignment, I turn to things I can't make at home, and that means an increasingly bifurcated dining experience. I either eat something superbly high-end and fantastically elaborate or, far more frequently, seek out cheap, low-end fare: slow-smoked brisket, which I've yet to master on my backyard smoker, or deep-fried stuff, since I've still not invested in a Fry-o-later for my kitchen, or ethnic food whose flavors are still novel to my spice cabinet. There's just not a whole lot in the middle that appeals.
Unfortunately, the middle — that "casual fine dining" category — seems to be where all the action is these days, and inside of it is a burgeoning sub-genre of "comfort food in an upscale setting." We're talking hearty, homestyle-entrees in the $15 to $25 range. Pork chops. Roasted chicken. Mac 'n' cheese. A lot of this is being turned out by chefs who once commanded the kitchens of Charleston's flashiest high-end restaurants before choosing to take a step back and open more downscale places.
Over the past few years, I've reviewed an awful lot of these restaurants and given them, if not an outright rave, at least passing-grade marks. After all, the food is pretty good, the service pleasant, and the overall dining experience not unenjoyable. Call it a solid B.
But I'm starting to feel that "pretty good" isn't good enough. "Hearty comfort food to warm the soul" is leaving mine rather cold.
You can slow-braise all sorts of beef or pork — shanks, shoulder, short ribs, brisket — but it's all pot roast in the end. Why are we plunking down $15 for meatloaf and $19 for spaghetti and meatballs? When did deviled eggs become fancy restaurant food? You can top them with all the house-smoked bacon and microgreens you want, but it doesn't make them any better than the stuff our moms used to make for picnics, funerals, and other auspicious occasions.
We're witnessing an ever-deepening slide into the casual corner with servers' attire and restaurant decor, too. Ties and vests are a faint memory. Khakis led to blue jeans, oxford shirts are giving way to T-shirts emblazoned with restaurant logos. Spartan rooms with metal chairs and cloth-less tables are the order of the day. Single sheets of cardstock supplant leather-bound wine lists, and sommeliers are as rare as a pre-Civil War Madeira.
This trend is more complex than just a retreat from the top end. The burgeoning middle is being driven from the bottom up, too. Across the country, Americans are eating out at restaurants far more often than we did a few decades ago. It's been the conventional wisdom that the "Millennials," as the marketing demographers seem determined to label the younger generation, eat out more than older Americans. But the stats show that trend actually cuts across demographic lines. According to a new study from the NPD Group, "older boomers" (those 55 to 64 years old) racked up 220 restaurant visits per capita in 2012. Younger consumers, who were hit harder by the recession, saw their restaurant visits slip from 240 visits per year in 2008 down to 211 last year, but that's still an awful lot of eating out.
Expectations have increased along with frequency, and more people are looking for something a bit nicer than fast food and cafeterias. They are willing to pay a little more for it, too.
Thus you get a powerful push-pull toward the middle. Consumers are moving up from fast food burgers to the lighter, slightly more expensive "fast casual" segment. At the same time, they're stepping down from white tablecloth luxury in favor of more relaxed "casual fine dining."
Amid that movement, there's a noticeable retreat from food that seems challenging or intimidating. "Approachable" is the word du jour for describing new restaurants. To many, perhaps, that's a warm, fuzzy term, dispelling the images of haughty maitre d's and indecipherable French terms on ornately-lettered menus. For me, it carries a whiff of fear and self-doubt, of diners reluctant to risk the unfamiliar.
In many ways, Charleston has been one of the top-down driving forces behind this trend toward more casual dining, having been at the forefront of an heirloom-embracing, ingredients-centric movement that has intentionally turned its back on so many entrenched elements of classic high-end cuisine. When Robert Stehling won Best Chef Southeast in 2008 for his high-quality but decidedly downhome style at Hominy Grill, it was a shot across the bow of the fine dining world that a new aesthetic was brewing. It culminated in the opening of Husk, which rocketed Sean Brock to national celebrity with his homage to "the products and the people that produce the food" and his insistence that "the chef steps aside." Husk's servers wear blue Dickies shirts and the entrées are all priced under $30. And Bon Appetit still declared it "The Best New Restaurant in America."
Brock's bold statements have proven contagious. Just this week I opened an inflight magazine and found a chef from Arizona declaring his culinary philosophy: "I want to get back to the roots food that people grew up with, rather than something that's overly messed with." That's a concise statement of the spirit of our times.
I'm not saying that we took a wrong turn with the New Southern heirloom thing. It's hard to remember that just a decade ago fine dining chefs routinely dismissed the notion that newly-picked produce or freshly-caught local fish made much of a difference. Their role was to place orders for the finest ingredients from around the world — foie gras, truffles, New Zealand rack of lamb — and bring them together in a stunning array driven by the skill of the chef. Technique was all.
The detour away from that particular mode of restaurant cooking was a necessary step, allowing us to break the constraints of classical technique and sidestep the foamy distractions of molecular gastronomy. Our embrace of a sort of culinary primitivism helped us rediscover the vibrancy of old varieties and the inherent deliciousness instilled by traditional preparation techniques: pickling vegetables, smoking bacon, pan-frying fish, barbecuing a whole hog. We needed to slip on a pair of jeans and head out to the farm and rediscover the heritage that we had all but lost.
But what do we do with that heritage now? Perhaps it's time for chefs to step back in and start messing with our food a lot more. Brock's bold pronouncements about produce and purveyors are best taken as rhetoric, not gospel — a little hyperbole to make a point about how much ingredients matter. But the chef matters an awful lot, too, and not just as a sort of advance purchasing agent who sniffs out the best and most underappreciated ingredients. Brock knows this as much as anyone, as demonstrated by the high concept work he and his chef de cuisine Jeremiah Langhorne are executing at McCrady's night after night.
For now, the chef is still taking a beating. Restaurateurs announce they don't want to be "too chefy" in their offerings. Corby Kummer caused a kerfuffle when he bemoaned the tyranny of the modern tasting menu and "chef-driven cuisine" in a piece for Vanity Fair.
I came away from Kummer's piece partially agreeing with him, for the sheer scale of the four-hour, 40-course extravaganzas of Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller, when you pause to think about it, seem a bit over the top. But what doesn't seem over the top is the focus and intensity. The brigade of people in the kitchen putting in hours and hours in advance, the time and effort put into selecting and purchasing ingredients, the equipment and technique and years of study behind it: they all combine to create the kind of dishes that even an avid home cook like myself will never be able to pull off.
I relish the carefully-composed plate, one that wows you with its visual beauty, then backs up the promise with stunning layers of intense, complex flavors in combinations that you never would have imagined possible. The food should surprise and delight, not comfort and coddle. And it should be at the heart of a thoughtfully crafted experience that begins the moment the phone is answered to take diners' reservations and carries straight through to when they've finished their coffees and are pulling on their jackets and preparing to step out into the cold night air.
Who knows if such a return could actually happen, but if it does, it's going to have to be driven by diners. There are some concrete things we can do, like eating out less frequently but spending the same amount of money overall, and opting for a few mind-blowing big ticket meals instead of a lot of cozy but mediocre ones.
While we're at it, we might make a little extra effort and put on a tie or a nice dress. Because, damnit, you're going out for the night. And it's going to be special.
The past five years of ferment and experimentation — the rediscovery of heirloom produce, fresh-caught local fish, old 19th century techniques — have been rewarding and eye-opening. But they're not the endgame. We've discovered our culinary palette and executed our studies. Now it's time to create the masterpieces.