An interesting take on tradition in the NYT Dining Section today. The reporter goes to restaurants that have benefited from the radical makeover of the show “Restaurant: Impossible” to see if they flourished after the show redesigned their menus and their interiors. Some have; others went bust. The instructive part is why the defunct restaurants went defunct. Read:
“We had to bring back our beef cannelloni, even though that dish is frozen,” said John Meglio of Meglio’s Italian Grill and Bar in Bridgeton, Mo. “Chef Irvine kept telling us that we needed to make more fresh food, and that makes perfect sense. But what he didn’t know is that people here have been eating frozen pasta from this one supplier in St. Louis for the last 50 years.”
The rebranding actually worked for more than a month, thanks to curiosity seekers who had heard about the renovation. During this initial onslaught, Mr. Queisser recruited his brother, a chef, who took a look around and issued a dire prediction.
“He said, ‘You won’t have time to build a new reputation, and in the meantime your old customers won’t like what’s happened and will leave,’ ” Mr. Queisser said. “And he was right. Ten or 12 weeks later, it was like the lights went out.”
The thing to keep in mind is that to get on the show at all, your restaurant needs to be pretty much on life support. It’s not like these made-over joints were doing well until Mr. Fancypants British Restaurant Consultant came in and ruined their business. They had to try something. It could be that the time for attracting a newer generation of customers had passed, and the kind of people who would be open to a fresher menu had already written the place off.
These days, you find a certain sort of young (or in my case, only young-ish) person who is really interested in tradition — artistic, culinary, religious, and so forth — and in rediscovering it, and finding a way to make it work in our time. What happens, though, when the “tradition” that most people have gotten used to is, well, not very good? If you go eat at a “traditional” ordinary-people restaurant in France or Italy, you’ll get simple food, well made, with local ingredients. In our country, the tradition for many ordinary people today is, well, frozen cannelloni. I am in sympathy with my conservative Catholic friends who love the traditional Latin Mass, but by now, 40 years after Vatican II, the only tradition most American Catholics know is the Novus Ordo. The tradition of their people is as foreign to them as the things their grandparents ate before the coming of industrial food.
I could easily see a small restaurant opening in my town, and serving an ever-changing, up to date menu based on the culinary traditions of our region, and using only local ingredients … and failing quickly, for lack of public interest. That’s just not how people here like to eat these days, and a restaurant is first and foremost a business. That’s reality.
UPDATE: Have you ever visited James Lileks’ “Gallery of Regrettable Food”?