Punk Versus Classical Fine Dining

Allison Austin Scheff’s used her review of Restaurant Marche (Bainbridge Island) as an opportunity to dismiss what she considers the “punk rock era of food” as a tired trend.  First two paragraphs of her review:

“Congratulations: You’ve survived the punk rock era of food. In the decade just past, we saw the demise of the entrée; instead, we’ve pieced together meals by sharing a slew of side dishes and small plates (tapas of every ilk!). We bid adieu to careful, precise service and, instead, bussed our own tables or poured our own water from jugs left on the table. Table linens disappeared, wine glasses were sometimes replaced by canning jars, “unsightly” soundproofing was pooh-poohed in favor of exposed ductwork and cement floors. And we embraced (well, OK, we resigned ourselves to) sitting at communal tables with strangers. If the chef wants to blast Rage Against the Machine through the dining-room speakers, who are we to complain? It’s not like we’re squares!

Oh, but I am so tired. Eating in such a way can be exhausting. I admit that I get as caught up in what’s newest/coolest/hippest as the next impossible food obsessive. But isn’t it time for at least some of the restaurants to go back to treating diners like guests, creating environments where we might rejuvenate and converse without it feeling like work? A proper, well-cooked meal enjoyed at a leisurely pace in a lively, comfortable dining room is one of life’s finest pleasures—and such a meal can be had at Bainbridge Island’s Restaurant Marché.”

Which means Schiff prefers contrived environments, fussiness, and a medley of ridiculous middle-class manners.  I’m not calling for the death of the entree, as some have, or the total demise of “traditional” neo-classical French style fine dining (which the French care little about).  The entree  is still relevant and in some instances, the most practical option.  Likewise with traditional fine dining.  I’m taking issue with Scheff’s glib dismissal of all the work those “punks” have put into getting Americans to re-think how they eat, making available a greater variety of dining experiences to the public, and challenging the supremacy of the entree, a course that may be the source of American health problems and an expression of the notoriously fussy and limited American palate and mindset.  She suggests that the “punk era” is just a reactive rebellion against timeless style and substance, an era where unpolished and inexperienced kids have gone wild and unchecked, their efforts resulting in fads rather than

“Eating in such a way can be exhausting,” says Scheff of these “punk” restaurants.  Yet the reason these “punk” restaurants have become popular is because a lot of people find traditional fine dining exhausting, stifling, boring, and impractical.  These “punk” restaurants — I take it she means establishments such as Harvest Vine (tapas tapas tapas), Sitka and Spruce (get your own water and silverware), Art of the Table (encouraged to lick your plate), The Corson Building (communal tables), Elemental (mystery meals) — are for many, liberating.  The servers at such restaurants are sincere, charming, and authentic, not polite, stiff, and pretentious. These restaurants make it easy to sample a lot of dishes, not just the three found on most entrees. Nobody has to worry about spilling wine because there isn’t white table cloth (clean up is a quick wipe and not a major interruption). The beautiful table is the “white table cloth.” With small plates, guests can play musical chairs throughout the meal. There’s a different sense of intimacy that comes from sharing each dish family style. There’s that sense of adventure in trying new dishes and meeting new people.  These restaurants aim to make the experience of “fine dining” less fussy and more fun and accessible.

So it hasn’t been fun for everyone.  Fine, but personal preference alone doesn’t give a thoughtful reviewer enough ammo to casually dismiss a culturally significant movement.  Scheff doesn’t have to like exposed ductwork, or Rage Against the Machine, or the constant shuffling and passing of plates, or pouring her own water, or sassy servers. Scheff can critique the intentions of the “punk era” movement, but it’s not appropriate for her to belittle them, to consider their intentions and efforts as — without explanation — lacking in good taste and unable to produce “proper, well cooked meals.”  By doing so, Scheff has branded herself, at best, as someone more comfortable with the familiar, and at worst as an unreflective traditionalist rather than an open-minded and thoughtful conservative restaurant reviewer.

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2 Comments

  1. Also, I take some offense to the usage of the word “punk” as something that is intrinsically against the establishment. Often it’s more about an exploration of alternatives. To quote Edie Sedgewick.. (punk, not punk… hard to define.)
    “It’s not that I’m rebelling, it’s that I’m just trying to find another way.”

    Reply
    • Yeah, she seems to use “punk” as synonymous with reactive rebellion, rebellion for the sake of rebellion. And that may be why she doesn’t consider that there’s a lot of thought put into these “punk” restaurants, that they’re just trying to provide alternatives, a different way of looking at life. Or maybe she’s turned off by intentionally over the top proclamations of some punks — thinking Michael Hebb’s “Kill the Restaurant” movement (starting with his own?). A lot of people don’t take punk seriously because they can’t deal with the style.

      Reply

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