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‘Who wants caviar at a time like this?” I do and so does most of the civilized world.
With all respect for my friend Adam Platt, who raised the question in New York magazine and on GrubStreet.com, I’d add: We want caviar, truffles and foie gras now more than ever. If we are what we eat, shouldn’t we crave the best that the earth and the oceans have to offer?
The people at Caviar Russe, a restaurant on Madison Avenue in Midtown, aren’t sweating over any alleged aversion: They’re about to open a ground-floor store selling nothing but caviar and rebrand the location as the “Caviar Russe Building.”
Yet, Platt declared that “fine dining” based on luxury ingredients, high comfort and traditional service faces “irrelevance.” The “old gourmet model” has never seemed so “out of touch,” he wrote, since the pandemic walloped the restaurant business and customers are supposedly seeking a new kind of dining experience built around “three-star tacos, burgers and bowls of ramen.”
He correctly noted that “bloviating critics” such as himself have predicted luxury’s demise for decades, only to look foolish every time. No wonder every new such pronouncement sounds more bitter than the last.
Fine dining can mean different things, but most understand it as eating any kind of good and usually expensive food, professionally served in a room that allows one to hear and be heard without screaming across the table.
As critic Alan Richman eloquently expressed it in the Robb Report a few years ago, fine dining is more than “a demonstration of wealth and privilege . . . It is an expression of culture, the most enlightened and elegant form of nourishment ever devised. Without it we will slowly regress into the dining habits of cave people, squatting before a campfire, gnawing on the haunch of a bar.”
It often also means the T-word, a k a tablecloths, which many in young, progressive circles deplore as if they signified not mere stuffiness but neo-colonialism — although, really, they might just dread a room with lots of older customers.
The Woke mob prefers a non-hierarchical, “communal” setting where menus honor obscure, indigenous cuisines without “appropriating” them and where dishwashers earn as much as executive chefs. (Platt, we should clarify, is not part of that mob but is independently cranky.)
Oddly, Hollywood, one of America’s most left-leaning institutions, has always celebrated restaurants where customers ate and drank in comfort and enjoyed customs and rituals that many today consider neofascist.
Rick’s Café in “Casablanca,” Ernie’s (of San Francisco) in “Vertigo,” and The Four Seasons and ‘21’ in “Mad Men” were all settings for crucial scenes. Often, when I see the plush and orderly places routinely depicted on screen, I seethe over why there aren’t more of them in real life.
Another critic, well-traveled John Mariani, took to Facebook to ridicule Platt’s disdain for Wagyu beef and men-in-jackets rules. Mariani pointed out that Manhattan’s most in-demand restaurants today are of precisely the sort Platt expects to pass into history — such as Le Bernardin, Le Pavillon and La Grenouille. I would add The Grill, steakhouses such as Porter House and Peter Luger, elegant Italians Marea and Il Gattopardo, seafood palaces such as Avra and Oceans, and proliferating, $300-a-head omakase bars.
Platt was hardly alone, though. The New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner’s sneering put-down of three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin as a “plutocrat canteen” last year articulated in a nutshell the bizarre perceptions of many food writers.
Even some chefs are on board with the lunacy. Food & Wine magazine quoted several last December who foresaw the “decline and probable demise” of both “mid-fine” and more “precious” restaurants.
A few chefs actually made it their mission to dismantle the dining traditions we loved. Momofuku founder David Chang, whose hypocrisy is past satirizing, championed a “populist” eating-out experience (e.g., painful seating in backless chairs). Meanwhile he launched Momofuku Ko, one of the most elitist establishments in history — where a meal cost more than in French haute cuisine places and reservations were near-impossible to get.
Fine dining was pronounced dead after 9/11, during the Wall Street crash of 2007, after the New York Times downgraded Per Se from four to two stars in 2016, and again since the Times laid a stink bomb last week on all-vegan, $285-a-head Eleven Madison Park.
The off-base doomcasts recall guarantees by football “experts” that Tom Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43, would soon “fall off a cliff” — a claim they’ve made since roughly the day he first picked up a football.
Time will eventually catch up with Tom. But, sorry, Adam, the clock will never run out on caviar, truffles, tablecloths and all the joys of eating that make life worth living.