Restaurants are everywhere- from the food stalls in Hanoi, to the walk-by pastry windows in Bucharest, to sidewalk cafes in New York. I’ve eaten at restaurants, on occasion, my entire life. With varying frequency, you probably have too. You’ve eaten food prepared for you by strangers at a mutually agreed-upon location, paying them in exchange for their labor and product. We all gotta eat. But, sometimes, we can’t always cook.
In the United States, people frequently refer to this business as the “restaurant industry”. To be clear: restaurants are an enormous industry, employing 10 percent of the American workforce and bringing in nearly $800 billion annually. The restaurant industry covers everything from the fastest food at McDonald’s to the slowest at Chez Panisse, and everything in between.
I work in a particular subset of the restaurant industry, the small corner of chef-owned and operated restaurants. I believe in the importance of these types of establishments: they are small, and independent, and they usually are the ones driving culinary experimentation and risk-taking.
But as immersed as I am in this subsection, I still like to eat my way through the entirety of the dining landscape. There is an entire ecosystem of establishments and enterprises designed to feed people. I love going to greasy diners, or stopping by to peer into food trucks, and I have been known to swing through many drive-through windows for fries. Every different kind of restaurant provides me with different experiences, and, certainly, food. It is worth asking ourselves: when we do not cook for ourselves, where do we go, and why?
The question is layered, and lies at intersections of class and culture and a multiplicity of identities. Feeding yourself, or your family, is an immensely personal act of consumption- when it is outsourced to a restaurant, what do we consider? Is it just price? Is it taste, or speed? Is it the feeling of the place, or familiarity of certain foods, or the convenience of a location? Is eating at a restaurant just an act of sustenance, or does it have a social function? Where do we go when we are tired, and where do we go to celebrate? Where do we take our moms, and where do we take first dates? Where do we go when we have a lot of money, and where do we go when we want to feel like we have a lot of money?
For most, restaurants may only occupy the mind when they are hungry- but these establishments occupy a large space in our society. These questions matter, because they determine what an enormous portion of our food system looks like. Your food dollars shape our economy and local life on our neighborhood block. Restaurants reflect trends and indicate our current realities. They reflect our priorities, values, and tastes, both culinarily and culturally.
What do your restaurants look like?