Critical Philosophy

Why does one choose to write about restaurants? What is there to gain by documenting one’s every meal?

For those “foodies” (a pejorative moniker as far as you are concerned) who maintain Yelp “Elite” or Google “Local Guide” status, the gambit is clear: writing about restaurants allows them to play at being a “critic.” Deluded into thinking anyone in their community gives a damn about what they think, these consumers engage in a performative form of art appreciation. They namedrop, insinuate, stage their photos, and skulk off, ready to seize on the slightest of faults. You see, it tickles them to get their petty revenge: a one or two-starred bullet through the head of a business owner who didn’t smile enough, whose music was too loud, the décor too drab, the hours unaccommodating, and the food simultaneously too hot and too cold, too much and too little, too fast and too slow, too salty and too sweet.

These “foodies” fill their empty lives with the thrill of being a glorified product tester, a first decider ever-too-desperate to brand the identity of a new business with that one-star (“bad”) or five-star (“really really good”) review. There just isn’t much room for any shades of gray, you see, because “foodies” only eat the “best” food, and anything lacking slick branding–and anything that doesn’t jive with their latest dietary restriction–just won’t do. You mean, who do these business owners think they are? Opening an establishment, employing people, putting out a product–in MY neighborhood? And oh-so-help-you-god if you think–you, you little shit–are going to serve pho or pizza or pierogi or pastrami without prostrating yourself before the altar of “authenticity.” You see, these “foodies” travel, and your fare had better measure up to whatever demented nostalgia walks through the door when they deign visit you. Or else! One star! Cultural appropriation! And maybe a few words about smelling booze on an employee’s breath to boot. Yes, and surely they spied a fruit fly somewhere–infestation!

But all this can go away, mind you, for the “foodie” gods are merciful. All it takes is a little tithing. Please, brother, do not cower. Do not seethe. Open up your heart and deliver your sacrifice. Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly–so forget that piddly free dessert or glass of wine and go for the full comp! Because, of course, it would be a shame if something happened to that five-star rating of yours…

This send-up of the “foodie” phenotype is nothing new–Yelpers were despised from the first moment they waddled into restaurants more than fifteen years ago, and the term “foodie” itself (coined in 1981) has long been a “ghastly” term for those too infantile to be gourmets, gastronomers, or gastronauts. Truth be told, you think the term “foodie” has come to apply less to the vanguard of taste and more to a liminal stage between the terrors of a highly-processed diet and true gourmandise. While the “foodie” obsesses over avocado-this, bacon-that, and the newest fast-food chicken sandwich, the gourmet is betrothed to nature. That is, while the former is ever-concerned with what is “new” and what may offer “more,” the latter has learned to live in line with the season and sublimate their desire towards a given month’s bounty. The “foodie” gets excited for the kaleidoscopic processed creations of market research; meanwhile, the gourmet takes pride in a personal relationship with their butcher, baker, and farmer. The gourmet humbly receives nature’s gifts–never asking for more than she can bear–while the “foodie” opens more than one orifice in slavish devotion to Big Agra’s newest formulated flavor.

In the simplest terms, the “foodie” is a creation of mass media, swayed by rankings and ratings, and enslaved to a shallow form of consumption that seeks superficial pleasure conjured by the powers that be. At its most pernicious, “foodie” culture reflects an attempt to turn consumption–in its purest, most biological manifestation–into a virtue. It is an identity for people lacking in moral structure, meaningful creative pursuits, a fulfilling career–in short, lacking anything valuable to say save for “this is what I shoved into my maw today.”

Under normal circumstances, you would leave these wayward souls to wallow in the sty of artificially sweetened and colored crap. But some of these “foodies” have earned disposable income and expense accounts. (You see, “foodie” has almost always also meant “yuppie,” and, eventually, those young urban professionals graduate from spending $22 on avocado toast to $220 on a tasting menu). That is to say, the class and age barriers that once defined fine dining have been demolished, the cultural floodgates have been thrown open, and the barbarians feel no need to abide by frivolous stipulations like a “dress code.”

Do not take this to mean, dear reader, that you deplore the democratization of gastronomic pleasure. Our “foodie” forefathers were all-too-driven by an inferiority complex that outsourced the definition of “good taste” to Europe. They imported French chefs, absconded them in grand hotels, and circlejerked over a pantomimed “continental cuisine” that served only to distinguish their social status at the cost of suppressing American foodways. Yes, these European implants imparted domestic cookery with a much needed structure–but at the cost of its soul.

The present generation of gourmands enters a landscape that has almost been entirely liberated from that European paradigm of fine dining “excellence.” Renowned restaurants come in every shape, style, and size. A rare few articulate a sense of place so well, so truly, that they can rightfully be called transcendent on a global level. These restaurants are rarely acknowledged as the “best” in the country–rather, they have but one or two Michelin stars and an assortment of plaudits from local and regional publications. They excel in expressing something pure, something “true” to their locale–a celebration of distinction rather than a cratering to the pressures of globalization. We romanticize this sort of distinction when we travel the world–aping the “simple life” of the “old world”–but, for some reason, label it “backwards” when it manifests itself in our own backyard.

The current generation of “foodies” is living through American gastronomy’s coming of age, an event nearly 150 years in the making. Eating “well”–not just abundantly–is in vogue, and social media ensures that even those without the means to indulge may still fall under the spell of a ravenous cultural elite. We finally have the chance to define American cuisine on its own terms, to champion a cookery of distinction rather than mimicry. That does not mean a rejection of our country’s varied ethnic traditions but, rather, their translation through an assimilation with this continent’s terroir. For, it seems to you that the perfect replication of a Parisian bistro or Ginza omakase in a major U.S. city will always pale in comparison to the forthright application of a French or Japanese ethos to the American agricultural bounty.

The current generation of “foodies,” with the uncommon influence they hold in the age of social media, is faced with an important decision. Will they be Michelin cultists who continue to outsource American “taste” to France and go gaga at the mere appearance of caviar, truffle, and foie gras, however bereft of flavor? Will they be mass media suckers driven towards whichever restaurants–with “floating food” and “crystal clear pumpkin pie”–choose style over substance in a cynical ploy to make consumption as conspicuous as possible? Or will they nurture the renegades who are possessed by a love of this land, who think American soil and artisanry can stand tall alongside all the other hallowed places on Earth?

The goal of this website and of your restaurant criticism is to gently guide this generation towards the light. That is, to guide it away from all the dick-measuring that turns dining into a competition of consumption, a pantheon of expensive ingredients endlessly rearranged but bereft of soul, rather than a means of connecting with nature and more deeply appreciating the world we inhabit. The former mentality asks, “how much does this dish please me?” while the latter, instead, wonders, “how does this dish evoke the time, the place, and the person that crafted it?”

Those seeking pure, selfish pleasure will find that even the most renowned chefs in the world are hopelessly outgunned trying to use natural ingredients to compete with artificial flavors. So what is all the fuss about? Dining, in its highest expression, is not an attempt to deliver the “best” flavor. It is a means of channeling the best that nature–working in lockstep with humanity–has to offer at a given moment in time. It is a celebration of the life–and death–inscribed in each solitary moment. A given dish may be pleasing, but its goal is not pleasure. The goal, instead, is truth: a true expression of nature and the human hands that have acted as its translator.

In that respect, the most salient feature of a restaurant is not its food–that everchanging expression of nature–but rather its hospitality–the soul and expertise of those whom you have entrusted as nature’s conduits. We all bring our own nostalgia–and our own biases–to the table when tasting. Yes, there is such a thing as “good” execution and “bad” execution, flavors that sing and those that are muddled. Yet, at the highest level of dining, the question is not “does this dish please me?” Rather, one asks, “does this experience please me?” Each and every morsel need not tickle our pleasure center so long as they play a role in the larger narrative of the meal. Just the same, the onus is on the hospitality staff to set the stage for items that provoke thought more than they do pleasure. Thus, dining–at its finest–is a ballroom dance between nature, back of house, front of house, and you, dear diner.

The best restaurants don’t just “play the hits” each evening; they are engaged in an endless process of becoming very much like nature herself. To understand food, then, is to comprehend how a given chef interprets nature. It is to ascertain a certain attitude–an all-encompassing soul–that flows from nature through the restaurant, through the staff, into each and every patron who opens themself up to a “peak experience.” To taste food blindly–as with wine–is to shut off our emotions in search of an illusory technical objectivity. For sensory appreciation forms the lowest rung on the stepladder of artistic appreciation, and dining demands more than just one’s tongue. In its highest expression, gastronomy forges a connection between humanity, the moment, and nature. A fleeting connection it is, but one–relative to the honesty with which we approach the table–that provides life with an uncommon sense of meaning.

As Grimod wrote, some 200 years ago, “the gastronomic arts…embrace all three realms of nature, and the four corners of the globe, all moral considerations and all social relationships. Everything comes within their scope in a more or less direct way and if they may seem superficial it is only to vulgar minds, who see no more to a kitchen than saucepans and no more to dinner than dishes.” To understand food, thus, is to understand hospitality and the nature of humanity–and being–itself.

While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the guiding pillars of your criticism:

  • I. None of your meals are comped, simple as. It is impossible to write meaningful criticism if one has little sense of the value proposition being offered. It is also important that you make your own reservations via normal channels. Your goal is to offer readers a consistent and honest appraisal of experiences they might like to enjoy themselves.
  • II. With that being said, the nature of good hospitality is to reward “regulars.” You visit restaurants at least three times before writing a critique, and that, alone, is often enough to arouse suspicion in a city like Chicago. Likewise, some of the restaurants you write about (and love most) have gotten to know you over the course of dozens of visits. You resolve to be as frank about any special treatment you receive as possible, not just as an ethical matter, but to pave the way for readers who prize developing the same relationships. Any “bells and whistles” that come about from longstanding patronage will be appreciated as such while being contrasted from the average guest experience as best as possible.
  • III. While anonymity is valuable, a wider awareness of one’s experience relative to others is most important. Ordering wine–or a sizable amount of food–with confidence and competence is certain to catch a server’s attention. Your writing intends to capture any change in the tenor or tone of hospitality as a result of your spending patterns and demeanor. Likewise, you look to represent your manner of interaction with the staff as clearly as possible so that readers may replicate it to their benefit. Likewise, any perceived change in service across visits will be elucidated as best as possible.
  • IV. When talking about food, “balance” is key. A “good” dish can combine just about any combination of flavors and textures in moderation. Or, it can strike you with the intensity of just one or two components–that intensity being moderated by beverage or the dish’s larger context as part of a sequence. Your technical analysis of food as it pertains to the dining experience will privilege balance and context equally. You will look to make your own nostalgia–your own biases, that is–known. You will also draw on the opinions of your dining companions, an experienced yet diverse cadre that complements your personal taste quite well. The goal, as with wine criticism, is to provide a clear reference point from which the reader can deduce their own taste.
  • V. The highest purpose this site can achieve is to deliver you, dear reader, the kind of transcendent hospitality experiences herein described. Once you feel the magic firsthand, you need never be deceived by Michelin stars again. Thus, this site is best approached as a resource to cultivate your own peak experiences. Your own understanding (and appreciation) of hospitality must be developed through your own experience, but, through honesty with ourselves and each other, we may share in the eternal joys of the table together.