Great blog response on the “issue de siecle”—and all of you made some erudite and relevant points. Thanks for all of your responses. We have a vibrant community here on Chow & Again, that’s for sure. Now that I am officially off the ledge, I will say that we are indeed a great food town, but one still finding its sea legs when it comes to changing the way in which our general population relates to restaurants. It is not only about income, but about culture. As Phil Roberts is fond of saying, “Too much Lutheran DNA.”
In San Fran, the fifth largest market in the USA (for twelve and ups), or in any of the top five markets, the bottom third of the middle class spends a significant portion of their income eating in restaurants, mostly ethnic and independent eateries. Most of these people live in bustling metro areas (NYC, Boston, Chicago, etc.) where (AND HERE I AM GENERALIZING TO MAKE A POINT, READERS) cooking at home is a once a week occurrence (and growing), whereas in the Twin Cities eating out is a once a week occurrence, and growing, but not quickly enough or in the right places as far as I am concerned. Live in Kenwood and want to find an alternative to a rack of baby backs at Chili's? Head on over to barbecue independents renowned for their product, like Ted Cook's, Cap's, Market Bar-B-Que, etc. Live in Blaine or Rogers or Buffalo? No options, really, except another chain, Famous Dave’s. Who in those towns will get back in the car and drive forty minutes for dinner? The most we could expect them to drive is ten and even that is tough when you factor in kids, family errands, etc. . . . since the majority of our population lives outside our city centers, and there is so much competition these days from other restaurants and other non-food-related activities, I guess we all have to be patient.
Price is a huge factor in how we make our dining decisions. Almost 100 percent of the thirty people I polled responded price and service were their two primary factors in choosing a restaurant. Food was a close third. When my wife and I make a choice on eating out we consider food, food, and food. Service and ambiance are definitely on our list, but price really isn’t. Not because we have any disposable income, but because with the exception of four or five restaurants in town, most menus can be flexible. An example: We love La Belle Vie, and we have eaten in the dining room and done tasting menus twice. Fabulous. But we have gone there once a month and snuggled into a booth in the bar on a date night and ordered four or five goodies off the bar menu and spent around $50 for two. Which is about what dinner for two at a chain in the ‘burbs costs. All of this is a roundabout way of urging folks to support our local independent eateries.
Hopefully chefs like Steven Brown (and there are a handful of others whose restaurants are barely making it) will resist the siren song and stay put, rather than move to NYC, Boston, Miami, San Fran, LA, Dallas, Chicago, etc., where fame and fortune awaits, but if they moved to find a more receptive audience, who can blame them, really?
And from the “Hey, it’s gonna get worse before it gets better” department, Vincent, from what I hear, is not only doing a weekday happy hour, but is closing on Sunday, despite serving some of the best food in the Cities in a lovely and warm atmosphere. I am hoping that things there are OK, and my sense is that being across from Orchestra Hall helps his business, but he has a large monthly nut there on mall. But then why the cutbacks and discounts, etc. . . . is that what customers want? Oy vey.
I am going to lay claim to coining something I call Levain’s Syndrome, named after the most extreme example of the illness. This condition is recognizable by the primary symptom of waning interest and falling attendance despite an actual increase in food quality and local/regional/national reputation. Any candidates for triage???? I’ll go with Midtown Global Market. More on that Thursday.