Bon Appetit Craps Out; Mariani Makes His Point

ELV note: We temporarily interrupt our regularly scheduled programming (i.e., our march through the 50 Essential Restaurants of Las Vegas) to bring you a word (actually 2,193 of them) about a most disturbing development in the food media world.

Two mornings ago, the editor of Bon Appetit magazine, and the restaurant editor of the magazine, appeared on the CBS Morning News to announce Bon App’s “Best New Restaurants of 2014.”

In introducing the segment, they listed their general criteria for determining which restos made the overall list, and how they specifically determined their Top 10 eateries on the list.

Those criteria were, in order:

1) Good Vibe

2) Good Music

3) Good Lighting

4) Good Food

To say that Eating Las Vegas was appalled is an understatement. And we weren’t the only ones.

Two days before the TV show, noted critic, Esquire magazine Restaurant Editor, cookbook author, and all-around American food and restaurant maven John Mariani had posted his own jeremiad to this shameless pandering to the under-30 crowd. But as well-reasoned as his article was, what Mariani said on our Facebook page was the best explanation of this race to the bottom — a devolution that is now being endorsed by a national food magazine:

Part of the problem is that the young readers BA is skewing towards lack any ability to dine at a fine restaurant without feeling embarrassed by their own lack of manners and sophistication. They cut their teeth in college bars eating chicken wings and graduated to gastropubs but failed to take an etiquette class.

So true, and why anyone (much less a once-respected magazine) would let these inmates now run the asylum is beyond our feeble brains. All we can do is chalk it up to the craven quest for the almighty advertising buck, plus that very-New York need to constantly feel you’re hip and on the cutting edge of something — the cutting edge in this case coming to you in the form of statement facial hair, fake eyeglasses, and the need to value “vibe” and….wait for it….music….and…wait for it….LIGHTING(!?) over everything else.

For the record: ELV has nothing against Millennials. He has even spawned one. But they need to get in line like every generation before them. Learn their manners. Aspire to maturity. Realize they didn’t invent much except yet another way to look and act foolish for their first ten years of adulthood.

And they need to quit thinking that drinking out of mason jars, sitting at tiny tables,  and screaming over bad music is the way you’re supposed to eat.

Hell, if the grownups had pandered to our generation forty years ago, like marketers do to the twentys0methings of today, we’d all still be stinking of pot and patchouli oil, and drinking Harvey Wallbangers in fern bars.

Dining well is something you need to earn and learn. It doesn’t consist of festishizing some dumb vegetable or exalting how amazing some dumb chef is because he learned how to bone a pig’s foot.

Dining well is a body of work; something you grow to appreciate after putting in your time at everything from sandwich shops to temples of gastronomia. You can’t dine well at a food truck or a converted gas station/butcher shop any more than you can listen to great music at Bonnaroo. What Millennials (and those that pander to them) are doing by exalting these places is convincing themselves (by protesting too much) that everyone is much more sophisticated than they are.

All of it reminds ELV of his stint on Top Chef Masters a couple of years ago, when the winning dish was basically Chris Cosentino’s take on sausage and eggs. It was nothing more than glorified diner food. All the young “critics” at the table swooned (as did a couple of the oldsters trying desperately to look “with it”), but it was a dish that was less than the sum of its parts — the culinary equivalent of bringing a banjo to a Bach concert.

“How we eat now” is the mantra of these craven slaves to food fashion — who think the art of great food has devolved into sloppy manners and studied informality. It hasn’t. These teeny tiny joints with blaring tunes and “craft” everything are just the entry level drug for a life of addictive bliss.

Here’s hoping today’s street junkies become tomorrow’s dilettantes.

Then, they’ll really start enjoying themselves.


Below is John Mariani’s complete article, from his Virtual Gourmet Web site:




The announcement of the 50 nominees for the best restaurants of 2014 in Bon Appétit magazine is, not for the first time, cause for gourmets, gastronomes, connoisseurs and foodies to scratch their heads in wondering what the magazine is trying to tell–or sell–us about the state of dining out in America. And what it tells us is that, unless yours is a restaurant that is very edgy, cheaply decorated in worn-out clichés, often highly uncomfortable, and largely ego driven, you haven’t a chance of getting onto such a list.

Now, let me say straight away and loudly–and I will repeat this throughout this article: I am in no way criticizing the food in these restaurants, largely because I have not eaten in every one. I have, however, dined in many of them, lavished praise on several, and put some of these same restos on my own list of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in America.
No one has more respect than I do for the hard work and creativity that goes into opening and maintaining a restaurant in America these days. Nor am I questioning the taste of the Bon Appétit writers who searched far and wide, at some expense, for their nominees.

What I am questioning is what clearly appears to be an attitude problem here, one that glorifies novelty, youth, eccentricity and hipsterism for their own sake, while ignoring the excellence of those veteran restaurateurs who still believe in setting a good table, offering unique design and décor–often to the tune of millions of dollars–pouring significant capital into an enduring wine list of depth and breadth, hiring a chef who deserves to be paid top dollar for his experience and ability to run a professional kitchen, a service staff that sees to every aspect of their clientele’s comfort, then charges a fair price for the quality level of the entire dining experience.
Walk into any of BA’s nominated restos and you won’t find any décor by Adam Tihany or David Rockwell. In most you won’t find widely separated tables–forget entirely about now anathema tablecloths!–or fine china and silverware. You won’t find a pleasingly dressed wait staff. Instead, you will find a banality of design clichés–exposed brick and duct work, hanging exposed light bulbs, antique tiles, swood, old counter stools–that were new-ish ideas a decade ago. You’ll find cramped quarters, diner counters with backless stools that don’t spin, ear-splitting noise, crappy music, hour-long waits, no-reservations policies, a wine stock made to last no more than a month, and a staff, however amiable, wearing whatever they felt like that morning. And that’s what you’re paying top dollar for.

The argument goes that one shouldn’t care about any of that if the food is “freaking” good. And, again: I am in no way criticizing the food in these restaurants, although, perusing many of the menus from the list, I have to wonder if those with three items as main courses, one of them a salad, another a hamburger, really rise to the ideal of “best.” Maurice in Portland, OR, is a bakeshop and luncheonette; Thai-Kun (right) in Austin is a food court; Palace Diner (below) is, well, a diner; Rose’s Meat Market & Sweet Shop (above) in Durham, NC, is a sandwich spot–“not actually a restaurant,” says BA–The London Plane in Seattle is a grocery with lunch items. Do these really qualify as candidates for the best restaurants of 2014?
Yet you’ll pay as much or only slightly less for the food at these places as you would at a restaurant that spent heavily on décor, staff, kitchen and amenities, often in very high-rent neighborhoods. For instance, BA’s choice of Coltivare Pizza & Garden in Houston (which takes no reservations) charges $30 for pork with creamer peas, corn, tomato broth and peaches. Odd Duck in Austin charges $41 for lamb shoulder with chickpeas, yogurt and naan. At High Street Market in Philadelphia, with its coffee shop booths and backless stools, you’ll pay $22 for tortelloni with asparagus, guanciale and vegetable ragôut. The $10 dessert is now ubiquitous.
These prices are high, and included in them may be cheap wine glasses or Mason jars, paper napkins, tin ware, mismatched china, Formica tabletops, dime store salt and pepper shakers, a single washroom for both sexes, and nothing to buffer the noise. Quaint and casual shouldn’t cost so damn much.

Yet the same people who rave over High Street Market’s $22 tortelloni balk at paying $25 for the tortelloni with robiola, mascarpone, asparagus and basil at the very elegant Ristorante Morini in NYC, or the risotto with imported scallops, shrimp, lobster, clams, cuttlefish and octopus for $24 while lounging in a cabana at the very posh Bartolotta in Las Vegas (below). These large restaurants, by the way, are as jammed as any on BA’s list of places with six stools.

What BA is pushing is an agenda that insists fine dining is either dead, no fun or simply transformed into anything at all as long as it tastes “freaking” good. One has to wonder if the words “fine,” “refinement” and “exquisite” mean more to BA’s writers than their overuse of worn-out phrases like “really tasty,” “seriously delicious,” “outrageously delicious,” “heavy on indulgence, luxury, and–of course–deliciousness,” “the whole experience is a trip,” “beyond satisfying,” “as right now as it gets,” “couldn’t feel more of the moment,” “awesome cocktails,” “watch the chefs do their thing” and “manages to marry sophisticated techniques with a dorm-room stoner’s idea of flat-out deliciousness.” They sound like what you might have read in The Village Voice back in 1968.
Such hipster prose is hardly surprising since, as the director of one city’s tourist board told me, “The Bon Appetit writer who came to town told me he didn’t want to eat anywhere the chef didn’t have tattoos.” I don’t think he was kidding. Indeed, it appears that if a restaurant has any pretensions at all to elegance, subtlety, refined and beautiful design, an experienced staff and a great wine list, BA has next to no interest in it. Where are superb new restaurants like NYC’s Bâtard, Rôtisserie Georgette and Beautique (below), where the staff is in designer outfits, the china is by Vera Wang and the seat fabrics by Jean-Paul Gaultier? Fiola Mare in DC, which has a glass wall and verandah over the Potomac, gorgeous marble bar, roomy banquettes, and tufted, turning stools with backs? Marti’s in New Orleans, with its historic murals, swag curtains and exquisite chandeliers? St. Cecilia in Atlanta, with soaring ceilings, gorgeous leather booths, and first-rate wine list? They likely were not considered because they don’t fit the funky cool mold. Even “casual chic” has become a suspect term. True, you can’t eat the furniture but dining in such places is not an ordeal and you pay accordingly for the fine cuisine and decor, as you would for a Zegna suit or Ferragamo loafers. The BA restaurants are more the equivalent of $300 blue jeans.

Also surprising is that so many of Bon Appetit’s candidates for Best New Restaurants of 2014 actually opened way more than a year ago, including Serpico in Philadelphia, Trois Mec in L.A., Sir and Star in Olema, CA, Uncle Boons in NYC, Ribelle in Brookline, MA, Gunshow in Atlanta, and others. So, why they are being considered for 2014 is a puzzle?

Once again: I am in no way criticizing the food in these restaurants. I applaud them all and hope you try them out. But the problem with BA’s list is that it is so lopsided. However seriously one wants to take the Michelin Guides or the controversial Restaurant magazine awards, the number of jam-packed, very high-end, highly creative, innovative and well designed dining rooms run by some of the great master chefs on the planet on those lists make it obvious that such restaurants are far from moribund and cannot be ignored, unless one’s purpose is to deny that they have anything to do with that empty phrase “the way we eat today,” which actually means, “the way our editors ate last month.” Apparently “we” does not include those people who pack restaurants like The French Laundry in Yountville, CA; Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, NY; Tony’s in Houston; and Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas.

To consider for inclusion only restaurants–even those that are “not actually a restaurant”–with a hipster edge and to sniff at all else is like a theater critic reviewing only Off Broadway shows, a film critic only indie productions, a music critic only hip hop, or an automotive critic only compact cars. There’s plenty to love among such enterprises, but they are not the whole story of what goes on in those worlds.

Apparently, BA editors think only their restaurant choices are.

8 thoughts on “Bon Appetit Craps Out; Mariani Makes His Point

  1. Unfortunately, it’s our fault as baby boomers if the millennial’s don’t know how to dine out.

    My parents had me at the local supper club when I was big enough to sit in a real chair. I was taught the customs and decorum of a good meal out. I didn’t act up because I discovered I LIKED veal marsala and surf & turf and the other dining staples of the early 60s.

    But if we have only taken our own offspring to the latest “fast casual” TGI-O’Chili’s…well, then, the blame and the shame is on us.

  2. As a 34yo raised as far from fine dining as possble I largely took it upon myself to become educated about dining, first beginning with places like Puck and Emeril before moving on to the rarified tables of Keller, Ducasse, Robuchon and others. Still ‘young,’ but having dined at several of the world’s top tables I certainly see the value of gastropubs, the bistronomic movement, and hipster urban eateries yet at the same time I found this list to be heinous in its ‘criteria.’ Since when has what arrives on the plate not been the criteria of a great restaurant? Obviously I don’t expect the same quality from a great diner that I do from a Michelin star, but a great diner serves great diner food.

    Admittedly curious about Rose’s Luxury as I have respectable friends who have raved the place I guess it is nice that a ‘worthy’ space was named #1, but the new generation of ‘foodie’ diner simply strikes me as doing it because it is ‘cool’, raving every overzealous piece of bacon or ramen burger on novelty alone.

  3. Bravo! Some great observations about the dining scene.

    We have been taking our daughter to Bartolotta since she was 5 years old. She behaved herself, the octopus salad is her favorite, and she has toured the kitchen several times (we have not). Funny enough, our daughter is now the reason we usually get a great table when we visit the restaurant.

    Casual and formal dining have their place. Good manners, knowing how to dress for various occasions, are always in style and appreciated.

  4. Excellent post. I see red flags when I’m served anything on a wooden board or french fries in a darling little cup.

    I don’t think twenty-somethings are any worse now than they’ve ever been, but it’s alarming when so-called serious food writers start judging based on uncultivated tastes.

  5. Harrumph! Kids these days! They need to act more like gentlemen! It’s a lost generation you see. The mindless video box and the communication machines they keep stuffed in their trousers.

    I agree it’s silly to rank restaurants based on vibe (whatever the hell that means to the Editor of Bon Appetit magazine) before the food. What I don’t see is how this is a jumping off point on how young people don’t know their ass from their elbow.

    I am of that generation. I do know my manners and adore fine dining (and my glasses are real dammit.) However, I lack the lifetime of earnings that would allow me to spend my dining dollars on Joel Robuchon tasting menus. I can spend the same amount of money to taste unique food created by a chef in his own food truck, as a night at the local Applebee’s, but the cost of a meal is not prohibitive of the quality.

    Your generation hates my generation as you hated your parents. I would rather you focus on the fact that food is somehow taking a back seat to atmosphere rather than trotting out some tired old stereotypes about young people. You might as well devote 1,000 words to how Saturday Night Live used to be funny.

  6. Written so well. From what I notice with the young girls I take out, they show lack of appreciation, and vulnerability. They think they know it all, and its not just dining. Yet like youmentioned they have no manners, clueless on what to drink, show no finesse and have no appreciation towards craftsmanship. Their minds might say they know it all, but their pallette says bland, getting off on simple flavors like any ignorant brain dead consumer, of sweet, salty and sour… And cheese. Make sure its all gluten free too. The sad part about this, the idiots have the money to support their degenerative status. It would be nice if the industry took a greater control instead of becoming complacent themself.

  7. I largely agree with what ELV has said here, but I disagree with some issues you raise, and I think a big chunk of your disgruntlement is misdirected.

    We all have our preferences when it comes to restaurants, but the bottom line is that while some few chefs are willing to scratch out a subsistence living as long as they get to execute the culinary visions that haunt their dreams, most chefs, and certainly their investors, want to make money. They’re going to go where they think the money is. If they think it’s catering to the hipsters, then they’d be fools to not do that. One can make an argument that they’re wrong, that the market for this isn’t as big as folks seem to think, but that’s not what you’re saying here. Since I don’t know what’s really making money in the restaurant biz, I won’t criticize those who are putting their money where their mouth is. This is only indirectly related to your main argument, but it’s an important foundation.

    Second, although I’ll grant the notion that fewer culinarily exciting things are happening in Las Vegas as compared to five or so years ago, it’s still an amazing time to be a discriminating eater. You can still eat at Daniel, French Laundry, or Robuchon, and there’s still a strong market for it. At the same time, there are better communications channels so that word can get out about those who are doing their things in a less fussy setting a little better than their competition at the same price point. I’d argue that it’s tautological rather than informative that “You can’t dine well at a food truck”, but I can get damn good food at some, often at reasonable price points, in a way I couldn’t a generation ago. Further, we can both dine at places we like without having to rub a lot of elbows with the Macaroni Grill crowd, or the hipsters who are willing to shell out $40 for an entree where they’re served $10 worth of food on their plate, but the “music” and “lighting” are super cool.

    Your polemic is ostensibly about a shift in the editorial direction of Bon Appetit, but your rage seems split between the magazine and their customers. Who is at fault? Again, as much as I can fault the food at the “fashionable” new establishments that are opening, the restaurant biz is about return on investment, and only peripherally about making me happy. As noted above, if a restaurant is making a good business decision about catering to those who value fine lighting over quality food, then I can’t fault them. And, if this is true for the restaurants, should we not also wonder if we should look at the food press the same way? We know that print media is in trouble. We know that
    demographics are shifting. We know that advertisers value young audiences to old ones for valid reasons. While neither of us likes the new direction, does this mean that BA shouldn’t make a shift to cater to it? While this means that you may decide to cancel your subscription, isn’t this the food equivalent of saying, “That band was really cool until they sold out and became really popular?”

    We can certainly heap scorn at the unwashed masses who line up at warehouse cum bodegas to get their organic gluten-free kale pizza slices, but while this particular generation is looking for different silly things in their dining experiences, is it really any different than any previous generation? Are the percentages of youngsters who end up discovering Le Bernardin now much different than how many discovered it in the 70s? If not, then why are we so worried about this generation, except to note that their silliness is different than ours was/is?

    Okay, so BA’s restaurant ratings may no longer be any more useful to either of us than those in NASCAR Illustrated. We may find that a little sad, and we may bemoan that more people don’t agree with what we like about restaurants, and we may choose to try to educate others that “good lighting” doesn’t make a mediocre $22 pasta dish a better deal than a high quality $15 pasta dish lit by a guy with a flashlight, but that’s not BA’s fault, and criticism of a generation’s tastes is different from criticism of the direction of the food industry which is different than criticism of BA’s editorial direction. Without knowing a lot more about BA’s P&L statement and what their market analysis is telling them I can’t criticize them for making this change.

  8. We are seeing exactly the same thing in Australia. I’m not sure here if it is the marketing dollar pandering to a certain demographic or if it is a combination of the restaurant industry’s constant desire to be doing something new and hip and the fact that the media is utterly uncritical.

    So many ‘lists’ and ‘awards’ are actually paid for (if nothing else, you need to pay to enter), and they end up being almost identical.

    I understand that margins in the restaurant industry are tight and that people, rightly, do market research. I just wish that the journalists writing the reviews actually approached their work with a critical hat on.

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