I have evolved.
I am no longer the avid food lover that I was in 1977 when I started consuming Julia Child and James Beard cookbooks wholesale.
I am not the insatiable gourmand I was from 1981-1990 when I ate my way through Southern California, Chicago, and New York City at every opportunity.
And no longer am I the intrepid gastronome of 1994-2012, when I considered it my sacred duty to dutifully report on everything and anything happening in the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene.
Things have changed and I have changed.
The Las Vegas Strip is no longer the revolutionary force is was from 1995-2010 — when it single-handedly invented the idea of the modern day, globe-trotting “celebrity chef” by giving burgeoning brands like Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Jean-George Vongerichten, Joël Robuchon and Michael Mina a platform to rake in mountains of cash while expanding their businesses.
I am no longer fascinated by every new opening, nor am I enthralled (as I used to be) by whatever menu delights were being trotted out by Hubert Keller, Scott Conant or Mario Batali.
And as much as I love my frogs and my frog ponds, the seasonal changes at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon are met with more of a yawn these days than a hip-hip-hooray.
(These days, I pop in about once a year just to re-affirm what I already know: that our top flight French remain some of the finest restaurants in the world.)
Restaurants, I’ve come to conclude, are a lot like lovers. Remember the tingle of excitement that always precedes your first time with someone? The sense of exploration? The desire to consume them wholesale? It’s that anticipation and the unknown that makes them so fascinating. You’re anxious; they’re anxious; everyone’s anxious and no one knows what to expect. That’s why it’s so much fucking fun!
Or can be. New sex with someone can also be a disaster…especially when one side doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain. (For those in need of a primer on the subject, there are only two things you need to have great sex with someone: gratitude and enthusiasm.)
Or maybe you just lose interest much too quickly, or the whole thing was a gigantic let down. That happens a lot too.
The point is, going to a new restaurant, like getting newly naked with someone, is exciting because of the unknown. Once you become familiar with each other, you can still enjoy yourselves, but you do so in a deeper, more relaxed sort of way. And no matter how good you are at the process (and how much you love each other), sometimes, one of you can get bored.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think I’m tired of fucking the restaurants of Las Vegas.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love them. But it does mean I don’t get a woody at the thought of diving deep (or sticking my tongue) into the damp, juicy folds of their flesh anymore.
Even worse, it seems I’ve become immune to foreplay.
Flash your cleavage at me (in the form of fancy decor as décolletage) and nothing happens. Tongue my ear and you’ll get a ho-hum.
Give me a hummer of a hamburger and I’m hard-pressed to press the flesh.
Cheap and easy (comps/free food) doesn’t work on me anymore either (as if they ever did), and neither does mysterious and exclusive. (There may be some nimrods out there who are impressed by what fellow nimrods Bourdain and Chang have to say, but yours truly got over listening to the boring drivel of inarticulate chefs many years ago. And when I see a press release trumpeting some “exclusive” event with Chef Morimoto, I just scoff.)
Drugs don’t work either. Ply me with grower champagne or grand cru Burgundy and Mr. Happy remains as limp as a wet biscuit. Titillate my taste buds with truffles and my mood remains tepid.
I used to think of foie gras as the fellatio of fine food — something it would be impossible to forgo. Now I wave it off like a weary sultan dismissing the nubile delights of his harem.
Could anything be more concupiscent than caviar? One would think. But after consuming copious amounts of it, I have become immune to its charms.
Szechuan I used to consider salaciously salubrious; now I think of it as so-so.
Korean used to captivate; dim sum used to delight; now I deign them both barely desirable.
20,000 restaurant meals over 40 years in 16 different countries will do that to you.
Is there a cure?
Yes and no.
Some things there is no going back to.
The whole “celebrity chef” thing is so played-out that I’m callous to whatever they’re selling. It would be hard for me to ever getting excited again about someone’s 38th restaurant, or whatever concept Caesars Palace wants to slap Gordon Ramsay’s name on. The Giadas and Fieris of the world are exploiting their brand, and that’s it. They barely give a shit about the food, and their credulous public barely does either. Like a low-rent stripper shilling for a lap dance, the product doesn’t have to be great, it simply has to be is good enough to separate you from your cash.
It’s sad for me in a way, because I remember the excitement of 1998-2009, when so many “name” chefs opened their stores here and turned our humble burg from The Town That Taste Forgot into a world-class dining destination. But those days are long gone, and now our legacy has devolved into being the launching pad (or just another venue) for corporate brands (hello Slanted Door!), not the incubator of big deal dining.
Soooo, as with middle-aged sex, I’m going to pick my spots. With no longer the interest nor the energy for marathon orgies of eating. At this point, I won’t be looking for comfort every night of the week. Instead, I’ll be looking for meaningful experiences with worthwhile consorts, not the promiscuous joys of conquest through conspicuous consumption.
Proving what a stud you are is a young man’s game. The rampant devouring of the pleasures of the flesh is a lot of fun when you have the time, the curiosity and the energy.
Like all young men, quantity used to trump quality, which is okay when you’re 20, or 30, or 40. Then, it’s all about ego and belt-notching. What’s important in your youth is whether you scored, whether you can say you’ve been there. (When I see Instagrammers clamoring to be the first to post about whatever shiny new object is plated before them, I see myself twenty years ago.) But those delights are ephemeral, fleeting, and ultimately self-defeating. Now, as an experienced epicure I know just what I’m looking for, and it takes a lot more than a pretty face and a pair of tits to keep me interested.
What you seek as an older man — in sex and food — is substance and style. Combine them both and you have my attention.
Show me some real passion, some creativity, and some actual interest, and I’m yours for life.
There are too many restaurants.
Thanks to your endless greed, unbridled avarice, and insatiable appetite for growth, you’ve allowed fast food and fast-casual food and shitty sandwiches, and pathetic pizza and faux kountry kitchens to dominate our our lives until you can barely see anything else when you drive around any town in the U.S. of A.
It wasn’t always so. Indeed, when McDonald’s first blossomed as a fast food phenomenon, it was something of a novelty. I remember my first McDonald’s burger (somewhere around Tampa, FL, sometime in the early 60s) and it was quite a revelation, as well as being a damn good (if small) hamburger. Something about that slightly sweet bun and the pickles and the properly seasoned ground meat was very exciting to a 10 year old. The idea of drive-in burger joints was just taking hold in America, and the whole family, from mom and dad on down was excited.
Fast forward five years and drive-ins were becoming more common (Frisch’s Big Boy, A&W, and Steak ‘n Shake were particular favorites) and Mom used them every so often to relieve the stress of home-cooked meals. Like Roger Ebert, I remember the counter-men at Steak ‘n Shake smashing the burgers down on the griddle and getting that crusty char on the exterior that no other fast-food burger could match. My mother was particularly fond of the open kitchen and how clean they were. I can still hear her saying, “I love that you can watch them prepare the food so you know everything is spic and span.” She loved the cleanliness, I loved the burgers, and my dad loved the chili. “A chili 4 ways (with beans, meat, onions and cheese), and a cup of chili,” he would always say, as my mother scowled her disapproval at his overeating. Me, I was content with a burger with two thin, dill pickles on it. Somehow, to a 12 year old, nothing tasted better than those dill pickle slices on that squishy, flattened, crispy burger.
When a McDonald’s opened in Hillsboro Village near the Vanderbilt campus (in Nashville, TN) in the early 70s, it was still a big deal. I still remember a bunch of frat brothers piling into my Fiat 128 to load up on burgers and fries that were still considered very cool when they came to your town. Then and now, I still think McDonald’s fries are world-class.
But even as far back as 40 years ago, the underpinnings of what made these places great was being undermined. And the culprit was simple greed — the quest for money — being sought after by, at first, the franchisees, and eventually by stock market investors demanding bigger and bigger returns on their capital. With the quest for expansion came the need for standardization, and when you seek to standardize anything as organic and intimate as food, quality suffers. Indeed, quality becomes the diametric opponent of quantity as the quest to create more and more becomes the enemy of making something well.
If you haven’t seen the Michael Keaton movie “The Founder” — about the “founding” of McDonald’s — you should. Anyone who’s ever eaten at a franchised restaurant should see the phenomenon that started it all. Of course, there were regional, franchised fast-food operations before Mickey D’s, but its footprint was too big to ignore, and the big money boys (i.e., the stock market) took notice. By the time McDonald’s went public in 1965, everyone wanted in on the action.
The McDonald brothers may have been appalled, but Ray Kroc knew what he was doing. Reduce everything to the quickest, fastest, lowest common denominator that people will pay for, implement economies of scale, employ sorcerer/scientists to trick our brains into liking the taste of chemicals, and the world will beat a path to your door.
My favorite scene in the movie is when Kroc presents his powdered milk shake mix to the brothers McD. “But it’s called a MILK shake for a reason!” one of them shrieks (unable to hide his disgust). Kroc is undaunted by his partners’ reticence. All he’s thinking about is how much money they’ll save by not having to stock so much perishable food — like milk, cream, ice cream — you know, the things that make milk shakes taste good.
And therein lies all you need to know about fast food.
This hyperbolic, exponential growth has been assisted by the fact that there are 120 million more people in America today than when I was growing up. All those mouths need feeding, and once you convince the hoi polloi that they can eat cheaper with your product (whether or not it is true), you’ve got them by the throat so to speak, and letting go would be tantamount to telling a venture capitalist he ought to enjoy taking the bus. And once you get the soy and sugar conglomerates on board with what you’re doing, there’s no end to the money that can be made.
Franchised food is a voracious beast that eats everything in its path. And it’s not only with assembly line methods, standardization, and simple flavor manipulation that this industry destroys the quality of our lives. A simple knowledge of how real estate works demonstrates how this industry has ruined our neighborhoods by financing unholy alliances between the corporate conglomerates and real estate developers. Throw in developer-financed politicians (always ready to endorse another big-box project in the name of “growth’) and you have a recipe for suburban blight (see picture at top of page).
This suburban wasteland of fast food is everywhere now. I go back to the Atlanta area frequently to visit family, and if anything, it’s worse there than it is in Las Vegas. Every interstate interchange has dozens of franchises on it. Suburban roads go on for miles with an endless chain of TGIFridays, Buca di Beppos, Taco Bells and Olive Gardens on them. These top 500 chains just scratch the surface. So ubiquitous has chain restaurant eating become that in some towns, a real restaurant is harder to find than a Mormon bishop at a Balvenie tasting.
It’s gotten so bad that one local restaurateur was telling me about a business model that is built around finding second and third-tier failed franchise spaces with either fourth-tier franchises (usually a Sizzler), or the dreaded Asian buffets – AYCE Asian food being the last stop on the shitty restaurant train. “The Asian buffets have staying power,” he told me, and landlords prefer them to anything local; “They pay in cash and they pay on time; (small, local restaurants are) just too risky.”
For local proof, look no further than the blight of Eastern Ave. in southeast Las Vegas/Henderson. For five miles, you have giant commercial subdivisions/strip malls on both sides of the street, each crammed with more retail space (and restaurants) than is healthy or necessary for any quality of life. Each center boasts big box stores (Home Depot, Payless, Walmart, etc.) which sit like a great white whale around which various pilot fish (CVS, Starbucks, Five Guys, etc.) swim.
There is no individuality to these stores; there is no sense of community. They exist solely to take your money as fast as possible at the lowest overhead they can get away with. If Fuddrucker’s are remoras, then locally-owned eateries are truly the bottom feeders, scurrying about, opening and closing while trying to scrounge a living off other’s leftovers.
Don’t believe us? Spend five minutes driving around the Sansone Park Place Plaza at 9500 South Eastern Ave. It stretches for at least a quarter mile, in which are over twenty place to eat. There are chain restaurants aplenty, and more nail salons, postal services, and dentist’s offices than you need for five miles. No need to go very far for anything, though, because right across the street is a similar center — with its own set of burger joints and dry cleaners — for those who only want to make right turns when they drive.
What you see above is but a corner of the place. Leaving aside the abject ugliness of these malls for a moment, one must also consider the toxic environment they create for good eating. How is a place like Boteco to compete with everything from a Zupas to Einstein Bagels to Red Mangos? What chance does a local pizzeria have against the onslaught of Grimaldi’s and Dominoes? When faced with competition from BJ’s and Twin Peaks (for those who like their bjs with a side of twin peaks), what chance does a local brewpub have? (In case you didn’t know, there is both a Twin Peaks and a BJ’s in this mall, and they’re right next door to each other! And they’re both busy. All. The. Time.)
The answer is obvious. You would have to be a fool to try to bring good food to a population weaned on cheap, easy proteins and chemically-engineered calories. Only an idiot would try to raise the bar while fighting with landlords who don’t want them and a public that prefers the advertised to the authentic.
As much as I love them, local restaurateurs are but an unsightly wart on the smooth economic skin of Las Vegas. Substance is in short supply in our humble burg, and our eating out landscape is but a facade that favors the familiar and the false over the fresh and the flavorful. For every one of them, there are dozens of Buffalo Wild Wings and Farmer Boys ready to take their place. And 80% of the eating out population wouldn’t have it any other way.
Back in the day I was right there with them. For my first real date with a real live girl (Syndie Ridge….schwing!…if you’re still out there…), we went to Arby’s. They carved the meat right off a haunch of medium rare roast beef and put in on a fresh bun and the sauce tasted like real horseradish and I thought I was in hog heaven. The meat on an Arby’s sandwich these days looks and tastes like a piece of wet cardboard. They haven’t used real roast beef in over 30 years, and yet they’re still in business.
We have made a deal with the devil when it comes to what we eat in America.
There are too many restaurants all right, and they’re all the wrong kind.