When Money Gets Hungry


Earlier this week, Eater critic Ryan Sutton reviewed a pair of relics from another decade, the big-box restaurants Buddakan and Morimoto. The products of a mid-aughts form of conspicuous consumption, they combined an AstroTurfed nightlife aesthetic with the era’s most garish food and drink — Wagyu beef, truffle everything, Iron Chef, signature ______tinis. Nearly ten years after their opening, Sutton finds them horrifically atavistic:

Why does this restaurant exist? Buddakan, along with the Japanese-themed Morimoto, together Starr’s first forays into New York dining, were born in a different era. Both venues, transplants of their Philadelphia originals, opened in 2006, when New York was riding the tail end of its Second Gilded Age.

And for the time, these restaurants served a purpose. Starr’s critically-acclaimed Buddakan was a hipper, younger, clubbier analogue to older, expensive, white tablecloth venues like Mr. Chow, Indochine, and Shun Lee Palace. And Morimoto, with a $200 tasting counter, was the larger, logical extension of the Nobu 57 model, a sprawling den of aioli-slathered rock shrimp and $150 tastings that received three stars from the New York Times. There was enough room for everyone. Until there wasn’t.

The economy started to tank in 2007. And in the years that followed smart restaurants would adapt to our new spending habits, putting the focus on the chef and the food over the maitre d’ and the creature comforts. The Chang Way started to take hold: leaner, meaner, let’s eat at a noisy bar and charge everyone a little bit less. And diners, fueled by the knowledge of a burgeoning class of bloggers, food writers, and uber-locavores like Rene Redzepi and Dan Barber, started to value regional creativity and authenticity over generic extravagances.

The economy has long since recovered for the kind of person who once regularly dined at places like Morimoto. And while there are pointedly direct descendants in the lineage of clubstaurants that continue to combine slightly higher minded food and drink with a scene, like Beauty & Essex, as these extreme consumers have been allowed to shamelessly re-indulge their sizable appetite for casual decadence, many have developed a taste for something else: taste.

Since the end of the recession, Food Culture has metastasized into something truly monstrous — one could (should?) write an entire piece on its growth, as it has flooded TV programming, absorbed vast amounts of venture capital, captured large swaths of discourse (hello), and even assumed incredible priority in urban re-development — so that for people of a certain level of cultural or financial affluence, a rigorously cultivated knowledge of food and restaurants is now regarded as essential to being a properly worldly human. (Or as Eater and Resy co-founder Ben Leventhal once put it to me*, “It used to be dinner and a show — now dinner is the show.”) This is true even at the highest levels of culture and power: Witness Jay-Z’s semi-public excursions to recognized Good Restaurants like Tertulia and Lucali (and investment in the Spotted Pig), or Obama continually popping up at places like Estela, ABC Kitchen, the NoMad, and Blue Hill. It is not enough to eat black truffles shaved over macaroni in an exclusive den of luxury surrounded by fellow Thought Leaders — the truffles must be carved with grace and precision over celery root braised in a pig’s bladder by Daniel Humm.

The most successful and enthusiastic navigator of this new milieu — indeed, perhaps the first to recognize the new dynamics of post-recession downtown luxury dining — is Major Food Group, the restaurant group of Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalanick. Their original restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialities, which opened in December of 2009, operated in what Sutton might describe as a post-Momofuku mold — highly credentialed chefs offering inspired food in an environment with unadorned service for moderate prices (in the context of finer dining). Torrisi was a lunch counter serving revelatory sandwiches by day, and at night, a nouveau Italian-American restaurant that hawked a multi-course dinner menu for just fifty dollars. In early 2013, Major Food Group debuted Carbone, a throwback to fifties-era Italian-American restaurants whose single most remarkable feature — besides the sub-continent-sized veal parm — were its prices: thirty-eight-dollar scampi, a forty-eight-dollar antipasti tasting (essentially the same cost as an entire dinner at the former Torrisi Italian Specialties), and fifty dollars for the veal parm (now sixty-four dollars). Pointedly though, as Sutton pointed out, “Your $400 date at Carbone doesn’t begin with anything fancy. No caviar, no foie gras.” There is not much in the way of over-the-top decadence, but there is a twenty-one-dollar Caesar salad and it is incredible.

Carbone was the quiet announcement of a new era in downtown dining. Every MFG restaurant since, while producing food that ranges from merely good to astounding, has been designed around maximum capital extraction from their guests: MFG’s next place, ZZ’s Clam Bar, launched a few months later with a bouncer (sorry, “doorman”), twenty-dollar cocktails and ninety-five-dollar tartare. When Dirty French, a “mongrel bistro” opened in late 2014, Pete Wells noted, “swagger and money have been to Torrisi-Carbone-Zalaznick establishments what blinking lights and sitars are to Sixth Street’s Curry Row.” Besides Parm, the group’s attempt at manufacturing a potential chain, MFG’s most affordable restaurant is Santina, which serves lighter, coastal Italian food in a beautiful glass box tucked under the High Line; its prices seemed tuned to be just forgiving enough to entice tourists left ravenous after an elevated walking tour of New York’s most architectually interesting safety deposit boxes. Meanwhile, the original Torrisi, which had been serving a one-hundred-dollar, seven-course tasting menu, closed at the end of 2014 — to be replaced by a far more exclusive and presumably more expensive restaurant — and, wholly unsurprising, Major Food Group has been chosen to take over the former Four Seasons, the city’s most storied buffet for billionaires.

Felix Salmon, a Fusion senior editor and full-time freelance writer, is strongly opposed to the Major Food Group colonization of the Four Seasons. One of his arguments is that the food is beside the point:

In either case, whether the prime attraction is the people or whether it’s the architecture, the restaurant knows better than to try to show off with its food. Is the food at the Four Seasons Italian? Is it French? Is it American? The answer is: nobody really cares. There’s more than enough reason to dine at the Four Seasons already; the last thing it needs is foodies.

This is probably true for the Four Seasons clientele of the past. But Aby Rosen, the landlord, “want[s] to have the guy coming to the Four Seasons who has the ripped jeans and a T-shirt equally as much as you want the guy with the Tom Ford suit… Because the guy with the jeans, I promise you, has a lot more money.” Whether or not the startup founder now has more money than the investors who originally funded his company, he does care about the food, and not because he is a “foodie,” a term that has become as nearly meaningless as “hipster” or “bro,” for nearly the same reasons: The specific, exasperating traits that it once identified have been fully diffused into culture writ large, from the moderately privileged to the exuberantly wealthy. This is why it’s now nearly as annoying to obtain a thoughtfully engineered eight-dollar fried chicken sandwich as it is to get a reservation to eat an eighty-four-dollar chicken for two at the NoMad — and why the big-box restaurant of yore is just a supermassive black hole of money and taste that now only manages to consume the occasional hapless victim.

Photo by Ludovic Bertron

* This quote, which I hastily pulled from memory, was originally attributed to David Chang, but upon reviewing my reporting notes from that piece, while Chang made lengthy comparisons between dining now and a “Broadway show,” it seems that Ben Leventhal uttered that specific phrase. I regret the error!!!