Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Back in the days
Old isn't always better... I'm not one of those dudes that likes retro just cause it's retro. I've just never taken to New American or Modern. I have nothing personal against the genre, it just doesn't resonate with me. I think it's great people will pay $9 for asparagus or white beans but I never will. I'm loyal to the neighborhood institutions serving classic food on white oval plates and paper napkins. From the 20 Shuttered Restaurants to NYC's 15 Most Beloved Old Timer Joints , there is a genuine effort by Eater recently to shine a light on the spots that hold us down. There's a major shift going on and the mainstays are disappearing at an alarming rate. It's nothing new, but I bring it up because there's something we can do about it.
These days, we have a lot of Chefs opening spots that masquerade as "neighborhood restaurants". Correct me if I'm wrong, I don't believe truly neighborhood joints Jin Fong or Ess-a-bagel had publicists when they opened. A lot of Chefs see a market in opening $25 and Under restaurants, neighborhood joints, and the idea is to blow people away with their refined technique on old time classics. It's cool, but it's not real. Every one of these guys would rather open a place with 100+ seats, all clad pans, and a cVap. You can't turn a ho into a house wife, she gon want what she wants and you can't do shit about it.
I don't want anyone to fuck with my spaghetti and meatballs. They've been fine for 29 years and 363 days of my life thank you very much. I don't need some asshole to come around and put goji berries in them. Some people obviously like modern neighborhood restaurants flipping the classics, but I don't. The one group of guys who aren't 100 years old but still nail it creating a neighborhood restaurant serving the food they grew up on are the Frankies who own 17 Clinton, Prime Meats, etc. If you told me that restaurant was handed down over 5 generations with the recipes intact, I'd believe you. I don't think people should "copy" them either. The only thing you should be "copying" is that they genuinely have a passion for what they do and what they want to say. If you don't have that, don't get in the business.
For the record, I don't know those guys, I've never met them, and anything I say is just love. Ditto to the dudes at Parm and Torissi. Slightly expensive, but it's always executed at a high level, quality never fluctuates, nobody's trying to reinvent the wheel and service is great. You get what you pay for: good, classic, food that translates across generations. I love how they break things out like the Saratoga, gardiniera, the shitty wood salad bowls. It's not ironic, it's not gimmicky, they're just things the guys like and grew up with. Then you have Shopsin's which is also not 100 years old, but most definitely the quintessential New York neighborhood restaurant. The family is there every day pouring over the food, defending their institution, kicking out all the scum that doesn't deserve to patronize it. They are the patron saints of New York's food scene and I love them. Anyone who disagrees simply doesn't understand what restaurants are about.
At Baohaus, we don't look like a neighborhood restaurant your grandparents went to. Our goal and our story is that we wanted to open a youth cultural street food restaurant in the spirit of In-n-Out Burger or The Original in Pittsburgh. You won't see things from your parents' era, but you will hear music and encounter lyrics from your childhood. Some people may not like that the bathroom is tagged up or the rag tag Kevin Johnson poster, but the people we wanted to reach get it. We capture the 90s through Taiwanese street food because that was my childhood. My point in picking out these "newer" neighborhood restaurants is to say that I don't think people miss these institutions that are shuttering simply because they're old.
We miss them because they were real. They had a soul, a mind, and a personality that wasn't calculated or researched; it just was. In the ad or design world, people always hate it when something's on-the-nose so they try to use found objects, weathered materials, purposely damaged goods. I appreciate the effort, but it doesn't cut it. No matter how much you pay a copyrighter or interior designer, you can't buy a soul. You either have a story to tell or you don't. You should live and breathe your concept. It can't be something you thought of last year and dedicated 6 months to figure out. I waited 28 years to open Baohaus, I'm sure Kenny and the Frankie's waited even longer. Restaurant 2 and 3 also need to come from a real place, not a 3 month study abroad trip (for the record: Andy Ricker basically LIVES in Thailand... he's real.) As consumers, we should just make sure to support the places that are offering an honest experience. The next time you want to go out for Italian, take the trek to Mario's in the Bronx or John's on 12th St. It's unacceptable that John's is empty some nights and the only people in the dining room are two kids that look like they just got out of Kung Fu School: Kenzo Digital and I.
I wish people just knew better and already went to these places but they don't. Most people you meet are scouring yelp or menu pages to find the next big opening. I still take the train to random neighborhoods and collect menus on foot then go back over successive weekends to eat my way through. If we don't support and patronize these off the radar places, they'll disappear. Just like we make an effort to turn off the lights, water, and recycle, we should consciously and routinely support neighborhood restaurants. I'm not kidding, at this point, with gentrification rampant, it's necessary. I don't care if credit card liberals will use friday dinner at Ping's as a cocktail conversation piece to brag about. The world is so full of politically dumb, deaf, and blind people that I'm really asking them to spend money at honest restaurants and I'll consider it a public service.
Please, please, please just keep these places alive. It's another post in itself that I'll write, but restaurants are important in the community as a gathering place. I'm positive that revolutions were started over Cuban sandwiches and Puerto Rican coffee. We have to preserve the joints where we can scheme, plan, and devise the next take over. I don't care if it means corny white people coming in and ordering house special fried rice. You support our restaurants and we'll give you the next Che Guevara while I eat this wonton noodle soup.