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Dinner Musings

Acclaimed Author and Critic Stephen Bayley Hails the Sophistication of No-Frills Eating

As 2013 kicks off a proliferation of new gastronomic trends, the question is not simply where to dine, but how to dine—and British design critic and cultural commentator Stephen Bayley responds with a personal morsel of culinary philosophy written exclusively for NOWNESS. One of the UK’s most authoritative voices on contemporary aesthetics, Bayley is a Contributing Editor at GQ and has authored more than a dozen books including Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things, Sex: A Cultural History, A Dictionary of Idiocy, and his latest release, Ugly: The Aesthetics Of Everything. As a food-and-wine enthusiast he also appears regularly in Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, and The Daily Telegraph. His thoughts on the future of dining are here accompanied by an illustration courtesy of Toronto-based Frank Viva, who regularly drafts covers for The New Yorker:

Dinner Musings:

“Restaurant” is an idea whose time has gone. But it has had a good run since the concept of serving food to complete strangers emerged just after the French Revolution, when chefs dispossessed of their roles in country houses looked for work in Paris. Only people with severe psychological problems nowadays want fawning service by paramilitary regiments of liveried flunkies and all the preposterous cloche-lifting and crumb-sweeping and bowing and scraping that go with it.

The more sophisticated you are, the less likely you are to want the faux-sophistication of a traditional restaurant. You will prefer a dive, a burger stand, a bodega, a bacaro, a cervezeria or a winkle stall. Obviously, no one wants to eat filth, but style and success in the matter of eating out are matters of social competition and cultural modeling, not gastronomy or nutrition.

Thus, Russell Norman’s Polpo formula is exactly right for the tenor of the times. The Beak Street, London, HQ has been roaring since it opened three years ago. The food is cleverly conceived, but, to be honest, a bit erratic in its execution. Service is charming, but hopeless. And I always go back. That Russell Norman came from a family involved in architectural salvage and once taught drama are significant. The Polpo interior is high-concept crud, but achieves an intimate theatricality, which is endlessly attractive. It doesn’t feel like a laboratory. It feels like a party.

And no one except insiders knows who cooks at Polpo. This is exceptionally clever because the suggestion, quite correctly, is that the restaurant as a whole is much more important than the sun-dried ego of the annoying big-head chef. If Polpo’s chef walks, who’s to care? The menu is a reliable formula, which any semi-competent could replicate. It’s the ordinary thing extraordinarily well done.

This is what I want to see more of this year: the higher ordinariness. Less fuss. In food as in all things, simple is not the same as commonplace.

As the novel and biographies tend to decline, so travel and cookbooks are in ascent. There’s a fundamental link between the two genres. At a silly level, people buy books about places they never intend to visit (I recently bought a 50s classic about eastern Afghanistan) and books about food they never intend to cook (I have one example of preposterous French ambition with a recipe calling for five liters of veal stock and two of single cream).

But, more interestingly, food and travel, especially food and travel literature, are about journeys. Real or conceptual, it doesn’t matter. As Picasso said, if it can be imagined, it’s real.

So it is with restaurants. Eating out is an invitation to a voyage. You don’t get fed, you get transported. I only ever eat the cooking of places I want to visit. I only drink wine made in places I want to be. Yes, of course, I know about the excellent wines coming out of New Zealand. But I want to pull the cork on a dark red fantasy about a sun-baked cabanon in the Minervois with Laetitia Casta expected for lunch. I don’t want to unscrew the top and release a Sauvignon Blanc nightmare about sheep-farmers in knee socks, creaking Land Rovers and bungalows.

On the small Soho street where I have my office I can go to a Seville bodega, a US Interstate Diner, a noodle shop resembling the canteen of Nanking Technical University, a New Zealand dive bar and a barbecue pit that would look at home in West Texas. Never mind what you actually eat and drink, these premises are mind-altering substances.

Yes, this sort of architectural fantasy threatens to become kitsch, but if kitsch involves appropriation, collages, quotations, reflections, echoes, pastiche, fakery, charlatanism and ventriloquism, then kitsch is very interesting.  In this interpretation, Venice, Paris, London and Rome are kitsch. Turns out, it suits me very well.

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Conversations (2)

  • M Evans
    Good article, but not sure I completely agree.. Russell's places are visually a work of genius, but go to Spuntino on a Mon-Tuesday lunch these days and you'll find it half empty, as you often will with the Smithfield Polpo. The thing is, people end up getting sick of style over substance, and the non-booking arrogance, shoddy service and frankly steep prices are the substance Mr Norman needs to work on here. Call it 'fawning service' but the 'luxury' of being able to relax knowing exactly when I'm dining with friends, and someone making the experience flow effortlessly is just as important to me than being in some kind of retro fantasy land. Let's hope these upmarket themed restaurants are not the future.
  • mondi
    Brilliant writing, masterful and vivid! An obscure angle on the subject, but so true. Makes me happy that there are more people out there looking at life from here.
    • Posted By mondi
    • January 14, 2013 at 4:21AM
    • Share Comment:

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