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June 3, 2011 9:48 pm

Missed congeniality

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Recently New York’s literati have been mourning the demise of Elaine’s – a restaurant that first became popular in the 1960s and has remained, ever since, a clubhouse for writers, hacks, performers and their hangers-on. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the success of Elaine’s was that, throughout its history, the food remained uniformly dreadful.

In an interview for New York magazine, Elaine’s regular Woody Allen opined, “By keeping the food at a certain low level, everybody went for conversation and meeting people and chatting, and that was the success of the place.” It’s a lovely thought – though we should whisper it so our best chefs won’t overhear us – that sometimes we punters want something other than just excellence of the kitchen. If the atmosphere is right, the food might not matter.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been shown round many newly-built restaurant kitchens either by the starry chef or their gushing PR. These days the kitchen is usually open on one side to the dining room and features vast and expensive induction ranges – there is no live fire. The staff on show are no longer tattooed misfits saved only by their skill with a knife but earnest, clean young stagiaires from all over the world, opening sous-vide pouches and plating beautifully. During actual service the chef – the man or woman you came to see – will be off in a studio somewhere or at a meeting with their agent.

These places are, in fact, exactly what you’d expect to find if you let a chef design his own restaurant: a huge stage for showing off, with hundreds of expensive gadgets and willing acolytes who look like a Benetton ad; a place they can turn up to when they feel like it yet know it’s still earning nicely in their absence; a place that’s bland enough in decor not to frighten the horses or, more importantly, the Michelin inspector.

If, on the other hand, you ask the chef himself, or indeed any restaurant pro, to list their favourite places to eat, I’ll guarantee that for every hallowed gastro-temple, there will be a greasy spoon, an after-work hangout where the staff are as rude as hell and the food is barely edible but the atmosphere is congenial.

For a while now, we’ve been measuring our success as a food-loving nation by our score of high-end restaurants. Sure, we’ve got enough Michelin stars in London now to compete with New York or even Paris but at a cost – soulless, international-beige, starred chop-shops. By letting chefs build these places to their own dream specs we stand to lose something vital.

What makes places like Elaine’s so popular is that they were designed with the punter firmly in mind. Elaine herself was a waitress and lifelong restaurateur. She wanted her kitchen staff out of sight, working hard and keeping the food costs down so she could stand at the front and make sure the customers had a good time. It’s only when places like Elaine’s close down that we’re reminded that there’s another side to the hospitality industry, a side in which, controversially, the food is not always the most important thing in the room.

Tim Hayward is the editor of Fire & Knives; www.fireandknives.com

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