Burritoed up, BBQ-ed down and all steaked out

Considering that we’ve spent the past year rolling in the slough of muddy awfulness at the bottom of a recession, it’s been an incredible year for restaurants. The rate of new openings seems to have risen and hardly a fortnight passes without another fanfare of PR trumpets.

With a few exceptions, these messages have been about yet another joint selling steak, burgers, some species of barbecued pork, fried chicken or burrito – the kind of meat-heavy, comfort-inducing, carb-loaded neo-junk that some with tongues not too far into their cheeks have named “dude food”.

This was the year when the dude food wave reached its towering greasy crest – engulfing London, New York, Los Angeles and any conurbation large enough to support a population of men in low-slung jeans and ironic facial hair – and many hope that by this time next year it will have crashed into a sour, dyspeptic eddy. Dude food is an international phenomenon but what does it mean and, perhaps more importantly, where is it going?

The tag implies that there’s something gendered about this new food movement and that might be true. You could describe the food renaissance as a general increase in interest, but a glance at the media, at the people at the next table in the restaurant and the conversation around your dinner table reveals a different truth. Perhaps the biggest demographic change has been a doubling of the audience as food has become relevant to men. Those shouty male chefs on the telly, the “Masterchef effect” of turning food into a competition of nerd-friendly technique; Jamie Oliver’s latest show – a kind of Top Gear with chips – all point to an increased blokeing of food. Our fathers’ generation didn’t mind as long as dinner was on the table – now we’re more likely to talk about the constituents of our favourite tea than our favourite team.

It’s an interesting theory, but I’m not convinced. These places are staying in business and it’s not just gangs of lagered lads or vaguely threatening posses of City types keeping them afloat. Women in substantial numbers are eating this stuff too.

One could posit that dude food was a response to recession. The recipes, mainly from poorer parts of the Americas, are cheap on ingredients, heavy on fortifying fats and carbs. They cheer and strengthen at minimal cost. After dropping his last dime on a good burger, a man down on his luck could just feel strong enough to face another three days of cutting cotton, hopping railroad cars or typing stream-of-consciousness novels. It’s a pleasing idea – though one that’s somewhat undermined when the burger is flipped by a chef, made from sustainably raised, individually named cows and priced at roughly four times a sharecropper’s monthly take-home pay.

Sarcasm aside, it’s an interesting question why the restaurant scene has skewed towards the transatlantic. I suspect it meets a specific need in British food culture. If we think about existing models for democratic, reasonably priced and informal dining, we usually end up in America, which found ways to feed everyone without bankrupting or socially humiliating them. We Brits want this democratic dining but can’t square it with a tradition that veers towards napery and fishknives or cod, chips, pie and mash.

This situation has a historical precedent. In the late 1960s, the emerging “classless” generation of admen, photographers and models wanted an alternative to stuffy, mannered dining. That desire spawned the trattoria craze. In 1959, Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla, waiters at the Mirabelle, opened La Terrazza in Soho, which became the place to be seen for the Swinging Set. In following years, staff set up on their own and others joined the bandwagon. Designer Enzo Apicella gave the restaurants a look of whitewashed walls and atmospheric downlighting. Friendly waiters, affordable peasant food and booze in carafes ensured it was definitely not dinner at the Connaught with your mum and dad.

In Alasdair Scott Sutherland’s The Spaghetti Tree (Primavera Books, 2009), an amazingly detailed history of the period, Alastair Little says: “The Trattoria Revolution was the biggest leap forward in Britain’s culinary development since Escoffier.”

The trattoria boom, over the decade it lasted, was a similar success of a non-indigenous food trend to dude food and it left us with Pizza Express, “spag bol” as a near-national dish and Sir Terence Conran, who saw what was happening over the checked tablecloths.

I hope the dude food wave is breaking. I’m burritoed up, BBQed down and steaked out. I don’t think we can see with any clarity what will replace dude food, but our urgent need for relaxed, fun, informal dining will be met and I’m hoping it can be with something self-assured and homegrown. Gourmet pie and mash anyone?

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