Sunday, September 14, 2008

Concept vs. Conceptual: An Analysis

Before I dive into what will surely be a dry and whimsical observational discussion peppered with profanity and/or sexual allusions, I must pour a little out for the late David Foster Wallace.

I haven't read Infinite Jest, and probably won't as my patience with novels ends at about the 300 page mark, but I've read much of The Girl with Curious Hair and am a big fan of Wallace's reporting and essays.

I guess as a writer I like to think that the madness and brilliance of those I admire is something crafted, reasoned, and assembled on the page. Yet what should just be the literary artifice of a master craftsman is so often revealed (at least in part) to be the shouts in the dark of a tortured mind.

That was far too serious, wasn't it?

Moving on....

I'm not going to say this is an uniquely LA problem with restaurants, but it's definitely most clearly manifested in Los Angeles. The restaurant with a concept versus the conceptual restaurant.

Every successful restaurant has a concept. Hell, every successful THING has a concept, whether that thing is an electric sports car with a practical range, gimmicky frozen "yogurt," or a tv show about philandering ad executives in the 1960's.

If you don't have a healthy concept you're doomed to failure. Bacaro is a Venetian-styled wine bar. Ford's Filling Station is a gastropub for the power lunching set. Bar Pintxo is, well, a bar that serves pintxos.

Restaurants run into trouble when the conceptual aspect of the restaurant is the master of the restaurant aspect of the restaurant. All concept no execution can be a restaurant's greatest failing.

I ate recently at South on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. Everything about how that restaurant/bar markets itself iis "southern" themed. They force all sorts of kitschy southern lingo and references on you, yet you step inside and all you get is another characterless douche-y Brentwood bar. And the chicken and waffle sliders (a concept I loved) ended right at the conceptual. Dry, flavorless fried chicken between a pair of serviceable mini-waffles served with syrup and "gravy" on the side. Lame.

Fraiche conceptualizes itself as an organic Cal-Cuisine haven when in fact it's just another uninspired expense-account draining lunch spot.

And then there's Table 8 which declares itself to be a celebrity chef-driven trendsetter despite having a chef that nobody really cares about, a menu steeped in overplayed drivel, and a strong reputation for not paying their bills. I mean seriously, I keep pretty close tabs on the food world and Govind Armstrong is a legend purely in his own mind.

Conceptual restaurants, like conceptual art, are best enjoyed while stoned and wearing a beret. Maybe then I can come to understand why I'm privileged to bay $16 for a shitty hamburger or $12 for a glass of grocery store wine simply because it's served on a plate once owned by Richard Pryor or wrapped in a map of Armenian brothels.

A good concept can (and probably should) be as simple as "a comfortable place to eat good fresh food and enjoy well-priced wine" or "a neighborhood pizzeria offering an alternative to delivery chains" or even "mediocre vegetarian food served by Hare Krishnas." These are all solid concepts that often yield successful restaurants

But here on the spendfree shores of Los Angeles everybody needs to stick their finger in the pie, so we end up with places like Rush Street Grill, which has the concept of "Chicago," yet with no fat poorly facial-haired cab drivers in Bears jerseys to be found, or Gyenari whose concept is basically "Koren bbq for a lot money."

If you spend all your money on bells and whistles to the neglect of the actual food, you might find that people will stop coming back. But I don't know how true that holds in Los Angeles where people will spend incomprehensible amounts of money just to be seen in the right place.

Everything else is secondary.

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