It’s a dining concept by mattsteinglass
February 26, 2009, 9:07 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Tangentially to this topic of preciousness and elitism in the discussion of food, raised by Tom Lee and seconded by Matthew Yglesias: the thing I’ve been reacting to lately is less preciousness in talking about food than MBA or management-buzzword language in talking about restaurants. Early this month I took a tour around the soon-to-be-completed Sheraton Nha Trang, a 30-story shwoop of a building with an inverted-cone multimillion-dollar penthouse duplex on top, and the very nice guy who was explaining what they planned to install in the as-yet-empty concrete spaces kept talking about each of the restaurants as “concepts”. On one floor there would be a lot of freestanding buffet stations; this was a “multiethnic buffet concept” or something. Overlooking the lobby was a wine bar and lounge; this was a “vintage and social concept”, or whatever. Each one had an attached brand, of course, which would be replicated throughout the Sheraton system in East or Southeast Asia. It was all revolting. I have no interest in being served food by concepts. I like restaurants, cafes, bars, buffets, and lounges, and I am pretty sure these terms suffice to describe any kind of place in which you can be served food and drinks for money while socializing or reading a book.

Similarly, last night I met somebody, also a nice guy, who’s been in the restaurant biz in the US and is thinking about setting up a restaurant in Hanoi. I can’t reproduce the terminology he used to describe the type of restaurant he was interested in establishing, but its flavor was something like this: neighborhood-oriented with a strong menu focus, not chef-driven… I’m not doing justice to the molded-plastic quality of the language he was using. The thing was that as you heard the words, you pictured them emerging from the mouth of the star speaker at an industry conference, bullet-pointed on the PowerPoint presentation behind his head. It was an unbelievable turn-off; nothing could make me less eager to eat out. The restaurant was a product produced as a commercial joint venture between a set of collaborating specialty corporations: you envisioned a market research firm, a real estate boutique, an interior/exterior designer, a kitchen outfitting contractor, a branding and marketing/PR company, a human resources outfit specialized in food prep and waitstaff, and lastly some company that figures out what the food is going to be. In the US, this entrepreneur’s company had generally hired a “menu designer” for that last task.

The good thing about this guy was that having run through all this industry-conference terminology, he then noted that the best dining experience you get in Hanoi in terms of your interaction with the people making and serving the food and with the food itself is to eat street food while sitting on a tiny plastic stool at a sidewalk stall. He’s completely right about that. Sidewalk pho stalls have all of these aspects that people spend a million bucks trying to recreate in expensive restaurants. You can see the chef! She’s making the food right in front of you, with fresh ingredients! The thing is, why then would you want to go to an expensive restaurant? A sidewalk bowl of pho costs about a dollar. And it’s delicious.


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At my university, we have 10 or 15 Pho places on one street, and I agree; it’s delicious.

Comment by jsalvati

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