Sky Full of Bacon

Underground to Who?

There’s a new smackdown on the underground dining thing, by Steve Dolinsky. He attended a Rabbit Hole dinner and was unimpressed:

Our third course, a homemade pappardelle with fresh ricotta was just plain boring. It needed lemon juice to brighten it up, as well as salt and pepper; there was allegedly some marrow in the sauce, but we couldn’t detect any; the pasta – while clearly hand-formed – was gummy and not exceptionally pleasing.

Read it all, but that pretty much sets the tone.

What floored me about this was the price: he spent about $200 for himself and his wife. As Dolinsky rightly observes, “after you drop $170 plus $30 tip… you then realize that for $200 you could have had a killer meal at one of any number of great places – Naha, Topolo, Avec, Blackbird, North Pond, etc.”

Price, of course, isn’t the only consideration here. But to me it’s a pretty good indicator that the underground restaurant movement isn’t underground in any way that really matters. In theater, say, something like this might be young people starting out, putting on work that’s too daring or experimental to make it with a downtown audience, performing in a dilapidated space in an edgy neighborhood, and charging low prices because it’s not about money and charging low prices gives you a certain freedom that higher prices would constrict.

But these underground dinners are like somebody finding the dilapidated space in the edgy neighborhood– and then charging $85 per seat for an illegal performance of The Lion King. They use an underground atmosphere to cover the fact that they’re trying to serve a Blackbird-level meal at a Blackbird-level price without the costly support system of Blackbird. If you could pull it off, it would probably be pretty lucrative. But they often seem not to pull it off, and so you wind up with a sub-Blackbird experience at the full Blackbird price, The Lion King in cheap Halloween costumes.

To me, the underground dining experience can only be justified one of two ways. One, is at a price that absorbs some of the diner’s risk. At $50, I’m game for adventure, at $100, it almost seems an insult to a city full of fine, hardworking restaurants to spend my money instead on some amateur who gets to evade many of their fixed costs, yet presumes herself in their company. Some of the caterers who’ve gone on to open restaurants have done this, such as Bonsoiree, at such modest prices, and it’s a reasonable path for getting feedback, practice, etc. in anticipation of opening a place or simply being a better caterer. That’s cool.

Two, is by being underground in some manner more meaningful than simply not paying the city a license fee. People put on Beckett or Dario Fo or, in their early days, Mamet or Letts in some ratty storefront, because it represented an alternative to big commercial theater. But what’s underground dining being alternative to— rigid bourgeois notions of how rickety your table should be? The dinner I attended was all full of talk about stuff coming straight from the farmer (who was present) to the table. Great, I’m all for it and more of it, but every week I eat at some place that’s touting its Gunthorp chickens and its Dietzler beef and so on. Not exactly new ground or a challenge to The Man that’s going to flip our dining paradigms. Likewise the kid who was going to introduce people to molecular gastronomy— in the city of Alinea. Our restaurants are already Steppenwolf, you’re not going to wow us by putting on yet another production of American Buffalo.

I could imagine underground dining experiences that would really wow me, but they wouldn’t just be second-tier versions of dinners I can already have. They might be something you can’t get here commercially, like a deeply authentic Southern meal or a Portuguese one or an exotically authentic Asian one, that challenged you to eat things you’d never touch normally. Or they might be more like performance pieces that make us experience food in a manner as much theatrical as culinary, eating and interacting with food in entirely new, provocative ways. I’d love to believe that there’s a space outside the commercial realm for different ways of dining and experiencing food, but I’m largely unsold on the idea that there’s a need outside the commercial realm for a second commercial realm that gets to do the exact same thing but avoid a lot of the entirely reasonable hassles involved, like health inspection and insurance. At the very least, I expect it to try harder than that to justify its positioning as something truly alternative— and that an alternative is needed at this historical moment.

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