From Spago to Campanile to today: reinventing the American restaurant

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I don’t want to sentimentalize the good old days, because they weren’t good, in many ways – a hierarchy of white men trained in European tradition, at the top, with everyone in dead-end layers below, a setup that stoked the abusive behavior until it ignited with the 2017 headlines on Mario Batali. But if you had dinner at a restaurant before the brand names went up, if you were a regular at a beloved local place, you can remember the importance and uniqueness of an experience. You weren’t part of a pack of anonymous restaurant hunters; you felt in your place.

Of course there was a national star or two, before the chefs got famous, like Julia Child on public television. The French chef, in 1963, but she was an outlier, an American in love with French cuisine and not snobbish about it. Food media? Child and Jacques Pépin, recipes and grocery coupons in the weekly newspaper feed, some magazines.

But in the 1980s, we were ready to meet our makers, and chefs like Wolfgang Puck became as well known as their high-end gourmet palates. An award-winning chef once told me how disappointed his parents were when he chose what they considered a blue collar profession; he joked that a chef’s coat had a white collar. By the 1980s, this was no longer a joke, as chefs became businessmen (still, for the most part, men) with advertisers, supermarket product lines, and quick, laid-back spinoffs that discussed the recognition of the name of a leader.

The next step was probably inevitable. Even when a reviewer heralded the end of the Era of Celebrity Chefs, which defied the news of his untimely demise and lingered, the next phase – we’ll call it the Anticipated Celebrity Phase – began to take. form. Instead of acknowledging past accomplishments, we made people famous for their potential, as well as their willingness to embarrass themselves on television, and investors fueled the boom by throwing money at the cooks who prevailed. Social networks recorded everything and ignited: if you were a chef who didn’t have 50,000 followers on Instagram, did you really exist?

And then, like booms do, he went bankrupt, sometimes more than once, because too many hot newcomers have opened and closed restaurants at lightning speed.

By the time we got to 2019, restaurants were trapped in their own momentum. It is one of the saddest ironies of my professional life that we have published a long look at the fragile American restaurant two weeks before the March 2020 closure.


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