Why These Walls Matter
A restaurateur reflects on how the struggle to save restaurants also threatens to kill them.
Editor’s Note: This story is published in The Industry Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.
An old-school restaurant expert once taught me about something he called the “three portals of restaurants.” These were the three most important moments in a dining experience—moments a restaurant had to get right when the threshold between “out there” and “in here” was open, and the diner could be transported.
The first portal is when you walk through the front door—a moment of possibility, transition, beginning. The second is when you get the menu—a moment of curiosity, excitement, discovery. The third is the moment the food arrives—relief, satiation, delight.
At peak pandemic, our restaurants lost all three portals. No one came through our doors, you went straight to ordering online, and the food changed hands anonymously, hidden in a box and bag. We became ghost kitchens.
Some argue this disruption forced restaurants to adapt. After all, antiquated ideas like the importance of “four walls” (code for guests’ experience inside the restaurant) or “three portals” make no sense in a digital economy in which walls are meaningless and the portals that matter most are online.
But I’m concerned that what we will have adapted to will not be a restaurant. It will be more like a kiosk, an interactive billboard, places where captive customers become data analytics sold to third parties.
The very things we keep doing to meet our customers digitally are making restaurants even more replaceable by what is most disrupting us. We may be trading away what has defined restaurants as a social institution and surrendering what a grieving world most needs from us now.
Restaurants began in Paris in the middle of the 18th century. The earliest restaurants sold salubrious bouillons—which was what the word “restaurant” originally meant, a restorative broth—and other healthy offerings to people worried about digestion and suspicious of inns and table d’hôtes. An ad for the world’s first restaurant, cited in historian Rebecca L. Spang’s book The Invention of the Restaurant, proclaims via couplet: “Here are tasty sauces to titillate your bland palate, Here the effete find healthy chests.”
But what came to define the restaurant was a new level of attention to individual wants that matched the growing modernity of the 18th century. As Spang writes, “It was as much its style of service as its menu of bouillons and rice creams that distinguished the restaurant from other, already existing, public eateries.” In other words, it wasn’t what restaurants sold that mattered. It was how they served it.
This new service came from two inventions: a printed menu and a table that was your own in a public space. This liminal mingling of the public and private created “a new social venue” and a “new kind of public space.” Spang writes: “One could gain access to a restaurant by shared social codes, a part of public knowledge; but once seated at the table, one was left to confront one’s own sensibility.”
The magic of a restaurant lies in the peculiar intersection of public and private. In a restaurant, you are part of a bubble with your companions. But you are held there by the din and glow of everyone and everything else around you—the clanging of silverware, the clinking of glasses, the too-loud lady in the corner. For a meager price, you benefit from the presence of a multitude of strangers.
There is something deeply intimate about this. Perhaps, it’s why so many people propose, or have difficult conversations, in restaurants. But as a restaurant owner, I know how to help this intimacy along—through an obsessive attention to tiny details. A smattering of excerpts from emails about operations between my managers and myself: “….and that is why we shred rather than dice the chicken in the pepita salad.” “Wilted flowers on tables remind customers of their mortality in all the wrong ways.” “Please use Lara’s playlist. It makes everyone want to dance, even if they don’t remember the ‘90s.” “Playing the Gipsy Kings or Frank Sinatra when it’s slow is where restaurants go to die.”
We worry about music that matches the moment, the light bulbs in the bar pendants that are dimmed progressively with the setting sun, and about proteins sliced sexily on the bias with the sharpest knife.
Customers only notice these details when something is off or wrong—like when a recipe doesn’t work and you only taste the mistakes. But when it does work, the ingredients knit together and transcend themselves, and we enable a multisensory experience that gets coded in our customers as powerful sense memory connected to a place. Our place.
This can never be replaced by anything digital. The more we try, the more this special thing we are made to do loses the time and attention it requires to be great.
A recent article in The New York Times—“Restaurants Fought for Covid Survival, With Some Tech Helpers”—argues restaurants “unprepared for the digital age” were helped by technology companies with ordering and subscription services on websites, which were merely “informational” before.
One of the tech executives quoted, Camilla Marcus, saw the pandemic as the catalyst that forced change: “Restaurants realized they had to think of themselves as larger businesses and brands. You have to expand into other things: e-commerce, delivery, products. You have to think outside the four walls.”
I appreciate that she and others mean to empower, unlike predatory delivery platforms. But “thinking outside four walls” threatens the magic of the experience within our four walls.
It also makes us instruments in a data stream that are far more valuable to tech monopolies. As we furiously sold gift cards, sacks of flour, and cocktail kits online, restaurants still had to be bailed out, and platforms were hauling in investment and increasing in value on the promise of saving us through ordering platforms.
But takeout stopped being a bonus to restaurants a long time ago. Takeout is the new way people use restaurants—but not the one we were set up for, so it’s less profitable. And restaurants can’t afford dining rooms if they aren’t full; they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to operate.
Before the pandemic, I resisted adding online ordering to our website. There was something about ordering on a screen that made the food less special—it didn’t seem to honor the reciprocity restaurants have always relied on. The duck confit in our Arugula Duck salad took 10 hours to prepare. The arugula was cut from a field a stone’s throw from where I slept, plunged in cold water for an hour, rinsed three times, spun dry, and delivered to the restaurant that morning. To encourage a customer to add that salad to their cart like a pizza from Domino’s felt wrong. But the pandemic slapped such high-mindedness right out of me.
Our obsession with takeout has become a defining norm. You see it in memes and movies and TV shows, in the way adored cultural icons become spokespeople for Grubhub and Uber Eats. Whereas “going out” defined earlier generations, “eating in” defines today.
It’s worth asking why. I think demand for takeout is stoked by highly-funded delivery platforms and monopolistic companies that monetize attention in addictive ways. The shift to the ad-funded data economy has carved up the time people have for dining. Takeout is the culinary counterpart to “Netflix and chill,” “doomscrolling” and “binge-watching.” It’s also perfect for “rising and grinding” and eating “al desko.”
But it isn’t very good. At least, not as good as eating a meal on a plate, right after it is made. I’m worried all this is leading to something you might call the “airportification” of restaurants.
Take Terminal C at Newark Airport in New Jersey. It’s lined with food and drink “concepts” that communicate what they are in design elements that signpost for harried customers. The concepts seem to run together, connected by lines of iPads bolted to every single seat, like a snake.
Maybe you duck into what looks like a modern Italian concept. The chairs are the inoffensive color of tomato paste. You sit down at the “bar” in front of an iPad. The screen flashes the welcoming words a server might say—“Can we get you a drink?”—and some things they wouldn’t, like, “Touch here.”
You order a drink. Is there a button for tap water? You can’t find it. You order the burrata and a fried cauliflower thing. The software asks if you want a coffee, dessert or a milky boozy drink after your meal. Getting tipsy on Baileys at 10 a.m. seems easier when you only have to touch a screen.
You pay while the tablet recommends life-coaching websites. You eat quickly, surrounded by profit-maximizing technologies. But somehow you feel like an animal feeding at a trough.
I was in New York City in May, just as it was coming back after vaccine rollouts. Many of my favorite restaurants had replaced printed menus with QR codes. Everywhere diners were hunched over their phones. You couldn’t tell if they were scanning TikTok or deciding on an appetizer.
Menus have always been the most important way a restaurant expresses itself—a portal moment. But now, even high-end restaurants are crunching expansive menus onto tiny screens that force customers to endlessly doomscroll. Just like at Terminal C.
The “invisible hand” is the term economists use to describe the way free markets of self-interested individuals and firms balance supply and demand in a way that behooves everybody. Invoking the invisible hand is a way of saying it’s better to let markets adjust and organize on their own without regulation.
As a business owner, you feel the invisible hand through margins—the edges of your profits. Through percentage points of growing gain or loss. Sometimes it’s difficult to notice at first—that the ghost in the money machine is leaving the business you love—because in business there are always ups and downs. But when you do notice, it feels like the wind is slowly coming out of your sails. It’s like trying to fill a bucket with undertow.
Restaurants have been chasing receding margins for the last seven years. That’s why we were Instagramming everything, hosting yoga classes on our patios, opening more restaurants, engaging with customers through multiple web portals, pretending like we didn’t want to suffocate “Elite Yelpers” in their sleep.
Adapting to changing demand has defined the restaurant business since its inception. But that’s not what troubles us now. What threatens us now is the loss of social norms that defined restaurants’ niche in the ecosystem of commerce and everyday life—values like privacy, leisure, assembly, and the very idea that walls can protect or contain. This is bigger than the economy—or at least should be dealt with by something more than the economy, if that still exists.
After more than a year of loss, what people really need is to heal. Restaurants are really good for that. We heal by being a place where community gathers to heal itself, to plot its next steps. It’s what our name implies; it’s what our purpose has always been. That’s why we have survived revolution, terrorist attacks, wars, recessions, earthquakes and hurricanes. These disasters clarified our purpose. They heightened it.
The pandemic gave us a glimpse of where we were headed—toward isolation, eating alone. Our streets and towns ghosted. I think the experience made customers miss what restaurants are really for—dining, together, in real life.
Erin Wade is a farmer and restaurateur who has opened six restaurants and two farms (that grow food for the restaurants) in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Austin. She opened her first restaurant, Vinaigrette, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2008. Before her life in food, she graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and language, interned at Harper’s Bazaar, and studied fashion design in Milan. Wade writes the menus, tests recipes, and designs the interiors of her restaurants Vinaigrette, Modern General Feed and Seed, and The Feel Good.