The Decade We Learned Where Food Comes From
Of all the dining trends that came and went over the last ten years, no other idea has become as much a part of the way people eat.
I first felt it at a long table with a furious rainstorm blanking out the window behind me. This was back when it was possible to get into Brooklyn’s St. Anselm. With a little bit of counterpunching and willingness to wait at the bar next door, my wife and our friends and I could get into a restaurant that was already both a scene and part of what we only faintly understood then as a moment. At the most basic level, of course, we just wanted to eat the food that came off the place’s long open grill—steaks great and small, imposing lamb saddles, whole fish, salty little parcels of halloumi cheese, and, on the night of our second wedding anniversary, a grilled lobster mushroom dish that we’ve been chasing ever since.
This was the first time for all of us, and getting in was a victory even then, which a quick and emotionally punishing survey of my email account suggested was early fall of 2011. By the time the mains arrived, though, everything had come together. Surrounded by people I cared about, I felt something that I understood mostly as a sort of immersive delight. Some Pink Floyd song—objectively long, preposterously digressive, as indistinguishable from every other Pink Floyd song—was playing. It was dark and loud and honestly pretty intense as restaurant experiences go, and it would be an understatement to say that it all hit its mark—for me, the doofus blacking out over a perfectly charred butcher’s steak that cost a merciful $15, and also for my pescatarian wife, and even for a couple of vegetarian friends. We were all being wooed, convincingly, down to the chalkboard that listed the nearby farms from which St. Anselm got its beef and lamb and pea greens and potatoes. Everyone was trying very hard to give us what we wanted, and we gratefully ate it up.
Over the course of the last decade, that sort of food—simple in the sense of being more about ingredients than technique, pegged not to classic tropes but the local realities of seasons and sources—served in that kind of setting—dark wood and ostentatiously humble Edison bulbs and all those chalkboards—became something like a movement. The idea behind it had if not quite a coherent politics then a palpable political valence that seemed to align with our own. Some of it was a vibe, some of it was written right there in chalk, and the rest we probably filled in ourselves: small over big; understatement over swagger; simple things grown by small nearby farms over fancy things grown far away by who knows what agricultural concern; all of it not quite cheap but not anything like big-city expensive. We were being pandered to, of course, in the way that all good restaurants do but also in the way that people tend to get pandered to during their years of peak demographic desirability. By now you have probably gotten the idea that it worked for us.
Trends have come and gone over the last decade. That’s how trends work. The restaurants that were special to us then have come and gone, too. That’s how the restaurant business works, and that’s especially how the idiot vise of big-city real estate works. St. Anselm—it has been called a Hipster Steakhouse enough times by now that, however ungainly and insufficient and unfair that descriptor is, it’s just easier to use it here—became so crushingly popular that we eventually gave up on trying to get in.
Recent reviews and a recent walk-by confirm that it’s still reliably slammed. But the neighborhood has flattened so much, in the ways that various economic forces in the city have tended to make similar neighborhoods first lamely familiar and then denude them into spookily empty Airbnb wastelands, that we’re seldom moved to go there. The steak I ate with that deluge behind me costs $24 now, and the circle of friends that used to eat there together have become so happily encumbered in their lives that coordinating a party of six would require some truly heroic project management.
For a while, we would try to get it together for one last visit to the places we used to go. Back Forty could be justified on the spur of the moment after a good week, Northern Spy was more of a special-occasion thing, Battersby was for round-number birthdays or anniversaries. Eventually we’d just text about it—the cruel rents, the brutal realities of the business, how long ago did this happen? You feel yourself getting older one psychedelically cruel morning-after and previously unimaginable milestone at a time and you might spot it in the mirror along your temples or at the corners of your eyes, but if you live in the same place for long enough you see it most clearly when walking down familiar streets, past places to which you can no longer go, and toward the new and different ones you go to now. The wood is blonder at the new spots, and the plating more attuned to Instagram’s sculptural tastes. There are succulents freaking everywhere. Times change.
And yet there’s still the matter of that chalkboard with the names of all those farms and fishing vessels and purveyors. St. Anselm’s is still up, but for all the others that have been wiped clean for the last time—and so many of these places had them that, for all the ways in which they fit into the vision and values latent in the trend, they were as much a part of the decor as those Edison bulbs—there are now hundreds more out there to read. These new ones are in restaurants like the ones I’m now old enough to miss, but they’re also in fast-casual lunch franchises where people pay $11 for a thoughtful grain salad in a compostable bowl or a bucket of assembly-line roughage by booping an app on their phone. These places are in cities and suburbs, stuck into office buildings and malls.
Because it is what businesses do at this strange moment in history, some of these brands have made some ambitious rhetorical pivots. Sweetgreen, a juggernaut salad concept built on endlessly remixable jumbo-sized portions of the once-ubiquitous kale salad, describes itself as a “critical link between growers and consumers” whose “mission is to inspire healthier communities by connecting people to real food.” The fast-growing franchise Dig Inn, which raised $15 million from Danny Meyer’s investment fund and saw its sales tick up 25.8 percent in 2018, announced last summer that it would be dropping the “Inn” part of its name because it is no longer sufficient to the scope of its ambition. “Dig has become more than a restaurant,” CEO Adam Eskin wrote. “It’s a shared belief that access to good food—picked recently enough to enjoy its full set of nutrients, carried only as far as it needs to, grown and cooked by first names, and priced to feed a neighborhood—shouldn’t have to be a movement, an ethos, a privilege, or even a doubt.”
Another thing that the last decade should have given us is a reflexive skepticism to corporate executive types speaking in grandiose rhetoric about their companies’ world-historic aims. When an office-sharing startup starts describing itself as a movement or heaven forfend a lifestyle, it’s safe to assume that some sort of rude reckoning is already en route. At its peak, the broader farm-to-table idea made for a fat target; think of Fred Armisen punctiliously grilling a server on the personality of the chicken he is about to order in Portlandia, if you’re not already thinking of it. But it’s striking to see the (actually righteous) earnestness that was once so easily lampooned scaling so well. Of all the various dining trends that came and went over the last decade, all those arch and recursive tableside-presentation “moves” and clever cheffy foams, no idea could have become as much a part of the way people eat as the simple concept of knowing, thinking, and caring about where that thing you’re about to eat comes from. No other idea has.
It’s as easy to see why as it is to understand the anxieties under those old and easy jokes. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, everything we eat comes from someplace and is grown by someone, and this is true even when those serving it don’t go as extravagantly out of their way to tell us about it all. There is undeniable comedy in the idea of caring about all this too much: Would this monkfish have appreciated being presented atop a seasonally appropriate puree? But there is also something implicating and even a little bit embarrassing about having not previously considered it at all.
There are worse fates for a trend than to see its values become so roundly and rightly assimilated in its afterlife. The places that made this deceptively simple idea feel so special and exciting and new back at that long table, on a low and rainy night that feels very long ago, are not all still there. This is as likely to be true where you live as it is by me; that is just what happens to places, because the market and the world and time are hard that way. Ideas—good ones, the kind that nudge you into a different way of thinking and seeing and tasting—tend to enjoy longer lives.