05 May, 2008

The New York Times and the Bitter Masses

Yglesias and Klein think that the Times was too condescending in this comprehensive review of popular chain restaurants, including Applebee's, P.F. Chang's, the Olive Garden, and others (but no Perkins...what?!).

I think there are two relevant points to be made. First, many of these restaurants are not good, especially when compared to restaurants that the New York Times usually reviews. There is not just a cultural difference here--the food at chain casual restaurants is usually a worse copy of something better. This is inevitable when the goal is to repackage foods from a variety of cuisines, make them palatable to 90% of America, and create continuity and consistency across stores. Second, this doesn't mean that chain restaurants are bad! They are cheaper than the more individuated restaurants of large cities; you know exactly what you are going to get in hundreds of locations across the country; and most suburbs or small towns can't provide enough demand to support a lot of niche restaurants.

Given these points, I think that the Times review was actually pretty fair. I agree that the tone was condescending. I don't agree that it was especially condescending--at least, it was not more condescending than it would be if the Times reviewers had visited equally bad non-chain restaurants in New York City. They criticized some food, but praised a lot as well. Keep in mind, this is the New York Times that tells you how to get red wine stains out of your marble tabletop.

So why the outrage from good liberals like Klein and Yglesias? I think they're just playing into the same attitudes that got Obama in trouble with "Bittergate", the same attitudes that Yglesias has railed against on occasion. Wouldn't it have been far more condescending if the Times had applied standards to chain restaurants that were completely different than those it would apply during the review of any other New York City restaurant?

1 comment:

Elliot said...

First, I am glad to see that my exhortation for culinary criticism has borne immediate fruit!

This whole thing is pretty funny - Klein points out the whole "anthropological expedition" tone that the Times uses to make observations about kitschy phenomena that for those of us from the midwest is just daily life. Like you say, the disconnect between The Olive Garden and the restaurants that the Times usually reviews is pretty large - and so it makes for both entertaining New York elitist self-parody and a pretty good indication of the culture gap between urban and suburban America.

I think Klein made the point (in another post on the subject) that its not about the food per se, but the culture that surrounds the food experience. The chain restaurant is all about a place where middle class suburbanites can go to be laid back, unassuming middle class suburbanites, whereas the niche, artsy restaurant (the family owned Korean place, the Honduran taquitos sold from the back of a van) is all about being (if you're not Honduran or Korean) cosmopolitan and hip and "I was there first".