There have been a lot of weird things for sale on Craigslist over the years. But a $3,000 dinner reservation? Admittedly, the rezzie is actually a Wonka-style golden ticket that includes the cost of the meal itself, and the restaurant, Grant Achatz's Next in Chicago, is one of the most anticipated in many years. But still. Though no one has taken the seller up on his or her audacious offer, the mere fact of its existence has bugged out many onlookers and suggested that, possibly, something weird might be going on. (Next is pioneering the pay-ahead model of restaurant reservations, mostly to protect its precious real estate from flake-outs and cancellations.) Now, with the announcement of San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list on Monday, the nation's epicures have a new bucket list of destinations, the top tier of which requires ever more unnatural exertions to get into. It's clear to me now. This has gotten out of hand.
And I blame the gastrocrats.
I don't take issue with the existence of great restaurants. Serving food for money is a universal human activity. It happens everywhere and involves everyone. It is therefore natural that somebody somewhere should make the best food possible to human ingenuity, and that somebody else should pay a lot of money for it. If, like me, you spend a lot of time eating food and thinking about food and maybe even cooking food, experiencing one of these restaurants can be almost dreamlike. It's a fantasy of the best a meal can possibly be and, as such, a frame of reference for all other meals. I would liken it to a fashionable woman getting to have a couture dress made. She's not going to fill her closets with couture; just having one is an honor.
That was always the model for these kinds of restaurants. They were referred to, without irony, as "temples of gastronomy." You would plan for a long time and go from a long way away to visit them. And you did so not because any of your friends really cared about some crayfish you ate at Paul Bocuse or whatever. (Generally, they sneered at you.) You went because it was just that great.
We are living in a different time now, though, and there are a lot of people with a lot of money and not enough ways to show it. It is these gastrocrats that have gotten out of hand. They are driving everything that is bad about the top end of the restaurant business. They're the ones who endlessly, coyly boast about their 75-course tasting menu at El Bulli, who slavishly take pics of every dish at Alinea, who have made it impossible for Bay Area residents to get into the French Laundry. As the top 1% of American incomes have begun to secede into their own world of hyperluxury, the old luxuries aren't good enough. Chanel is now sold at outlet malls, a BMW isn't considered top-notch unless it has 500 horsepower and race-car-style dual-clutch paddle-shifting.
And when it comes to restaurants, perfect food, perfect service and a cellar filled with thousands of superb bottles aren't good enough. Now every dish has to be a painterly glory, arranged on the plate with surgical tweezers; the chef has to be on network TV three times a week; and, most importantly, you need to be able to broadcast your experience on your blog, your Twitter stream, Opinionated About Dining and the Very Large Array radio telescopes, if possible. It's turning a lot of people off, myself included. Something is changing and it has nothing to do with quenelles, crayfish or the first ramps of spring.
The best restaurants have always been status symbols, conspicuous consumption at its most stark. Orwell, who worked in them in his tramp period, considered them purveyors of "sham luxury." "Where is the real need of ... smart restaurants?" he asked in Down and Out in Paris and London. "Some restaurants are better than others, but it is impossible to get as good a meal in a restaurant as one can get, for the same expense, in a private house."
That is where Orwell is wrong. You can never get food in a private home like the food in the best restaurants, where an army of cooks works for days on end just to get the components ready. On that level, they are worth the expense. But he believed that a lot of the people who went to a restaurant were just there because they thought they should be. And about that, he is right. You have to know and care a lot about food for it to be worthwhile to eat in a restaurant like Le Bernardin, or Marea, or August, or Joel Robuchon. The art and care and effort only matter if you love the food as much as the cooks do. Otherwise, what's the point? That's why I don't order expensive wines: I don't think I'm really capable of appreciating them. My appreciation level tops out with $40 Oregon pinot noirs. Beyond that, I'm just spending pointlessly, and what's worse, wasting something great.
Not to call out the gastrocrats as philistines or anything, but they are too often indifferent about what they're eating. They lose interest in great restaurants the second they cease to be hot and frequently enthuse indiscriminately about everything put in front of them. (Or, worse still, they go to hot restaurants for the sole purpose of deriding them.) The old WASP overclass was famously hidebound and indifferent about food; but the media-obsessed, cash-powered grandees of the new culinary overclass are foodies on steroids, chasing the chimera of the latest star. How much do they really care about food? Does it even matter to them? Or is it all just novelty and theater? I sometimes wonder.
As for Next, I do want to go there, and I may even be obliged to, given Achatz's genius and audacity. To be honest, I can probably find a way to get a ticket and pay face value for the meal. (Maybe I can even talk TIME into covering it!) But otherwise, paying as much for a meal as one would for a used car is just gross, even for a professional gastronome. I don't think Grant Achatz would do it; and I know George Orwell wouldn't.
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.