Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse talks about the decor in today's restaurants.
While the menu is our usual sphere of discussion, Bret, in the past we’ve also debated related issues, like our recent exchange on service systems and whether creativity in this arena is eclipsing menu innovation as a drawing card. I’d like to follow a similar path this time around and consider restaurant decor and its relationship to menu R&D.
One of the things that prompted my interest in the subject is the growing number of articles suggesting that the current restaurant design school variously referred to as antique chic, industrial chic or neo-steam punk has seen its day. One of my favorite takes on the subject came from Pete Wells of The New York Times, who kvetched last April that the 19th century had overstayed its welcome, as he archly catalogued its defining decor elements like salvaged wood, bare electric bulbs, pickle jars and taxidermy. He also coolly skewered the bearded male servers in lumberjack shirts, who are as requisite to the ambiance as the fake fireplaces.
Just as many of the food trends that originate in the independent sector are subsequently adopted in the mass market, so too are the interior design trends that Wells suggests have outlived their usefulness at independent restaurants currently popping up at chains. Established brands like Arby’s, KFC and Fuddruckers, looking to regain their mojo with Millennials, have introduced new decor packages that are all about the mismatched-lumber-and-Edison-bulb look. Wells points out that diners prize this “homemade and natural and imperfect” approach over the “machine made and synthetic and shiny new,” and emerging restaurant brands like Little Beet in New York City or the Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee chain have embraced the look as a means of visually underscoring their gastronomic bona fides.
What Wells and the multitude of bloggers who’ve noisily pronounced the trend passé haven’t remarked is that it’s a direct descendent of the 20th century’s fern bar, a formula that boasted a plethora of pretend plants and “antique” tchotchkes meant to attract Baby Boomer singles looking to couple.
It seems to me that these operations did more than enable the procreation of the Millennial generation. From a culinary point of view, they played a pivotal role in shaping contemporary American tastes and menus. Their laid-back environment related directly to their laid-back menus, as these operators introduced a casual style of eating that eschewed formal dining courses in favor of a mix-and-match approach that ushered in the age of the appetizer.
Equally important was the role of the fern-bar chains in providing a safe environment in which to sample the unfamiliar. Casual-dining pioneer TGI Fridays, for example, introduced flavors that were more assertive and exotic than those previously enjoyed by the consumer. A perusal of Fridays' menu circa the late 1990s reveals fare like pot stickers with Szechuan sauce and Thai chicken skewers with hoisin-peanut sauce. There were also a number of Cajun-inflected items, like Cajun Angels, which were Cajun-spiced, bacon-wrapped shrimp that were blackened and served with creole mustard sauce. Cajun food was trending at the time, a leading indicator of the impending rediscovery and celebration of American regional cuisine, and Friday’s made it accessible on a broad scale. At the same time, the chain’s ethnic first cousins Chili’s and Chi-Chi’s provided major impetus for the mainstreaming of Mexican and Tex-Mex flavors, while its nautical counterpart, Red Lobster, taught legions of landlubbers to savor seafood.
Bret, I’m writing this essay on a Starbucks table that’s stamped “reclaimed urban wood,” and while I’m not at all sure what the heck that means, it could represent an effort to protect that few remaining little red schoolhouses and old weathered barns that haven’t been demolished and repurposed in hipster bars and boîtes. Filament bulbs encased in cute industrial bird cages are dangling over my head, and as I sit here and embrace my inner Victorian, I wonder what the impact of this esthetic will be on menus. Do you believe there is a connection between what we eat and the atmosphere in which we eat it? If so, what do you think current design trends portend for menu development going forward?
NRN senior food editor talks about the difference between industry trends and fads.
Nancy, members of New York City’s media have a tendency to declare trends to be waning before they even get off the ground. I keep getting told that kale is over, but McDonald’s is experimenting with it, so it’s not over.
I think sometimes trend watchers confuse trends with fads. As you know, fads are sometimes cute, sometimes weird and sometimes a lot of fun, but they aren’t really grounded in much. So they pop up for a moment and then wither. They’re often over before they really start.
As you also know, actual trends often simmer over time and are based on evolving prevailing attitudes, demographic shifts, economic factors and other variables.
I think this rough-hewn, nouveau Victorian, thrift-shop look is a trend that still has plenty of runway ahead of it. In this often impersonal and antiseptic digital age, it seems that many consumers want to eat in a place that appears to evoke an imagined bygone era that was simpler, and maybe more grounded in reality.
Of course, as you indicated, there’s a certain fake preciousness to all this urban rusticity and lumberjack chic, being orchestrated and appreciated largely by people such as myself who wouldn’t have the first clue about how to split a log or milk a goat.
That preciousness is often translated into the food, sourcing of which is sometimes discussed in excruciating detail, and often presented in delicate portions at breathtaking prices.
I’m glad you mentioned the fern bars and their role as courtship habitats for Baby Boomers. As a member of Generation X, I’m often struck by how similar the Millennial children are to their Boomer parents. Look at movies or TV shows from the 1960s or ’70s and you’ll see kids that are trying to break out of old molds and plot new courses while cursing the establishment and blaming their parents. They just did it in person, or while talking on rotary phones, or by writing letters (remember letters? I miss them) instead of via social media.
Like at the fern bars, the food at these new places with their earthy décor is experimental, with bold new flavors and unexpected combinations. I recently had fried avocado wedges with cotija cheese, horseradish and trout roe in a stark restaurant with concrete floors, plastic chairs and plywood tables. For $12.
That minimalist décor is another design aesthetic that seems to be happening in tandem with the neo steam punk. I wouldn’t mind it if at least the chairs were comfortable, but they’re usually not.
At any rate, culinary experimentation is happening everywhere. McDonald’s is stirring Sriracha into its Big Mac sauce at West Coast locations and White Castle has a sweet Thai chile sauce as an option for its sliders.
Cracker Barrel plans to open the fourth location of its fast-casual biscuit spin-off, Holler & Dash, in Tennessee this November, and slated for the menu is fermented collard green kimchi.
Collard green kimchi, Nancy, at Cracker Barrel.
It’s a brave new food world where creative preparations — sometimes overwrought, but often surprisingly good — are presented in settings that often seem to be trying too hard to look like an afterthought, cobbled together by whatever old barn doors happened to be lying around in trash heaps.
But the thing is that the food often is good, and if these artificially lived-in settings help the operators sell that good food, then I’m all for it.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
E-mail her at [email protected]
All Soundcloud images in this article are sourced from Thinkstock.