So, you probably saw that Pete Wells slammed Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar in a blistering New York Times review composed entirely of questions. It made the rounds on the weekday morning gab shows and even got its own Top 10 List from David Letterman (see below). The inevitable backlash put Wells on the receiving end of brickbats, too, labeling him elitist, biased, and just plain mean.
A couple of weeks before that, the City Paper ran a rare review of a national chain restaurant, the new Cracker Barrel in Mt. Pleasant (negative, as you could probably guess). Around the same time, I was wrapping up a project that had me spending several days a week in the far suburbs of Baltimore, sleeping in a Hampton Inn near a down-at-the-heels mall.
It was particularly rough at dinner time. Google Maps turned up plenty of nearby options, all from the familiar litany of national Italian, seafood, Mexican, and barbecue "casual dining" chains. Some nights I was adventurous and set out in my rental car to creep through rush hour traffic for half an hour or more to track down good eats. I found Mari Luna Mexican Grill, where they slow-cook lamb shanks in banana leaves, and C. J.'s, where they dump trays of whole steamed crabs onto your brown paper-covered table for two bucks a piece.
But other nights, after a long, contentious workday, when I was bone weary and dispirited, I'd look across the street at the neon-lit Tex-Mex franchises and the burger-n-wing outlets and think, how bad could they be? And so I would find myself perched on a stool at the bar, perusing a laminated tri-fold menu with bright color photos of nachos and chicken strip baskets and baby-back ribs.
It gave me plenty of time to think about the problem of middlebrow food.
The terms highbrow and lowbrow aren't used nearly as much as they once were, and you rarely hear middlebrow at all. Back in the 1950s and '60s, though, they dominated the lexicon of cultural criticism.
Highbrows, in the original formulation, are people of intellect and discrimination, able to appreciate the finer points of art and culture. Lowbrows have unrefined but authentic tastes, judging value by the senses and instinct. Highbrow is the realm of high art and the connoisseur, lowbrow the province of folk art.
Being "lowbrow" has never been a grave offense. The real kiss of death is being labeled middlebrow. Those saps reside in between, clamoring to escape the squalor of the low but without the sensibility to understand the high. Their tastes are defined for them by advertisers, and they vulgarize everything they touch. Theirs is the world of pop culture and kitsch. Middlebrows don't want aioli or Miracle Whip on their sandwiches. They prefer donkey sauce.
In his book Nobrow (2000), John Seabrook declared the death of highbrow and lowbrow, arguing that the century-old hierarchy of culture was being swizzled by mass media and "the culture industry" into a churning stew of "nobrow" where buzz is all that matters. To some extent, I think he's right. The digital age has blown apart the compact set of cultural preferences — opera, ballet, a Mark Rothko show — that once marked a "sophisticated" person. They've been replaced by a global smorgasbord of art, music, and food that offers an endless variety of cultural choice.
But I don't buy the nobrow notion, for things can still be bucketed easily into low, medium, and high. Take the Charleston restaurants. On the high end, there's Charleston Grill, with its lush meals and impeccable service, and McCrady's high-concept, flower-bedecked plates. On the low, you've got Fishnet Seafood, Martha Lou's Kitchen, and Dave's Carryout — places that put on few airs and serve hearty meals on styrofoam plates. You can safely praise the merits of any one of these.
But try admitting that you actually like the Cracker Barrel. Or Applebee's or Chili's — that would be the middlebrow kiss of death.
A lowbrow restaurant gets any number of passes for doing things poorly. Shabby, uncomfortable interior? Rude, surly service? That's just part of the charm. A few challenges with the health department? Well, that's what you get with "real" food.
None of these are forgiven at restaurants that aim toward the middle, especially if they show any sort of ambition or bravado. It's bad enough to serve deep-fried chicken tenders for appetizers. Lord help you if you have the chutzpah to bread them in crushed pretzels and declare them "awesome" on the menu.
These are just a few of the things that ran through my mind as I sat on that bar stool in Maryland, pondering whether the crab cake sliders or the blackened tilapia tacos held the most potential for an enjoyable meal.
"Give it a chance," I told myself. "Do you want to be an elitist like that nasty Pete Wells? There's nothing wrong with places like this." In a moment of middlebrow solidarity, I ordered a Budweiser and the appetizer sampler platter.
And, damn it, they screwed up the fried cheese. I mean, how is that even possible? Take a chunk of cheese, batter it, and deep fry it till it's crispy brown outside and all melty inside. But, let me attest, it can be done wrong. Start with frozen, pre-breaded discs of cheese and fry them not quite long enough to turn brown on the sides, then let them sit in the pass for a good long time, since limp, mushy breading shot through with cloying herbs is best appreciated lukewarm.
I really tried. I really wanted to tell Pete Wells to stick that elitist snark up his New York bunghole, to uncork a rousing defense of the American suburban chain restaurant. But my belly wouldn't let me do it. There's just no excuse for inflicting such fried cheese on the public.
The middle-of-the road, $8-to-$14 entrée category is a hard thing to get right, and the difference is in the aggregation of tiny details. Looking back on my early days in the restaurant biz, I recall a long series of small missteps. The franchise sub-shop stopped slicing its own meat and started buying it pre-sliced in plastic bags. Tender, paper-thin roast beef, its center medium-rare pink, gave way to thick, rubbery, and uniformly gray slices. The seafood restaurant gave up the stainless steel contraption that pressed big russets through a grid of blades and instead shook frozen, pre-sliced potatoes directly into the deep fryer from an insulated brown bag. It wasn't an improvement.
It's death by a thousand cuts, each adjustment removing a little cost from the operations and, at the same time, removing flavor and enjoyment, too. And it doesn't have to be this way.
I'm not saying that middlebrow needs to become highbrow. We're not talking a farm-to-table monomania for pristine produce and local line-caught fish, nor high-dollar ingredients like truffles and rare balsamic vinegars. It's as simple as making a margarita with real citrus juice and some type of orange liqueur instead of high-fructose corn syrup, citric acid, and neon-green dye. It's buying whole vegetables and slicing them yourself instead of getting them pre-cut in a bag. It's making pizza sauce from scratch rather than dumping it out of a No. 10 can.
The economics can support it. A house-ground Hop Frog burger and hand-cut fries at Poe's costs $10.25. The Cowboy Burger at Applebee's has the same toppings (bacon, cheese, BBQ sauce) for $9.49. The lasagna at Olive Garden is $13.25; Iacofano's splendid "old school" version is $12.95.
It's not a matter of local versus chain, either. I'm a big fan of Jim 'N Nick's Barbecue, which has some 30 locations throughout the South. Their hickory-smoked barbecue is delicious, but there's much more to it than that. There's no walk-in freezer at any of the restaurants. Everything is made from scratch, even the queso on the nachos and the ranch cheese dressing for the wings. The food is about as middlebrow as you can get, but it's delicious, too.
At this year's Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, Nick Pihakis, the company's owner, spoke about his experiences trying to bring a higher level of quality to the mid-market restaurant. "When we hire people to come in and work," Pihakis said, "especially in the kitchen, what we realize is how dumbed down the labor force got in the casual dining segment. Everything comes in and it's already prepared."
Jim 'N Nicks hires workers with a higher level of skill, and Pihakis pays above-average wages for it. But, he argues, the relentless drive to squeeze out expense can be a false economy, especially when you look at the cost of employee turnover. "In our restaurants they actually have to cook," he says, "And a lot of them get really excited about that, and they take to it ... you want to pay them more, and at the end of the day it actually saves you money."
It doesn't take a relentless race to the bottom to succeed in the casual dining market. I've been quite impressed of late with Sesame, which just opened a third location out in my neck of the woods in Mt. Pleasant. They do crazy things like making their own ketchup and mustard from scratch, but what I've become slightly obsessed with are their hand-battered onion rings, which fry up brown and crisp and flaky in a way that will never happen with frozen, pre-breaded rings from an insulated bag.
Maybe we do need strident watchkeepers to shout out the bad middlebrow food and make room for the good, but I find it more rewarding to praise the guys who get it right.
The burgers at Poe's, for instance, are works of genius. The wood-grilled wings at Liberty Taproom (paired with a stout beer) are a splendid way to kick-off a lazy afternoon. The Pork Slap at Closed for Business, the dry rubbed ribs at Sticky Fingers, a slice with meatballs and onions at Andolini's, the vegetable stew at Heart Woodfire Kitchen: these are my middlebrow pleasures, and they're not guilty ones, either.
We need the food in the middle, and we need it to be much better than most of it currently is. Casual dinners out with the family would be far more enjoyable, and maybe, just maybe, a lonely Charlestonian far from home could find a decent bite to eat on a dreary Maryland night.