David Chang is exactly right: when dining at a restaurant, often the best option is to sit at the bar.
When everyone's so close, it changes the dining experience. Out on the floor, you're a dickhead if you overhear a conversation and chime in. Not at the bar. You connect, trade stories, then trade bites. I've never shared as much food with strangers as I have at the bar. You meet great people that way -- you're part of this band of outsiders within the restaurant. And for me, that's the best possible dining experience of all.
"That's why I'm really proud of what we did here," he said over his cup of sake. "I'm proud of the big things, but I'm also proud of the little things we routinely did well. Do you know what made me most proud in the meal I served you? The Wagyu beef. It was perfectly cooked."
"The advantage of sous vide," someone said.
"But it wasn't sous vide!" Dufresne said. "That's the thing. It was cooked in a pan. And it had no gray on it! Do you know how hard that is? Do you know how much work that takes? Turning the beef every seven or eight seconds ... And so that question you asked me before, about food and music -- that's my answer: a perfect piece of Wagyu beef cooked in a pan that comes out without any gray on it. It might not be 'When the Levee Breaks,' but it's definitely 'Achilles Last Stand.'"
Let's start with the premise. Anybody who's ever grilled in their backyard with an overbearing uncle can tell you that if there's one rule about steaks that gets bandied about more than others, it's to not play with your meat once it's placed on the grill. That is, once steak hits heat, you should at most flip it just once, perhaps rotating it 90 degrees on each side in order to get yourself some nice cross-hatched grill marks.
The idea sort of makes sense at first glance: flipping it only once will give your steak plenty of chance to brown and char properly on each side. But the reality is that flipping a steak repeatedly during cooking -- as often as every 30 seconds or so -- will produce a crust that is just as good (provided you start with meat with a good, dry surface, as you always should), give you a more evenly cooked interior, and cook in about 30% less time to boot!
Although honestly, I eat and cook steak a lot less than I used to. Burgers too. A belly full of steak just doesn't feel that good anymore, gastronomically, gastrointestinally, or environmentally. I'm trying to eat more vegetables and especially seafood. Actually, I'm not really trying...it's just been working out that way. I still really like steak, but it's almost become a special occasion food for me, which is probably the way it should from a sustainability standpoint. ↩
8. All-occasion places: Diners must rise to many occasions, from first dates to pre- or post-game celebrations by fans or teammates, to wallowing in solitary self-pity. Diners are the best restaurants for planning murders, stick-ups, or other nefarious enterprises.
Being an all-occasion place is not the only egalitarian thing about diners:
People talk about Starbucks reintroducing the notion of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the "third place" in American life: spaces where we gather besides home and work to form real, not virtual, communities. Starbucks and more high-minded cafes that followed in its wake have surely succeeded on this point, but long before 1971, when the first Starbucks opened in Pike Place Market in Seattle, diners were already serving that invaluable function for us, along with the corner tavern.
And that's why we need to cherish our local diners, whether it's a mom and pop or a Waffle House or a Greek coffee shop. They're some of the few cheap, all-inclusive places to eat and hang out and laugh and cry and stay viscerally connected with other folks.
And it warmed my heart to see Ed include Cup & Saucer and Eisenberg's on his list of notable NYC diners. An unusual thing I've noticed about Eisenberg's: instead of getting your check at the table, you just tell the cashier what you ordered on the way out and pay for it. Like on the honor system! Is there anywhere else in NYC that does this? I wonder what their loss rate is compared to the norm?
Allen Hemberger cooked his way through one of the most complex cookbooks out there, the Alinea cookbook. Aside from the chefs who work in the kitchen there, Hemberger's probably the only person to have made every single recipe. These recipes aren't easy; look at the last one he prepared...he even struggled to find the correct ingredients.
Should I be disturbed or thankful that I've never been that passionate about anything ever?
This is the most delightful restaurant review I've read in quite awhile. In it, Jay Rayner disembowels the "hilariously silly" London restaurant Beast and its presumed clientele, "men with teeny-weeny penises". I have no idea how to pick just one of the great passages from this review so I'll do two:
"I'm sorry sir, we don't serve bread." Eh? What's all that about? I could see this as some stand for a bang-on-trend, carb-free Palaeolithic diet, were it not for the fact they serve chips. Mind you, they're crap chips, huge fat things that could exclude drafts. Who actually likes their chips this way? They're advertised as coming with truffle and foie-gras salt, which is like getting a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted case for your smartphone because you've run out of things to spend money on. It's a spoilt person's version of luxury; the pillowy "chips" do not taste either of goose liver or truffle.
The corn-fed, dry-aged Nebraskan rib-eye, with a carbon footprint big enough to make a climate-change denier horny, is bloody marvellous: rich, deep, earthy, with that dense tang that comes with proper hanging. And at £100 a kilo it bloody well should be. At that price they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat.
ИOM ИOM ИOM. You can get these tots from a company called US Foods; they call them Puzzle Potatoes. Their sell sheet for the product is a wonder of corporate wishful thinking masquerading as marketing.
Here's a menu item that will encourage kids to play with their food.
Yes! This is exactly what all parents want. Huge parental issue in America right now is that kids don't play with their food enough.
When baked, these innovative Puzzle Potatoes are a fun and healthier alternative to regular fries...
Tater tots are not a health food. That's the whole point. Also, aren't regular fries also healthier when baked?
Puzzle potatoes are new innovative and interactive potatoes for kids.
Imagine the meeting. "Bob, what can we do about these smartphone? Kids just aren't spending enough time with their potatoes anymore. Instead they're Facebooking and Flappy Birding. Wait, I know... interactive potatoes!" [Cut to Bob being paraded around the office on his coworkers' shoulders]
Our proprietary puzzle-piece shapes...
Well, someone else's proprietary puzzle piece shapes, but why quibble with details?
Features & Benefits... 2D or 3D
I don't. I can't. What does that even mean? The sell sheet for these should be super simple: a photo of the tots and this caption in all-caps 120-point type: THEY'RE TATER TOTS SHAPED LIKE TETRIS PIECES! BUY THEM, YOU FOOL! (thx, kathryn)
The tenders first get an overnight soak in buttermilk and hot sauce that makes them juicy and, um, tender. To nail the perfectly seasoned crust, he eventually landed on a breading that includes a packet of onion soup and a hefty dose of McCormick's Italian Herb Spaghetti Sauce Seasoning Mix. (If this makes you cringe, remember who we're talking about here, and trust.) Cornstarch, potato starch and baking soda added to the self-rising flour mixture ensure the signature craggy texture and exceptional crunch. Finally, after much experimentation to find the perfect frying temperature, he settled on a relatively low 300°, which renders the crust a deep golden-brown and keeps the lean meat moist.
Better than the original, says Serious Eats' Maggie Mariolis. Dang.
Glaser and his co-authior Jerome Snyder eventually packaged the column into a series of books, some of which you can find on Amazon...I bought a copy this morning.
I found out about Glaser's food enthusiasm from this interview in Eye magazine about The Underground Gourmet and his long collaboration with restaurateur Joe Baum of the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World.
We just walked the streets ... When friends of ours knew we were doing it we got recommendations.
There were parts of the city where we knew we could find good places ... particularly in the ethnic parts. We knew if we went to Chinatown we would find something if we looked long enough, or Korea Town, or sections of Little Italy.
More then than now, the city was more locally ethnic before the millionaires came in and bought up every inch of space. So you could find local ethnic places all over the city. And people were dying to discover that. And it was terrific to be able to find a place where you could have lunch for four dollars.
Being obsessed with the food and history of New York (particularly Manhattan), this was like finding a culinary time capsule. I immediately dove in. What I found was shocking, both in the similarities between then and now, and in the differences.
The most obvious change was the immense amount of restaurants that no longer existed. These were not landmarked establishments, by and large. Most of them were hole-in-the wall luncheonettes, inexpensive Chinese restaurants and greasy spoons. But the sheer number of losses was stunning. Of the 101 restaurants profiled, only six survive today: Katz's Delicatessen, Manganaro's, Yonah Schimmel's Knishes Bakery, The Puglia and La Taza de Oro. About half of the establishments were housed in buildings that no longer exist, especially in the Midtown area. The proliferation of "lunch counters" also illustrated the evolution of this city's eating habits. For every kosher "dairy lunch" joint that went down, it seems as though a Jamba Juice or Pink Berry has taken its place.
Man, it's hard not get sucked into reading about all these old places...looking forward to getting my copy of the book in a week or two.
Reserving a table is not so much an "industrial age bolt-on" as it's a slippage from the older custom of reserving a ROOM in a restaurant. As my book explains, 18th-cy "caterers" [traiteurs] either served clients in their homes or in rooms at the traiteur's, the first self-styled restaurateurs borrowed from cafes in having lots of small tables in one big room. Throughout the nineteenth century, many big city restaurants continued to have both a (very) large public eating room with numerous, small (private) tables AND a number of smaller rooms that could be reserved for more private meals. (Much as some restaurants have special "banquet facilities" or "special occasion" rooms today.)
For three years, Nick Kokonas's trio of eating/drinking establishments in Chicago (Next, Alinea, and Aviary) has been using a ticketed reservation system. In this epic piece, Kokonas details why they started using tickets and what the effect has been (emphasis mine):
Our ticket implementation strategy at Alinea was to create a "higher-touch" system than we had previously used at Next. Every customer buying a ticket at Alinea must include a cell phone number where we can reach them. About a week before they dine with us we call every customer to thank them for buying a ticket to Alinea, ask if they have any dietary restrictions or special needs, and generally get a feel for their expectations and whether it is a special occasion. We can, in fact, spend more time (not less) with every single one of our customers because we are only speaking with the customers we know are coming to dine with us. Previously, we answered thousands of calls from people we had to say 'no' to. Now we can take far more time to say 'yes'.
The results on Alinea's business are staggering. Bottom line EBITDA profits are up 38% from previous average years. No shows of full tables are almost non-existent and while partial no-shows still occur they are only a handful of people per week at most. That allows us to run at a far greater capacity with less food waste and more revenue.
Will be interesting to see if more restaurants adopt this model...I bet a bunch of restaurateurs' eyes lit up at the 38% increase in profit. But not every restaurant is Alinea and not every restaurateur is a clever former derivatives trader.
In recent years, Chipotle has worked to promote their managers from within the company. And the tactic seems to be working.
The common element among the best-performing stores was a manager who had risen up from crew. So Moran started to outline a program that would retain and train the best managers, and reward them to the point where they would be thrilled to stay on.
After Flores expressed his frustration, Moran showed him his early notes for the restaurateur program, which is unique among fast food restaurants in that it ties pay and promotion to how well you mentor people, rather than store sales.
"It was a great meeting but I didn't know what was going to happen. At most companies you meet the top execs and then you never hear from them again," Flores says.
A few weeks after the October meeting, while vacationing in Houston, Flores got a call on his cell from Ells and Moran letting him know that he had been promoted to restaurateur and was getting a $3,000 bonus. Rather than waiting until he returned to Milwaukee to get him the check, it was delivered to him in Houston the following day. At the time his salary was around $38,000, and the bonus was meaningful.
"That's when I knew the company was special," Flores said.
Interesting bits of business wisdom throughout this piece.
Featuring hundreds of recipes for signature Death & Co creations as well as classic drink formulas,Death & Co is not only a comprehensive collection of the bar's best, but also a complete cocktail education. With chapters on the theory and philosophy of drink-making; a complete guide to the spirits, tools, and other ingredients needed to make a great bar; and specs for nearly 500 iconic drinks, Death & Co is destined to become the go-to reference on craft cocktails.
Trouble's owner, and the apparent originator of San Francisco's toast craze, is a slight, blue-eyed, 34-year-old woman with freckles tattooed on her cheeks named Giulietta Carrelli. She has a good toast story: She grew up in a rough neighborhood of Cleveland in the '80s and '90s in a big immigrant family, her father a tailor from Italy, her mother an ex-nun. The family didn't eat much standard American food. But cinnamon toast, made in a pinch, was the exception. "We never had pie," Carrelli says. "Our American comfort food was cinnamon toast."
The other main players on Trouble's menu are coffee, young Thai coconuts served with a straw and a spoon for digging out the meat, and shots of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice called "Yoko." It's a strange lineup, but each item has specific meaning to Carrelli. Toast, she says, represents comfort. Coffee represents speed and communication. And coconuts represent survival-because it's possible, Carrelli says, to survive on coconuts provided you also have a source of vitamin C. Hence the Yoko. (Carrelli tested this theory by living mainly on coconuts and grapefruit juice for three years, "unless someone took me out to dinner.")
Fancy $4 toast seems like something to chuckle at or cluck your tongue about, but this story takes an unexpected left turn about halfway through and is well worth the read.
If there was a movement taking shape, its key players admit they didn't notice until after the fact. And many of them spent the year struggling. Mr. Chang was desperate for customers in the early days at Noodle Bar, and kicking himself for having failed to apply for a kitchen job at Per Se or Masa. "I remember thinking very clearly, 'What am I doing?' " he said. " 'This is stupid. I should be working at Masa!' "
In some cases, 2004 was an outright fight. At the Spotted Pig, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Bloomfield, who had arrived from England, envisioned the vibrant boite as "a really cool bar that happened to have food as good as any restaurant in town," Mr. Friedman said. "Who made the rule that you can't have a real chef instead of someone who defrosts the frozen French fries?"
Most of the students had stopped visiting years ago. The smoking ban forced out the puffers. Many of the regulars grew so old that they died or went to nursing homes.
Once Bud decided to close, it all slipped away even faster. Some of his staff had taken other jobs. The gumballs emptied out of the shiny red machine. No one bothered to mark the white board with the daily special.
They would close at precisely 3 p.m. Bud checked his watch, ignoring the broken wall clock, its hands frozen for more years than he could remember, stuck in time.
On the occasion of leaving New York, Rebecca Flint Marx writes about one of her favorite New York City places (Russ & Daughters) and a particular counterman there, Paul.
Being a regular is a funny thing in a big city. Outside, you're just an anonymous schmo. But if you come inside often enough, each visit starts to feel like a family reunion of sorts; like the extended members of your biological family, the people you encounter will likely be happy enough to see you, though they probably have little idea of who you actually are as a person. But there's a beauty in deciding how much of yourself to offer as part of the general exchange of money and goods: You can be the thoughtfully curated version of you -- the one who always smiles and never has any problems. The one who is a good person simply because she says "please" and "thank you," exchanges salty banter with the cantankerous counterman, and bakes a cake for the Yom Kippur rush, as I started doing for the staff a few years ago.
Roughly one in 10 people who enter Balthazar orders the steak frites. It is far and away the restaurant's best-selling dish, and Balthazar can sell as many as 200 on a busy day. A plate of steak and potatoes requires a tremendous input of labor if you're going to charge $38 for it. At a smaller restaurant, cooks are typically responsible for setting up their own mise-en-place -- preparing food for their stations -- before each service begins, but at Balthazar, things are necessarily more atomized. The fries, for example, go through numerous steps of prep, done by a few different people, before they wind up on a plate.
Step 1 begins at about 6:30 a.m., when Diogene Peralta and Ramon Alvino, the prep cooks in charge of potatoes, each grab a 50-pound case of GPODs, from the Idaho company that sources Russet Burbank potatoes, known for their consistency, and place a massive plastic tub on the floor behind them. This morning, Alvino is flying, his left hand's fingers imperceptibly rotating the potato between upward strokes of the peeler, blindly flipping the naked spuds over his shoulder into the tub. I pull up my phone's stopwatch to time him for a minute, treating each potato as a lap: his slowest is 10.7 seconds, his quickest 6.4. Alvino, a shy man from the Dominican Republic, has been doing this same job for 15 years. "Like anything else, it was difficult at first," he says, but he caught his rhythm after a couple of months. Peralta has been at it for 14 years. Today, they will peel and chip about 600 pounds of potatoes. (Since russet supplies are short in late summer, Balthazar stockpiles thousands of cases of potatoes in a New Jersey warehouse.) Next, they will soak them in water that must be changed three times in order to leach out starch. The potatoes that are peeled today won't be fried, actually, until tomorrow, and then refried -- but that's another guy's job.
What an intricately designed system; even the menu is designed to drive profit.
McDonald's recently held an event where chefs took the ingredients used to make McDonald's menu items and used them to make dishes that one might find at a nice restaurant. Thrillist has the report.
The slow-cooked beef with blueberry pomegranate sauce and Mac Fry gnocchi comes from McD's chef Jessica Foust, and was, without a doubt, the best of the night. It's their burger beef before it gets ground, plus blueberries and pomegranates from the smoothies, thinly ribboned carrots, and French fries magically turned into gnocchi.
Jay Porter recently wrote a series of posts about his experience running a restaurant that abolished tipping. Here's part one:
This is a summary of the experiences I had in our no-tipping lab, and in my next few posts I'll dig a little deeper into each of them. Then I'll finish this series by talking about what I've learned this year from a couple new friends who are researchers from the University of Guelph, and who have brought me in contact with some deeper thoughts about the tipping issue, from the social justice side. After seeing what they and their colleagues have uncovered, I've become convinced that thoughtful cultures who value civil rights will make tipping not just optional but illegal; and that this could actually happen sooner rather than later, when courts assess the reality of the situation.
When we switched from tipping to a service charge, our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn't feel taken for granted. In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system. The quality of our service also improved. In my observation, however, that wasn't mainly because the servers were making more money (although that helped, too). Instead, our service improved principally because eliminating tips makes it easier to provide good service.
What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.
My wife and I eat out at least once a week and we used to travel all over the city to try all sorts of different places, just-opened hot spots and old favorites alike. It was great. But now we mostly go to a bar/restaurant1 around the corner from where we live and that's even better. Bruni covers the experience pretty well, but I just wanted to share a couple of seemingly small aspects of being a regular:
1. Our local is popular and always crowded, especially during the dreaded 7-10pm hours and double especially Thu-Sat nights. But even when I go in by myself at a peak time, when the bar's jam-packed, there's always a seat for me. It might take a bit, but something opens up and they slot me in, even if I'm only stopping in for a drink and they could seat a two-top for dinner at the bar. (A regular in the hand is worth two in the rush.)
2. This is a totally minor thing but I love it: more than once, I've come in early in the evening, had a drink, left without paying to go run an errand or meet someone somewhere else, and then come back later for another drink or dinner and then settle my bill. It's like having a house account without the house account.
3. Another nice thing about being a regular at a place that values regulars is that you meet the other regulars. This summer I was often left to my own devices for dinner and a couple times a week, I ended up at my local. And almost without exception, I ended up having dinner with someone I'd previously met at the bar. Routinely turning a solo dining experience into dinner with a friend is an amazing accomplishment for a restaurant.
 Something I read in one of food writer Jeffrey Steingarten's books has always stuck with me. He said there are certain restaurants he frequents that he never writes about critically. Those places are just for him and he would never recommend them to his readers. Having written for so long here on kottke.org, there are certain things I hold back, that are just for me. Having a public opinion on absolutely everything you love is no way to live.
So, no, I'm not going to tell you what restaurant I'm talking about. It's beside the point anyway...Bruni's not trying to persuade you to try Barbuto or Charlie Bird, it's about you finding your own local. ↩
When I was just out of college, my dad and I went to Beijing. One of my anxieties about the trip concerned my left-handedness, specifically going against the custom of not using your left hand (aka your bathroom hand) to eat. It turned out fine; the semi-expected reprimand never came.
Times have changed. Now, in Shanghai, you can go to a restaurant called Modern Toilet, which is actually one in a chain of Taiwanese stores that are toilet themed.
We are a group of "muckrakers" following our dreams. It all started when one of us was reading the manga, Dr. Slump on the toilet -- and the rest is history. In the beginning, we mainly sold ice cream -- a big pile of chocolate ice cream sold in containers shaped like a squat toilet. This humorous spin became a great success.
Upstairs, I took a seat at a table. My seat was a toilet. The table had a glass top. Under it, there was a bowl. In the bowl, there was a plastic swirly turd. The place mats were decorated with smiling turds.
Children tend to rise to the culinary bar we set for them, and children's menus in America set the bar very low indeed. To look at the standard kids' menu, greasy with prefab items like chicken fingers, tater tots, and mac-and-cheese, you might think that industrial food manufacturers have been responsible for setting it. But the delusion that a child even needs a special menu is a lot older than the chicken nuggets that have come to dominate it. In fact, the children's menu dates back to Prohibition, when, remarkably, it was devised with a child's health in mind.
I hate kid's menus. Our kids would happily order off the main menu but as soon as the promise of hot dogs and chicken fingers arrives with crayons, it's difficult to steer them away.
What has been the hottest IPO of the year so far? Some new-fangled technology perhaps? Or maybe a trend-setting company from one of the coasts set to take their product offering national and then global? Nope, it was a Denver-based, pasta-centric restaurant chain called Noodles & Co. The company's IPO bucked a lot of trends (including, it seems, the war on flour). Here's The Daily Beast on how a pasta chain punked Wall Street.
[That's Dave Pell's take from Nextdraft, but I have to weigh in here. I've eaten at Noodles & Co many times. I ate there last week, actually. The restaurants do well because the service is friendly & responsive, your order comes out quickly, and the food is remarkably good for the money you pay (like at Chipotle). No one would ever mistake the Pad Thai or Japanese Pan Noodles for the authentic thing, but they are both delicious. I like the Steak Stroganoff so much that I crave it even when surrounded by the amazing and varied food choices of NYC. No idea if Noodles & Co would do well in Manhattan, but they'd definitely have one customer. -jkottke]
Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn offers six reasons why tipping, particularly at restaurants, should be eliminated.
The friendships I've formed with restaurant employees over the years have made me think seriously about why hospitality workers are singled out among America's professionals to endure a pass-the-hat system of compensation. Why should a server's pay depend upon the generosity -- not to mention dubious arithmetic skills -- of people like me?
Just look at Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant that has over the past few years steadily risen the ranks of the World's 50 Best list (it's currently ranked No. 5). As recently as four years ago, it was just an expertly run restaurant, specializing in luxe ingredients, disarmingly warm service, and lovely meals. It got as many stars as it could from every venue that gave them out, but as a New Yorker story last September made clear, to get a high ranking on the World's 50 Best list, the restaurant had to do something different, so they moved from a standard menu to a "grid" menu in 2010 that was designed to offer diners a greater sense of control over their meals. It ranked 50th on the 2010 list, 24th on the 2011 list, and 10th when the 2012 list was announced in April of that year. In July 2012, the restaurant announced they'd be switching formats yet again, this time to a single tasting menu focused on New York terroir. (Some theatrical service elements that accompanied the meal -- long explanations of dish inspiration, for example -- got a negative reaction and have been more or less excised.) Did any of these changes make the restaurant "better"? Having eaten there a number of times over the years, this author would say that it's not really any better or worse -- it was and still is operating at the highest possible level a restaurant can. But it doesn't matter if the changes made the restaurant better: Every time the restaurant switched up its format, it got plenty of accompanying media coverage that let judges know they needed to return to see what was going on.
McDonald's started out as McDonald's Bar-B-Q in San Bernardino, CA in 1940. Here's a copy of the menu from that time:
The drive-in BBQ restaurant was a great success:
The restaurant had carhops serving guests and would often see 125 cars crowding the lot on weekends. They quickly saw their annual sales topping $200,000 on a regular basis.
But competitors opened similar restaurants and they were selling more hamburgers than barbequed ham so the McDonald brothers closed their place for three months to retool. They reopened as plain old McDonald's, serving cheap fare (like hamburgers) quickly. This is what an early version of the menu looked like:
The original McDonald's served potato chips and pie, which were swapped out for french fries and milkshakes after the first year; that photo must have been taken sometime after the switch. Ray Kroc got involved in 1955 and opened the first McDonald's franchise east of the Mississippi in Des Plaines, Illinois:
The version of the menu currently going around (on Reddit; I found it here) looks like it's from the Kroc era, the arches having been introduced in 1953, shortly before he got involved:
We take 38 oz of super-saddened, Cheez-gutted wolf meat, lambast it with honey pickle wasabi and pile drive it into an Ed Hardy-designed bucket. Sprayed with Axe and finished with a demiglaze of thick & funky Mushroom Dribblins.
Also, "Add a Cinnabon and two more Cinnabons $4.95". Also, "superbanged". Also, "ranch hose".
Update: Copy for parts of the menu were crowdsourced from Twitter. Which doesn't make it any less funny...just that the person who made it is not an "enterprising genius". (via everyone)
From back in August, Atul Gawande visits a Cheesecake Factory and wonders if the combination of "quality control, cost control, and innovation" achieved by chain restaurants can offer lessons to hospitals and other health care organizations.
The company's target last year was at least 97.5-per-cent efficiency: the managers aimed at throwing away no more than 2.5 per cent of the groceries they bought, without running out. This seemed to me an absurd target. Achieving it would require knowing in advance almost exactly how many customers would be coming in and what they were going to want, then insuring that the cooks didn't spill or toss or waste anything. Yet this is precisely what the organization has learned to do. The chain-restaurant industry has produced a field of computer analytics known as "guest forecasting."
"We have forecasting models based on historical data-the trend of the past six weeks and also the trend of the previous year," Gordon told me. "The predictability of the business has become astounding." The company has even learned how to make adjustments for the weather or for scheduled events like playoff games that keep people at home.
A computer program known as Net Chef showed Luz that for this one restaurant food costs accounted for 28.73 per cent of expenses the previous week. It also showed exactly how many chicken breasts were ordered that week ($1,614 worth), the volume sold, the volume on hand, and how much of last week's order had been wasted (three dollars' worth). Chain production requires control, and they'd figured out how to achieve it on a mass scale.
As a doctor, I found such control alien-possibly from a hostile planet. We don't have patient forecasting in my office, push-button waste monitoring, or such stringent, hour-by-hour oversight of the work we do, and we don't want to. I asked Luz if he had ever thought about the contrast when he went to see a doctor. We were standing amid the bustle of the kitchen, and the look on his face shifted before he answered.
"I have," he said. His mother was seventy-eight. She had early Alzheimer's disease, and required a caretaker at home. Getting her adequate medical care was, he said, a constant battle.
This piece was on several best-of-the-year longreads lists and deservedly so. But the Factory's 3000-calorie plate of pasta will probably not help the state of American health care.
The central attraction of the ground floor level is a huge mega-menu that lists every item from every McDonald's in the world, because this McDonald's serves ALL of them. There would probably have to be touch screen gadgets to help you navigate the menu. There would have to be whole screens just dedicated to the soda possibilities. A concierge would offer suggestions. Celebrities on the iPad menus would have their own "meals" combining favorites from home ("Manu Ginobili says 'Try the medialunas!'") with different stuff for a unique combination ONLY available at McWorld. You could get the India-specific Chicken Mexican Wrap ("A traditional Mexican soft flat bread that envelops crispy golden brown chicken encrusted with a Mexican Cajun coating, and a salad mix of iceberg lettuce, carrot, red cabbage and celery, served with eggless mayonnaise, tangy Mexican Salsa sauce and cheddar cheese." Wherever possible, the menu items' descriptions should reflect local English style). Maybe a bowl of Malaysian McDonald's Chicken Porridge or The McArabia Grilled Kofta, available in Pakistan and parts of the Middle East. You should watch this McArabia ad for the Middle Eastern-flavored remix of the "I'm Lovin' It" song if for nothing else.
And I loved his take on fast food as molecular gastronomy:
How much difference really is there between McDonald's super-processed food and molecular gastronomy? I used to know this guy who was a great chef, like his restaurant was in the Relais & Châteaux association and everything, and he'd always talk about how there were intense flavors in McDonald's food that he didn't know how to make. I've often thought that a lot of what makes crazy restaurant food taste crazy is the solemn appreciation you lend to it. If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like "It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal 'polenta' and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an 'umami powder' glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend." People would go just nuts for that. I mean even a Coca-Cola is a pretty crazy taste.
I love both mass-produced processed foods and the cooking of chefs like Grant Achatz & Ferran Adrià. Why is the former so maligned while the latter gets accolades when they're the same thing? (And simultaneously not the same thing at all, but you get my gist.) Cheetos are amazing. Oscar Meyer bologna is amazing. Hot Potato Cold Potato is amazing. Quarter Pounders with Cheese are amazing. Adrià's olives are amazing. Coca-Cola is amazing. (Warhol: " A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.") WD50's Everything Bagel is amazing. Cheerios are amazing. All have unique flavors that don't exist in nature -- you've got to take food apart and put it back together in a different way to find those new tastes.
1/2 meat + 1/2 meat = 3/2 meat. Forgetting is natural, like Chipotle meat, so let me remind you that when you add fractions you only add the top part, when the bottom part is the same number. Therefore, when you're asked what type of meat, and you say "half chicken and half steak", it should equal one serving of meat. But it never does. Because a scoop of meat is kinda just a scoop of meat, and nobody in Chipotle management has yet introduced new "half" scoops with which to more precisely address this perfectly legal request. So use it. IMPORTANT: Unlike with the beans, you should make your position on the half meats clear from the beginning, otherwise they charge you for "extra meat."
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Tokyo that many say serves the best sushi in the world. The chef/owner, 86-year-old Jiro Ono, was the subject of last year's excellent Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary film.
Adam Goldberg of A Life Worth Eating ate at Sukiyabashi Jiro yesterday. The meal was 21 courses, about US$380 per person (according the web site, excluding drinks), and lasted only 19 minutes. That's more than a course a minute and, Goldberg estimates, around $20 per person per minute. And apparently totally worth it.
Three slices of tuna came next, akami, chu-toro, and oo-toro increasing from lean, to medium fatty, to extremely fatty cuts. The akami (lean toro) was the most tender slice of tuna I've ever tasted that did not contain noticeable marbelization. The tuna was marinated in soy sauce for several minutes before service, perhaps contributing to this unique texture. The medium fatty tuna had an interesting mix of crunch and fat, while the fatty tuna just completely melted in my mouth. My friend with whom I shared this meal began to tear (I kid you not).
The sushi courses came out at a rate of one per minute. 19 courses in 19 minutes. No ordering, no real talking -- just making sushi and eating sushi. After the sushi is done you are motioned to leave the sushi bar and sit at a booth where you are served your melon. We took that melon at a leisurely 10 minute pace, leaving us with a bill of over $300 per person for just under 30 minutes time. Nastassia and Mark thought the pace was absurd and unpleasant. They felt obliged to keep up with Jiro's pace. I didn't feel obliged, but kept up anyway. I didn't mind the speed. I could have easily eaten even faster, but I'm an inhuman eating machine -- or so I'm told. At the end of the meal, Jiro went outside the restaurant and stood guard at the entrance, waiting to bid us formal adieu. This made Nastassia even more nervous about rushing to get out. Not me. At over 10 dollars a minute I have no problem letting an 86 year old man stand and wait for me to finish my melon if he wants to.
Our fish special is halibut with a mango-avocado salsa and Yukon Gold potatoes, and it's market-priced at sixteen-ninety-five. Sounds like a lot of money, right? Sounds like "Hey, Joe, that's a piece of fish and a little topping there, and some potatoes." "Bidaydas," my great-grandmother from County Louth would have called 'em. You know what I'm talking about. Just simple, basic, sitting-around-the-kitchen-table-on-a-Tuesday-night food. Nothin' fancy, right? But, folks, that's not the whole story. If you believe that, you're not... getting... the whole... story. Because lemme tell you about these Yukon Gold potatoes. These Yukon Gold potatoes are brushed with extra-virgin olive oil and hand-sprinkled with pink Himalayan sea salt, and then José, our prep guy. . . . Well. Lemme tell you about José. (He pauses, looks down, clears his throat.)
I get... I get emotional talking about José. This is a guy who -- José gets here at ten in the morning. Every morning, rain or shine. Takes the bus here. Has to transfer twice. Literally gets off one bus and onto another. Twice. Never complains. Rain, snow, it's hailin' out there.... The guy literally does not complain. Never. Never heard it. José walks in, hangs his coat on a hook, big smile on his face, says hello to everybody -- Sal the dishwasher, Angie the sous-chef, Frank, Donna, Pat.... And then do you know what he does? Do you know what José does? I'll tell you what he does, and folks, folks, this is the point I want to make. With his own hands, he sprinkles fresh house-grown rosemary on those potatoes (raises voice to a thundering crescendo), and they are golden brown on the outside and soft on the inside and they are delicious! They are delicious! They are delicious!
The Cheesecake Factory has a hundred and sixty restaurants that each feature more than three hundred menu items that are served up to cool eighty million customers a year. Whether you're a fan of the Cheesecake Factory or not, there's no denying that -- like many major chains that enjoy the benefits of scale -- their product is consistent, the prices remain under control, and their efficiency is impressive. The New Yorker's always excellent Atul Gawande wonders: What can hospitals learn about quality from the Cheesecake Factory?
Why does McDonald's food look so much better in the ads than at the restaurant? Watch as the director of marketing for McDonald's Canada buys a Quarter Pounder at McDonald's and compares that to a burger prepared by a food stylist and retouched in post by an image editor.
Short answer: the burger at the restaurant is optimized for eating and the photo burger is optimized for looking delicious. (via ★interesting)
For many of the guys that work here, the restaurant is like a second home -- some of them have been slinging burgers, making shakes, and waiting on customers at this location for decades. Opened in 1938, the place hasn't been altered since the early '60s, and it looks all the better for it.
Prime Burger, the 74-year-old coffee shop and restaurant, run for 36 years by the DiMiceli family, is closing. And though Michael DiMiceli spoke hopefully on Friday of finding a new space in which to reinstall Prime Burger's futuristic "Jetsons"-era d'ecor, the family has scarcely had time yet to look or to strike a deal. The small building in which Prime Burger is a tenant was sold recently, and the new owners sent the restaurant packing.
Some American writers had nibbled at the idea of professional restaurant criticism before this, including Claiborne, who had written one-off reviews of major new restaurants for The Times. But his first "Directory to Dining," 50 years ago this month, marks the day when the country pulled up a chair and began to chow down. Within a few years, nearly every major newspaper had to have a Craig Claiborne of its own. Reading the critics, eating what they had recommended, and then bragging or complaining about it would become a national pastime.
As the current caretaker of the house that Claiborne built, I lack objectivity on this subject. Still, I believe that without professional critics like him and others to point out what was new and delicious, chefs would not be smiling at us from magazine covers, subway ads and billboards. They would not be invited to the White House, except perhaps for job interviews. Claiborne and his successors told Americans that restaurants mattered. That was an eccentric opinion a half-century ago. It's not anymore.
It's sad but true that plenty of New York restaurants will raise an eyebrow if you bring in the kids. But plenty won't! Consider spacious, friendly Coppelia downtown (Latin fare) or Kefi uptown (Greek) for great food that's inexpensive for a sit-down spot and has enough simpler options that there will be something for picky eaters. The next morning, take the kids to Doughnut Plant (if you're willing to sacrifice the notion of a balanced breakfast) for all sorts of flavors they'll stare at wide-eyed. PB-loving kids will love Peanut Butter and Company for lunch, where they can get their favorite sandwich in a dozen ways. Other good options include Shake Shack for burgers or Bark for hot dogs, if you're out in Park Slope.
If you need a snack uptown, the gigantic chocolate chip cookies at Levain should do the trick (take note: these are big enough to share). Kefi's a logical choice nearby for dinner, but if you find yourself downtown, consider Mario Batali's Otto, where parents will appreciate the sophistication and kids will love the huge plates of pasta. (Try to make a reservation as waits can be long, which might not be good with tired kids.)
If there was a "Jason shortlist" category, I would include Ssam Bar, Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, Marea, Per Se, Mendy's (chix salad sandwich), Katz's, Ma Peche, Spotted Pig, Fedora, Joseph Leonard, Parm, Despana, Xi'an Famous Foods, Colicchio and Sons, Tia Pol, The Modern Bar Room, Pastis, Patsy's, Morandi, Murray's Cheese Shop, Hill Country Chix, Grey Dog, Nice Green Bo, Peter Luger, Keen's, Artisinal, Bouchon Bakery, Burger Joint, and The Beagle. Ok, not such a short list and I'm sure I forgot some of my favorites. (via @anildash)
How the burger could change lives I never divined, but on occasion it was magnificent, as beefy and flavorful as the outer quarter-inch of a Peter Luger porterhouse.
More often, though, the meat was cooked to the color of wet newsprint, inside and out, and salted so meekly that eating it was as satisfying as hearing a friend talk about a burger his cousin ate.
Even when the burgers were great, they could be great in one of two distinct ways. In the classic Shake Shack patty, a tower of ground beef is flattened against a searing griddle with a metal press and made to stay there, spitting and hissing, until one surface turns all brown and crunchy. A patty handled this way takes command of a Shackburger, standing up to its tangy sauce, its crisp lettuce, its wheels of plum tomato.
Sometimes, though, the grill cook hadn't had the energy needed for smashing and searing. Instead the patty was tall, soft and melting, so pink inside that its juices began to soak the bun at the first bite. Good as this version was, it was anomalous.
The Shack Burger is still my favorite hamburger and sitting in Madison Square Park eating one on a warm night with friends -- hell, even waiting in line for 45 minutes catching up -- is one of my favorite NYC activities.
From the This Must Be the Place series, a lovely short film about the Prime Burger Restaurant in midtown Manhattan. The restaurant opened in 1938 and one of the servers, Artie, has been there since 1952.
For many of the guys that work here, the restaurant is like a second home -- some of them have been slinging burgers, making shakes, and waiting on customers at this location for decades. Opened in 1938, the place hasn't been altered since the early '60s, and it looks all the better for it. Here the waiters and workers of Prime Burger discuss their views on their chosen profession, and the unique nature of the place itself.
So why the need to order right? Because to keep up with the fast food chains, the DiMicelis started par-broiling their burgers. Par-broiling produces a less juicy burger. So when you order at Prime Burger specify you want your burger ($5.25 for a hamburger, $5.95 for a cheeseburger) made from scratch, and that you're willing to wait the extra few minutes.
Famed pizzeria Grimaldi's is being forced out of their space under the Brooklyn Bridge and is moving up the block...without their coveted coal oven. But now comes word that Patsy Grimaldi, former owner of Grimaldi's, is moving into the old space with a new restaurant called Juliana's. If I recall correctly, about half of the Grimaldi's menu is devoted to a telling of the Patsy's/Grimaldi's feud...looks like they're gonna need another page or two.
Next is a restaurant like no other. Every season the menu and service explore an entirely different cuisine. Buying a ticket is the only way to get in... and the entire season sold out in a few hours. The inaugural menu took diners back to Paris: 1906, Escoffier at the Ritz for a multi-course pre fixe dinner that was described by the New York Times as "Belle Epoque dishes largely unseen on American tables for generations."
Ok, someone needs to do this: 1. Open a restaurant (in New York, say) that features old menus from Next every three months using the Next cookbooks to plan menus. 2. Call it Previous. 3. Profit!
When a hurricane makes landfall, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency relies on a couple of metrics to assess its destructive power.
First, there is the well-known Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. Then there is what he calls the "Waffle House Index."
Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions.
"If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?" FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has said. "That's really bad. That's where you go to work."
The idea that drama resides only in conflict is a superficial truth. The fascinating magic of watching a high-level kitchen function lies partly in the accretion of detail, as you see the dishes being constructed in layers and with the kind of expertise that, as in a good theater production, makes the most difficult feats look easy.
Hopeful reservation makers for Chef RJ Cooper's new Rogue 24 in Washington, DC are asked to sign a 2 page contract which defines the cancellation policy (half charge for cancellation 3 days out, full charge for cancellation day of), bans cell phones and cameras, and asks the diners to choose one of 2 tasting menus (with or without wine pairing). The contract is here. I don't know why they use a paper contract and not a webform.
RJ Cooper on changes to the reservation contract at Rogue 24. In their defense, I don't think having a cancellation policy is a problem, especially if it's stated, but not always enforced, as this one was.
I get the sense that you had no idea this contract would be a point of controversy.
No, I didn't. But it's not any different than going to Minibar or Alinea. The difference is that Alinea has six reservationists that can handle that; we have one. Minibar has six seats; we have 52. Komi has a no camera and phone policy in their restaurant. What's the difference? Is it going to make experience better to have a phone? ... I'd rather just sit and really enjoy the experience of a place like this. Are we doing this out of arrogance? No. Are we doing it out of being hyped? No. We're doing it to make sure you as a diner have a valued experience.
Chef Dave is really inspired by a children's book right now, and our next menu can be entirely built on that. Or we can be an exact replica of another time and place. One menu might be from my memory: My first day at The French Laundry. It comes down to trying to be expressive. You can be expressive with a plate of food, or with the whole concept of a restaurant.
Another menu we're planning is El Bulli. One course from each year from 1983 to 2003. I'd work with Ferran [Adria] to choose the dishes that he feels are his most significant; I'd need to get him on board with that.
That El Bulli menu? Fucking crazytown. And this is the third or fourth time I've heard about the "first day at The French Laundry" menu and every single time my mouth starts watering and my hand reaches for my wallet. (via @kathrynyu)
Clearly the In-N-Out burgers making their trans-continental trip by plane would be at a disadvantage to the made-fresh-in-the-same-city burgers from Five Guys and Shake Shack, so in order to compensate for this, we made the decision to handicap all three burgers by the same amount. After a careful synchronization of watches, burgers were ordered from their respective establishments at precisely 1 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time (that's 9 p.m. EST, 6 p.m. Pacific) and not tasted until the following morning.
I used to be a big In-N-Out fan (their burger is still a great fast food burger), but the slightly more upscale Shack Burger is my favorite burger in the whole wide world...it is indeed, as the article states, "a marvel of beefy engineering".
What you actually find when you arrive at L'Ami Louis is singularly unprepossessing. It's a long, dark corridor with luggage racks stretching the length of the room. It gives you the feeling of being in a second-class railway carriage in the Balkans. It's painted a shiny, distressed dung brown. The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository. In the middle of the room is a stubby stove that also looks vaguely proctological.
Kenji from Serious Eats went to In-N-Out, found a willing employee accomplice ("Awesome! I've been waiting for this day ever since I started working here!"), and proceeded to order one of everything off of the menu, the well-known secret menu, and the not-so-well-known super secret menu.
That should make you feel better about yourself when you tuck into the meat and cheese fest known as the Flying Dutchman -- the ultimate Atkins-friendly menu item. Two slices of cheese melted between two burger patties. No rabbit food, no wimpy buns, just pure protein and fat. Want to kick up the manliness by yet another factor? Ask for a Flying Dutchman Animal Style and they'll add a scoop of diced onions to the cheese. Pickles and spread will come on the side, so you'll have to add them yourself. "I wish we could add the spread and pickles for you, but it's just too messy for the cooks," explained an apologetic Thomas. The result definitely wins the award for messiest menu item of all time.
For six months of the year, heralded chef Ferran Adrià and his team of experts concoct new dishes for the 30 course menu of the world famous El Bulli Restaurant. Here we watch their behind-the-scenes process, an artistic laboratory of tasting, smelling, designing and carefully recording each new idea, then selecting their top choices.
The two of them -- the spare, driven artist and the comfortable, fluid patron -- evoke a modern Michelangelo and Medici, bonded by mutual trust and now locked into a very public artistic endeavor. With Next, Mr. Achatz is operating at a level of creative and financial freedom enjoyed by very few artists and only a handful of chefs in history.
And this line got me more excited than I should admit:
A menu might be designed around a single day -- say, the Napa Valley on Oct. 28, 1996, the day Mr. Achatz started work at the French Laundry, where he remained until 2001.
I tweeted earlier this evening about the Buffalo wings blue cheese dip I made for tomorrow's football festivities and a couple people were wondering about the recipe, so here you go. Legend has it this is the original recipe from the Anchor Bar (aka the birthplace for Buffalo wings), clipped out of a Buffalo newspaper by Meg's mother in the 70s and copied out longhand in Meg's recipe notebook.
2 tbsp finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp white vinegar
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste
Combine. Chill. Me? I did the onion and garlic first and then added the lemon juice and vinegar and let that sit while I measured out the mayo and sour cream. Salt and peppers after everything else is mixed. Tastes great! Go Buffalo!
Mr. Chang said that he had talked to television networks about doing a program, but that this offered more freedom and more possibilities, as well as providing research and development for his restaurants. "We were able to go a little deeper than we could have on TV, without being constrained by the networks," he said. "They wanted yelling. They wanted everything but education."
With little more than two weeks before the planned opening, he was still formulating the initial menu and pricing. For one appetizer he envisioned a Gruyere, leek and potato veloute; for another, Arctic char in aspic. For entrees he was mulling a pork cheek, a veal shank, Dover sole for two. These would probably be served as part of a three-course prix fixe for $58, he said.
Nothing too unconventional there. But beyond the plate, he said, anything goes. Although he'll take reservations, he's bypassing the Web service Open Table (too cumbersome). And he's curious about having a marching band stomp through some night. Obligatory resourcefulness has given way to revolutionary thoughts.
The theme of the 64-page first issue is history, so Keller and co. have collected stories -- and the expected gorgeous photography -- all about the Laundry and every aspect of the restaurant: longtime staffers, former cooks, journalists.
Ruth Reichl and Michael Ruhlman pen articles. Chefs of all kinds make cameos. But it's more than that -- the magazine also highlights lesser known, yet essential parts of the French Laundry machine, like the wine producer who partners with the restaurant to create the Cuvee French Laundry.
I wanted T.G.I. Friday's to feel like a neighbourhood, corner bar, where you could get a good hamburger, good french fries, and feel comfortable. At the time, it was a sophisticated hamburger and french fry place -- apparently, I invented the idea of serving burgers on a toasted English muffin -- but the principle involved was to make people feel that they were going to someone's apartment for a cocktail party.
The food eventually played a larger role than I imagined it would, because a lot of the girls didn't have enough money to stretch from one paycheque to the other, so I became the purveyor of free hamburgers at the end of the month.
I don't think there was anything else like it at the time. Before T.G.I. Friday's, four single twenty-five year-old girls were not going out on Friday nights, in public and with each other, to have a good time. They went to people's apartments for cocktail parties or they might go to a real restaurant for a date or for somebody's birthday, but they weren't going out with each other to a bar for a casual dinner and drinks because there was no such place for them to go.
The limitations that we have are, I think, severe. We don't have a freezer, anywhere. We don't have ice cream or sorbet, we don't have anything that needs to be frozen, it's all fresh, fresh, fresh. We've got refrigerators touching each other over there. We've got ten burners, two ovens, a fryer and a salamander. That's what most people have as a prep kitchen. It's really impressive when I look at how we've got five seafood entrees, five meat entrees, thirteen appetizers, all done with these varying, beautiful techniques and preparations. I tip my hat to everything that Jim and the team in the kitchen have been able to pull off.
It took awhile for my wife and I to warm up to it, but Joe Leo is our go-to neighborhood restaurant now. On our one child-free night out a week, we generally end up there.
The new menu at Alinea is 21 courses long and takes about 2.5 hours for a meal according to a Tweet by Alinea chef Grant Achatz. In June, Alinea announced they would only be offering one menu, down from two, though that menu was discussed as 15-16 courses.
According to the In-N-Out nutrition guideline, replacing the Spread with ketchup results in a decrease of 80 calories per sandwich. I know that ketchup has about 15 calories per tablespoon, so If we estimate that an average sandwich has about 2 tablespoons of sauce on it (that's the amount that's inside a single packet), then we can calculate that the Spread has got about 55 calories per tablespoon (110 calories in two tablespoons of Spread minus 30 calories in 2 tablespoons of ketchup = 80 calories difference in the sandwich). With me so far?
It just so happens that relish has about the same caloric density as ketchup (15 calories per tablespoon), and that mayonnaise has a caloric density of 80 calories per tablespoon. Using all of this information and a bit of 7th grade algebra, I was able to quickly calculate that the composition of the Spread is roughly 62 percent mayo, and 38 percent ketchup/relish blend.
From a collection of old menus from Colorado, the 1892 menu from a Denver restaurant called The Boston Bakery and Lunch Room (For Ladies and Gents).
Porterhouse steak with mushrooms: 70 cents. This particular menu also contains a sort of customer bill of rights: an explanation of how waiters should treat customers and how the restaurant will catch you if you try to skip out on your check.
Now, we want your trade, and we do not care whether your check is 5¢ or $5; you will be rightly treated and correctly waited upon, or we will know the reason why, if you will only report any neglect to the head waiter or to us before leaving your seat.
The waiters are instructed to be civil and polite to every one, whether they are so to them or not, for even should the customer use bad manners, the waiter must not.
Have no conversation with the customer, except what is strictly necessary.
Give everyone a napkin who asks for it.
p>Give each one a glass of water as soon as seated.
Be as quick and quiet as possible.
Place the orders down quietly; don't slam them down.
Give each customer a check as son as you serve the order and see that it is kept in sight. Very few beats come in here, but experience has taught us that there are some. We will give any waiter $2.00 who will give us information that will enable us or the head waiter to detect any one in the act of Check Beating.
We want to call the customer's attention to the fact that when we are looking at your checks and orders, it is as much to see that you are rightly served and not over-checked as that your not under-checked. Most would understand this but some might not.
Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas, and his team are opening a restaurant called Next:
No reservations...you have to buy tickets, like for a play or a ballgame.
Your tickets will be fully inclusive of all charges, including service. Ticket price will depend on which seating you buy -- Saturday at 8 PM will be more expensive than Wednesday at 9:30 PM. This will allow us to offer an amazing experience at a very reasonable price. We will also offer an annual subscription to all four menus at a discount with preferred seating.
The menu changes four times a year and each menu will be influenced by a particular place and time (Paris 1912, Hong Kong 2036). A Mad Men-era NYC menu please?
The magic to our hamburgers is quality control. We toast our buns on a grill -- a bun toaster is faster, cheaper, and toasts more evenly, but it doesn't give you that caramelized taste. Our beef is 80 percent lean, never frozen, and our plants are so clean, you could eat off the floor. The burgers are made to order -- you can choose from 17 toppings. That's why we can't do drive-throughs -- it takes too long. We had a sign: "If you're in a hurry, there are a lot of really good hamburger places within a short distance from here." People thought I was nuts. But the customers appreciated it.
Good name too. My son frequently asks if we're "going to go visit the five guys" to get "hangleburgers and peanuts".
Visitors to the restaurant are ushered into an air-conditioned, flood-lit hall filled with dozens of glass-topped tables. Unlike North Korea proper, which is wracked by economic sanctions and constant famines, the food here is fresh and abundant. The menu features specialties such as Pyongyang "cold noodle" (served encrusted with ice), barbecued cuttlefish, stringy dangogi (dog meat) soup, and countless variations on the kimchi theme, all served with glutinous white rice.
This list of secret restaurant menus is informative, hilarious, and possibly innaccurate in places. Fatburger will serve you something called the Hypocrite (veggie burger topped with bacon) and at the classy Long John Silvers you can get a Side of Crumbs, a free box of the fried batter parts that have fallen off of the fried seafood items. Mmmmmm!!! (via cyn-c)
Update: Several of my British moles have informed me that it is common practice at some fish and chips shops to ask for a "bag of scraps", which is where LJS got the idea for their Side of Crumbs. More info here.
Chef Keller looked down at the magazine and spoke softly: Read this tonight when you go home. His food really sounds interesting, and right up your alley. I think you should go stage there this summer....I will arrange it for you.
In 2014 we will serve meals, but we will consider the format used and the booking system. But still two years of operation of El Bulli and four years to open the doors again.
Or perhaps the restaurant is moving to Austria? Or will become a McDonald's franchise? Who knows what El Bulli news tomorrow holds! Stay tuned. (thx, susan)
Update: Here's some clarification from The Guardian. The restaurant will cease to be a commercial enterprise and will instead be a non-profit foundation "similar to those that run museums and art centres".
Adrià has given himself two years to think about what the new foundation will do. "We are open to suggestions," he said. But he is absolutely sure it will involve cooking and serving food on El Bulli's hallowed premises.
Update:The NY Times clarifies (is that even a word we can apply to this mess at this point?) Adrià's earlier statements about closing the restaurant permanently...it sounds as though he doesn't exactly know what he's doing with it:
"There is nothing defined except that when El Bulli opens in 2014 it will be as a foundation," he said. "We have not decided what the structure of that foundation will be,'' he continued, noting that many culinary foundations "serve food to the public.''
elBulli, the Spanish restaurant routinely named the number one restaurant in the world, will close for two years beginning in 2012.
Adrià and his team will still be working at elBulli, developing ideas and trying to figure out what comes next. But he says the restaurant's current format is finished. "When we come back in 2014, it's not going to be the same," Adrià says.
Call it overrated if you'd like, but Ssam Bar is still the only place in NYC (or perhaps the world) where you can eat, using chopsticks, German-inspired cuisine served to you by a native Spanish speaker while drinking a glass of sparkling red wine and listening to 90s hip-hop in a restaurant conceived by an American junior golf champion from Virginia whose parents were from Korea.
If I had to choose my all-time favorite restaurant dishes, the smoked haddock chowder from The Spotted Pig would definitely be on there, possibly in the top five. Years after I asked Ed Levine of Serious Eats if he could get the recipe, he finally posts the recipe for me.
When infusing the haddock, think of making a cup of tea. You want to pull all the smoky flavors out into the cream. This will result in a deeply rich soup. Once you make this you will never go back to another chowder.
Thank you Ed and April! (I'm really holding back on the exclamation points here; I'm almost irrationally excited to cook this for dinner tomorrow night...if I can find smoked haddock somewhere in NYC...)
There is much about the restaurant that is inefficient, as MBAs are quick to note: Adrià should lower his staff numbers, use cheaper ingredients, improve his supply chain, and increase the restaurant's hours of operation. But "fixing" elBulli turns it into just another restaurant, says Norton: "The things that make it inefficient are part of what makes it so valuable to people."
For the first time ever, a Michelin Guide reviewer knowingly sits down to a meal with a journalist, New Yorker writer John Colapinto. The resulting article is pretty interesting; here's my favorite bit:
Le Bernardin was one of only four restaurants in New York (along with Jean Georges, Thomas Keller's Per Se, and the now defunct Alain Ducasse at the Essex House) that earned three stars in the debut issue of the Michelin guide, and it has held on to its three stars ever since. Ripert estimates that revenues increased by eighteen per cent when the first guide came out, but the pressure to hold on to his stars has also escalated.
An 18% increase? Assuming that Le Bernardin was already booked solid before the guide came out and expenses remained constant, that means that the same number of diners generated that increase...presumably Michelin Guide readers spend more on dining than even Le Bernardin regulars do. Margins on Manhattan restaurants, even the fancy ones, generally aren't that large...an 18% increase is insane.
Update: A slight clarification. I fudged the 18% revenue increase into an 18% increase in profits...which isn't the case. But since I'm assuming that the revenue increased was generated by the about same number of customers and that most of the expenses (rent, staff, etc.) stayed the same, the profit margin had to increase by some significant amount (for a Manhattan restaurant). And if those new customers ordered more tasting menus or more expensive bottles of wine, I would assume that the profit margin on those items are higher than average as well. So, my guess is that if you asked Eric Ripert if Le Bernardin's profit margin increased after the Michelin Guide came out, he would answer in the affirmative...but it wouldn't be an 18% increase.
Upon tasting it, my immediate thoughts are mayo, ketchup, a little yellow mustard, a hint of garlic and paprika, perhaps a touch of cayenne pepper, and an elusive sour quality that I can't quite pinpoint. It's definitely not just vinegar or lemon juice, nor is does it have the cloying sweetness of relish. Pickle juice? Cornichon? Some other type of vinegar? I can't figure it out. This was going to take a little more effort.
Totally doing this for dinner one of these nights. We'll probably cheat on the ground beef...we've got some Pat LaFrieda patties stockpiled in the freezer.
Keller showcases dishes that can be made every day (and not just for special occasions). Invaluable lessons, secrets, tips and tricks -- as well as charming personal anecdotes -- accompany recipes for such classics as the best fried chicken, beef Stroganoff, roasted spring leg of lamb, hamburger, the crispiest fried fish, chicken soup with dumplings, potato hash with bacon and melted onions, and superlative grilled cheese sandwiches, apple fritters, buttermilk biscuits, relishes and pickles, cherry pie -- 200 recipes in all.
It's due November 1. Ruhlman, did you have a hand in this one?
Banh Mi Saigon Bakery, one of my favorite places to get my lunch on, gets a shout-out in the NY Times. The bread is really fantastic. I'm intrigued by the sandwich at Silent H called the Greenpoint:
Elsewhere in Brooklyn, where authenticity is not as strictly enforced, Vinh Nguyen has created a succulent banh mi at Silent H called the Greenpoint: a tribute to the area's many traditional Polish butcher shops. Instead of cha lua, smooth pork terrine, he lays on Krakowska kielbasa, a smoked sausage. "That smokiness and pepperiness makes perfect sense on a banh mi," he said. "I would be a fool to ignore these great traditional products being made in my neighborhood."
It was September 29th; exactly two months from the Saturday of Thanksgiving break and one of the few times I would be able to make the trek up to New York to dine at Per Se. I would have to call to make the reservation at Per Se at exactly 10 A.M today if I had any hope of getting that Saturday reservation. The only problem? I had school.
I sat patiently in my 9:30 - 10:25 science class as the clock neared 10. Very strategically, at exactly 9:57, I innocently asked to use the bathroom. I walked, no sprinted to the bathroom down the hall. I scrolled down my contact list until I reached Per Se, then dialed, and waited...
Really fascinating was what he and McNally did for Pastis -- it doesn't actually have a visual brand. McNally wanted the restaurant to look like it had been in the neighborhood for years, so Bologna constructed this narrative of a family that had maintained the restaurant for a century, and each generation some element gets updated or redesigned, but without going for consistency or even style. The result is completely different-looking signage, awnings, menus, wine lists, checks... everything uses a different palette, type set, but its essential Frenchiness ties everything together. It's an anti-brand.
The name of the restaurant is thus a play on pastiche in addition to being named after the French aperitif. (via eater)
"Like so many restaurants across New York City, Saigon Grill was run on the backs of its workers," Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. "These workers allowed the business to thrive, and in exchange they were allegedly cheated out of wages, fined for ridiculous reasons" and, he said, "pulled into a painstaking ploy to cover it all up."
"I dedicate myself to consuming all sorts of ideas," says Shopsin, an avid reader and Internet crawler. "Eventually something inside me, probably skewed by my erotic feelings about breasts and things like that, assembles a product and just shoots it up." For example, a recent item on the food blog Serious Eats about foods on a stick led to the State Fair combo plate: corn-dog sausage, s'mores pancakes and chicken-fried eggs. New dishes are printed on the menu the same day: "I spent almost $3,000 on toner in the last three months," Shopsin says.
Standing outside, dipping his roll into peanut sauce, he said he liked to eat standing up. "If I couldn't eat in a four-star restaurant again, it would mean nothing to me," he said. "But if someone said I couldn't eat any more cilantro, I would be very upset."
Remember the fun we had reading about this root beer tasting a few months back? The #1 root beer from that tasting, Sprecher (from Wisconsin), is now available on the root beer section of the menu at Ssam Bar. My Moscato d'Asti-addled brain forgot to get a bottle to go when I was there last, but I'll be back for you soon, Sprecher.
Sterling Cooper, as every fan with a pause button knows, is at 405 Madison Ave., an address that...does not exist. If it did exist, it would be where a bank of Chase ATMs is now, not the ideal spot to spend the morning, but don't worry, soon it will be 11:30 and time for your first cocktail.
One place the article doesn't mention is Lutèce, the fancy French place frequented by the bigwigs in the show. It closed in 2004. (thx, jake)
If they came to Lutèce, if they came to my kitchen, yes. I would not go out. If they asked me to go to Chicago to do a fund-raising dinner, it was, "No." If they asked me to come to give me a prize or whatever, I said, "Only on Sundays, when I'm not in the kitchen." I was sort of a slave to my restaurant. And my wife too. I don't say it was right. Today, I maybe say it was wrong. Years ago, in Paris, we had no money. But when we were more comfortable, maybe twenty years later, I said, "Simone, you know, you've paid your dues and everything, I buy you whatever you wish." I was thinking to buy her a ring or a necklace or something like that. "Whatever you wish, tell me." She looked at me and said, "Take me to a movie." For twenty years, I hadn't taken her to a movie. I woke up. I said, "Oh my God, what did I do to my wife?"
And finally but wonderfully, a timeline of food in NYC. The first McDonald's opened here in 1972 and Starbucks in 1994. Hanger steak was big in 1990.
Grant and his partner Nick Kokonas, along with designer Martin Kastner and his wife, photographer Lara Kastner, wanted to do it on their own and so they have. Kastner, I believe a sculptor by trade, had never designed a book. His wife had never photographed a book, food or otherwise. Grant and Nick had never done a book either. And they were told by numerous publishers (in a nasally dismissive tone, Kokonas suggested) that they just didn't have the skill or experience to do what they wanted to ("Gray pages?! You can't do gray pages!" "You can't sell a book like this at that price.")
It was about a General Electric plant in Durham, North Carolina, that made jet engines, and it offered a portrait of the perfect work environment: a factory that had more than 170 employees but just one boss. All the engine technicians reported directly to the plant manager, who did not have the time or the inclination to micromanage. There was no time clock, and people set their own schedules. Pay was egalitarian (there were only three pay grades), and workers who assembled the engines could switch tasks each day so their jobs were not monotonous. The result? In terms of quality, the plant was nearly perfect. Three-quarters of the engines it produced were flawless, and the remaining 25 percent typically had only a slight cosmetic defect.
The no-management rule worked at Fog Creek for a time but as the employee count crept up, cracks appeared in the system. Employees became disgrunted, in part because of a perceived lack of availability of the only two members of management, the CEO (Spolsky) and the president. To fix the problem, Fog Creek established a small layer of middle management.
First, we eliminated the need to get both me and Michael in the room. You have a question? I'm the CEO. Talk to me. If I want to consult with Michael, that's my problem, not yours. Second, we appointed leaders for two of the programming teams -- in effect, creating that layer of hierarchy that I had tried to avoid.
And frankly, people here seem to be happier with a little bit of middle management. Not middle management that's going to overrule the decisions they make on their own. Not symbolic middle management that only makes people feel important. But middle management that creates useful channels of communication. If my job is getting obstacles out of the way so my employees can get their work done, these managers exist so that, when an employee has a local problem, there's someone there, in the office next door, whom they can talk to.
Given his inital progressive approach to building a company, I'm surprised that Spolsky didn't try something a bit different. For instance, Adaptive Path is structured using an advocate system. AP co-founder Peter Merholz explained the system to me via email.
It's a way of avoiding typical management structures, where you have people reporting up a hierarchy. Our current structure has two levels... Executive management, and everyone else. That "everyone else" doesn't report to the executive management. Instead, the report to one another through the advocate system. Each employee has an advocate. An advocate is like a manager, except they don't tell you what to do. They are there to help you achieve what you want, professionally. Employees choose their own advocates. They simply ask someone if they would be their advocate.
Merholz allows that what the advocacy system doesn't help with is communication across the organization -- the very problem that was plaguing Fog Creek -- and would likely work best alongside a light layer of middle management. But with the right guidelines and some slight changes, I believe it could work well in a company of 20-30 employees.
The Grey Dog's Coffee restaurants -- there are two locations in Manhattan -- use a slightly different system of rotating management. Co-owner David Ethan explains.
From a historic perspective, I like to think that it's one of the few truly bohemian places left in New York City, just based on the way we run it, like a commune. The management system here is that everybody manages. In order to work here you have two tries to show you can manage the place and if you can't, you're fired. Everybody manages about one shift a week and everybody's equal. People work hard for each other. I don't want to let you down because tomorrow it will be me. And I think they enjoy the responsibility of running a New York City restaurant. They get to pick the music, set the vibe, the lighting, everything. And they're all pretty laid back, so it's got a bohemian nature.
Running a restaurant each day and operating a software development company are quite different (for one thing, having a new boss every week wouldn't work at a company like Fog Creek), but rotating managers on a project-by-project basis might work well. (BTW, I think Adaptive Path at one point rotated the presidency of the company through each of the founders in one-year chunks.)
Pentagram's organizational structure provides a third possible way of avoiding a traditional system of middle management...although probably less germane to the Fog Creek situation than the previous two examples. The company is composed of several loosely connected teams that operate more or less autonomously while sharing some necessary services. Pentagram partner Paula Scher explained the system in her book, Make It Bigger.
As a design firm Pentagram's structure is unique; it is essentially a group of small businesses linked together financially through necessary services and through mutual interests. Each partner maintains a design team, usually consisting of a senior designer, a couple of junior designers, and a project coordinator. The partners share accounting services, secretarial and reception services, and maintain a shared archive. Pentagram partners are responsible for attracting and developing their own business, but they pool their billings, draw the same salary, and share profit in the form of an annual bonus. It's a cooperative...
She goes on to add:
Pentagram's unique structure enabled me to operate as if I were a principal at a powerful corporate design firm while maintaining the individuality of a small practitioner.
Working small with the resources of a bigger firm, that's the common thread here. I imagine there are many more similar approaches but these are a few I've run across in the past couple of years.
I locked in a price of two dollar signs and shook again. Up came the Morgan Dining Room, and off went an alarm in my head. Isn't the Morgan Dining Room a lunch place that's closed most nights? I called to make sure, and, sure enough, got a recording.
Urbanspoon is more of a beginning than an end, unable to factor in, for example, whether the restaurant it's recommending books up a month in advance (Babbo, for example) or often has long waits (Momofuku Ssam Bar). That's a troublesome shortcoming in New York, where competition for seats in the most popular places is fierce.
According to The Waiter, eighty percent of customers are nice people just looking for something to eat. The remaining twenty percent, however, are socially maladjusted psychopaths. Waiter Rant offers the server's unique point of view, replete with tales of customer stupidity, arrogant misbehavior, and unseen bits of human grace transpiring in the most unlikely places. Through outrageous stories, The Waiter reveals the secrets to getting good service, proper tipping etiquette, and how to keep him from spitting in your food. The Waiter also shares his ongoing struggle, at age thirty-eight, to figure out if he can finally leave the first job at which he's truly thrived.
At considerably more lofty establishments, though, formal family meals take place shortly before lunch or dinner service, giving staff members time to both relax and rev up before their long and arduous shifts. It's a simple concept, and as I discovered while hopping from one acclaimed New York restaurant to the next, if you're lucky to work somewhere that serves caramelized, blanched, or poached vegetables, rather than "bloomin' " ones, you're in for a real treat.
I was wondering the other day what the family meal is like at a place like Alinea, where the kitchen doesn't have a lot of traditional cooking implements. Does everyone just get a spoonful of powdered pork chops and 15 minutes at the pea soup IV drip station at some point during the evening? (via eater)
Family meal was green salad with vinaigrette; baked potatoes with sour cream, chives, bacon, and a bacon and eggs mayo; blanched broccoli; carrot cake with cream cheese frosting; and a huge tub of iced coffee. I also brought a box of assorted Chinese pastry snacks from Richwell Market in Chinatown - including pastry-wrapped thousand-year-old egg.
Despite my attempts to stop it, my Microsoft Word program would always change the word for Italy's famous cured meat into what it assumed I meant to type. The night we closed an issue, I would have nightmares that when the magazine hit the stands, one of my reviews would describe "the delicate sweet and salty balance of melon and prostitute."
The first time I went to Florent I had been out very late at night with some friends and we were looking for somewhere to go for breakfast at about, you know, 3:30 or 4 o'clock in the morning. We went down there and it was very dark and we came onto Gansevoort Street and the restaurant was lit up and it looked - it looked almost like a mirage. It felt magical.
The article is not just a history of Florent but also of a Manhattan and New York City that is all but gone. Says Calvin Klein:
It was alive with real downtown character types who dressed every which way: from straight, creative types of all ages, young and old, to transvestites, to probably local prostitutes. It was downtown. It was real downtown. That's when they were cutting meat all night long. And that was during the Studio 54 days. We were young and we were having a lot of fun and we were out all night. And we'd end up in the meatpacking district, at the clubs. You went to Florent after the clubs.
Because his ability to taste has come back over time, Achatz feels that he is understanding the sense in a new way -- the way you would if you could see only in black-and-white and, one by one, colors were restored to you. He says, "When I first tasted a vanilla milkshake" -- after the end of his treatment -- "it tasted very sweet to me, because there's no salt, no acid. It just tasted sweet. Now, introduce bitter, so now I'm understanding the relationship between sweet and bitter -- how they work together and how they balance. And now, as salt comes back, I understand the relationship among the three components."
In March, The New Yorker published a profile of a chef who was about to open a restaurant. The chef complained about his health, worried about the future and cursed as if he had slammed his thumb in a car door.
On Monday, the magazine will publish a profile of another chef. Last year a doctor told this chef that he had advanced oral cancer and that unless he had his tongue cut out, he would be dead within a few months. According to The New Yorker, the chef reacted as if he'd just been handed a particularly challenging logic problem.
The point of the contrast is not to marginalize Chang's problems or his reaction to them but to demonstrate what a different approach Achatz takes to kitchen work than the typical (stereotypical?) Anthony Bourdainity of the restaurant kitchen.
He was TFL's first ever sous chef and to this day I have never seen any one person work so many hours. (He, Thomas & Laura all put in 17-19 hour days, 7 days a week.) Everyone knows The French Laundry is an amazing restaurant, but few know why. It's easy to blame or praise one person, but the truth is that it takes a village.
At the same time, I don't think the cooks look at me as a real community member. I'm not that cozy paternal figure. I'm always doing different things, and it creates this atmosphere where the cooks are on the balls of their feet. They're thinking, Where's he going next, what's happening next? There's a little bit of confusion. I think that's good. It's hard to articulate, because you think of the kitchen as very organized; and, like I said, the more control you have, the better. But a little bit of chaos creates tension. And that creates energy and passion, and it tends to make you season something the right way or reach for something that would add this, that, or the other thing.
The other chefs are Alice Waters, Grant Achatz, and Wylie Dufresne. The one thing they all talked about is the importance of open sight lines, both between the dining room and kitchen and among the chefs in the kitchen.
I required redemption. When I arrived home two weeks ago after work, I was informed by my wife that I'd forgotten our anniversary. Eep. To partially make up for my cliched gaffe, I put my efforts towards getting a reservation at Momofuku Ko...the notoriously hard-to-get-into Momofuku Ko.1 We're big fans of the other two Momofukus, so I logged into their online reservation system and happened to get something for last Friday night.
But this isn't a story about their reservation system; too many of those have been written already. Bottom line: the food is wonderful and should be the focus of any Ko tale. Two dishes in particular were the equal of any I've had at other more expensive restaurants. The first was a pea soup with the most tender langoustine. The second dish, the superstar of the restaurant, was a coddled egg with caviar, onion soubise, and tiny potato chips (photo). Didn't want that one to end. And I didn't even mention the shaved foie gras (with Reisling built right in!) or the English muffins amuse or the nice wine pairings.
1. I spent all of five minutes on a Saturday morning making the reservation on the Ko web site. It can be done.
2. Chang and co. are serious about the web site being the only way to get into the restaurant. As we were leaving after our meal, a friend of Chang's and bona fide celebrity stopped in to say hi. After some chit chat, the fellow asked if he could get a reservation at Ko for the next evening. Chang laughed, apologized, and told him that he had to go through the web site. They're not kidding around, folks. ↩
Frank Bruni, the food critic for the NY Times, wrote yesterday about the difficulty of getting a reservation at David Chang's new Momofuku Ko restaurant. Ko's online reservation system is the *only* way of procuring a seat at the tiny Manhattan restaurant...no walk-ins, no friends of the chef or celebs getting preferential treatment. It works more or less like Ticketmaster's online ticketing: you select the number of guests, it shows you the available reservation times (if any), you click on a time, and if that time is still available when you click it, only then does the system hold your choice while you fill in some information.
It's a simple system; seats for dinner are released on the site a week in advance at 10am each day and the people that click on their preferred times first get the reservations. Ko takes only 32 reservations each night and the restaurant is one of the hottest in town, which means that all the reservations are gone each day in seconds...sometimes in 2 or 3 seconds. Just like Radiohead tickets on Ticketmaster.
Except that diners are not used to this sort of thing. One of Bruni's readers got irritated that he got through to the pick-a-time screen but then when he clicked on his preferred time was told that the reservation was already gone. Someone had beaten him to the punch. So he emailed the restaurant for an explanation. The exchange between the restaurant and the snubbed patron should be familiar with anyone who has done web development for clients or any kind of tech support.
In a nutshell, the would-be patron said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "your system is unfair and broken," and the folks at Ko replied, "sorry, that's how the internet works". The comments on the post are both fascinating and disappointing, with many people attempting to debunk Ko's seemingly lame excuse of, well, that's how the internet works. Except that's pretty much the right answer...although it's clearer to say that that's how a web server communicates with a web browser (and even that is a bit imprecise). When the pick-a-time page is downloaded by a particular browser, it's based on the information the web server had when it sent the page out. The page sits unchanged on your computer -- it doesn't know anything about how many reservations the web server has left to dole out -- until the person clicks on a time. An anonymous commenter in Bruni's thread nails the choice that a web developer has to face in this instance:
This is a multi-user concurrency problem that all sites with limited inventory and a high demand (users all clicking the button all at the same time) have to deal with. It's not an easy problem to solve.
The easier method (which the Ko site has chosen) is to not "lock" a reservation slot until the very end. You submit your party size and the system looks for available slots that it knows about. It shows you the calendar page, with the available slots it knows about (if any). This doesn't update in real time because they haven't implemented it to know about the current state of inventory. This can be done, but it's more complicated.
The more complicated method is to lock a reservation slot upon beginning of the checkout process, with a time out occurring if the user takes too long to finish, or some other error occurs (in other systems this can be a blacklisted credit card number). If this happens, the system throws the reservation slot back into the pool. However, you need to give people a mechanism to keep trying for ones that get thrown back into the pool (like a "Try Again" button).
Building something like this not impossible (see Ticketmaster) but requires a much more real-time system that is aware of who has what, and what stage of the checkout process they're in - in addition to total available inventory. Building a robust system like this is not cheap.
Even then, you might get shut out. You submit your party size, everything is already gone, and you never get to the calendar page. It just moves up the "sold out" disappointment to earlier in the process.
A subsequent commenter suggests using "Web 2.0" technologies (I think he's talking specifically about Ajax) but as Anonymous suggests, that would increase the complexity of the system on the server side (unnecessarily in my mind) while moving up the "'sold out' disappointment to earlier in the process". Plus, that sort of system could put you "on hold" for several minutes while the reservations are taken by the folks in front of you until you're told, "too bad, all gone". I'm not sure that's preferable to being told sooner and may result in much more irritation on the part of potential diners.
In my opinion (as a web developer and as someone who has used Ko's reservation system from start to finish), Ko's system does it right. You're locked into a reservation by the system only when you've chosen exactly what you want. It favors the web user who's prepared & lucky and is simple for Ko to implement and maintain. That the logic used to produce this simple system takes three paragraphs to explain to an end user is irrelevent. After all, a restaurant dinner is easy to eat but explaining how it came to be that way fills entirebooks.
This might seem too inside baseball for most readers -- the number of people interested in new NYC restaurants *and* web development is likely quite small, even among kottke.org's readership -- but there's an interesting conflict going on here between technology and customer service. What kind of a problem is this...technological or social? Bruni's correspondent blamed the technology and much of the focus of the discussion has been on the process of procuring a reservation. But the main limiting factor is the enormous demand for seats; tens of thousands of people a week vying for a few hundred seats per week. The technology is largely irrelevent; whatever Ko does, however well the reservation system works or doesn't work, nearly all of the people interacting with the restaurant are going to be disappointed that they didn't get in.
A list of amusing restaurant names presented somewhat oddly in scholarly paper format. Pony Espresso is a coffeehouse in Wyoming, Wiener Takes All in a hot dog place in Illinois, and Wholly Mackerel is a Gulf Coast seafood place.