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Restaurants almost always get worse


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 03:01 AM

Robert Brown developed this topic but I am posting it since he is out of New York.
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As time goes by, the quality, service and value-for-money provide by any given restaurant almost always becomes worse rather than better. I can recall a time when a chef-owned restaurant generally improved over time as the chef gained experience, technical skill and sense of refinement or good taste. But this pattern seems increasingly rare now that fewer chefs are self-employed and have to conform to the orders of a restaurateur pulling the purse strings.

Of course there are exceptions: sometimes a restaurateur replaces one chef with a better chef. However, among the restaurants that I follow both as a customer and in the media, I see far more examples of restaurants on a downward slope than on an upward one.

Robert Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" seems apropos:Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Do you agree with Robert's rather pessimistic point of view? What examples of restaurants would you cite to either confirm or challenge his assertion? What factors in the world of today's restaurant business would lead either to improvement or degredation in any given restaurant?
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#2 macrosan

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 04:16 AM

What examples of restaurants would you cite to either confirm or challenge his assertion?

It would have been useful if indeed Robert had done just this !

I guess the fundamental assertion is probably no more contentious than suggesting that familiarity breeds contempt. It's almost a given. It has nothing to do with chef-ownership, it has to do with motivation of people and motivation of businesses.

All people become bored by repetition. The more creative, entrepreneurial or specialized the person, the more quickly this boredom will set in, and the more extreme the reaction to it. Chefs qualify under at least two of those characteristics, and it is, in my view, unthinkable that a chef could maintain a high level of motivation for more than maybe ten years. A chef then needs to move on, not just to a new restaurant, but also to a different restaurant, or maybe into ownership, or maybe into a non-restaurant environment.

The same applies to the restaurant owner. The most successful owner I have ever known opened up his first restaurant (Italian trattoria style), made a brilliant success of it, and gave his manager a 50% stake after 6 years and moved out. He then opened up a high-end French restaurant, turned it into the best restaurant within 10 miles, won two Egon Ronay crowns, gave 50% of it to his manager and moved out after 4 years. He repeated this process two more times with a further bistro-style French, then a top-end Italian restaurant. 15 years after he started his first business, he had sold out his remaining 50% stakes in all four restaurants (three of which are still going strong 10 years later) and he is now in the music business.

I find that all businesses go stale unless they regularly change their staff, or move their staff to new roles, or change their products or functions. The alternative to this is to happen to be in an industry where the marketplace itself changes so rapidly and significantly that a company is obliged to make similar changes just to keep in pace with the market. That is not, in my view, a characteristic of the restaurant industry.

I would certainly doubt Robert's statement that "I can recall a time when a chef-owned restaurant generally improved over time as the chef gained experience, technical skill and sense of refinement or good taste." I suspect this is wishful thinking, nostalgia.

#3 Jonathan Day

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 04:55 AM

In general I agree with Robert's assertion, but we need to ask him to unpack it a bit.

Robert, are you saying that restaurants now degrade faster than they did before because the environment changes faster, or because they are forced to be more commercial than they once did? Obviously all restaurants follow some upward path from the time they start to the time the cycle of decline begins. Examples of decline in London: Tante Claire, Mirabelle, Suntory (Japanese). The Moulin de Mougins, as well as Vergé's other restaurant in town, L'Amandier, gently slipped into mediocrity, losing a total of 3 Michelin stars. On the other hand, there are examples of renewal: the Grand Vefour seems to be back on form after several years of decline, and even the Moulin has regained one of its stars.

Companies generally tend to follow a path of steady decline after a period of growth, which is one reason why very few single firms have ever outperformed the market index over a long period. Some of this is due to the negative effects of size, some to the prevalence of non-economic motivations (the CEO gets more interested in a knighthood than in improving the company). The exceptions seem to be firms that have gone through some period of crisis which, if the company survives it, can release a lot of energy and creativity. But it's hard to manufacture a crisis.
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#4 Tonyfinch

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 05:14 AM

You're all assuming that the premise is correct. It may be but what if it's the customers perception that has changed.

We all have a tendency to indulge in a bit of "fings ain't wot they used to be" nostalgia. People have a wonderful experience and when they try to repeat it its never as good as it was the first time. The natural impulse is to blame that on the provider, in this case the restaurant, but it may be if you analyse it objectively that absolutely nothing tangible has changed at all.

But you have. You're seeking the thrill of the new again and by definition that particular place can't provide it because you've been there before. The France board on this site is chock full of this. Scan it through and note just how many times our American colleagues tell us that they went to such and such a place and it wasn't anything like as good as it was when they went X number of years ago for the first time. It doesn't appear to enter their minds that this may not automatically have to do with a decline in the restaurant but MAY be about with the impossibility of rexperiencing already experienced things with the same intensity.

Hence the pressure on restaurants to constantly re-invent and to update as was touched upon on the sadly ignored "Old Repertoire"thread.

A restaurant may not actually be declining to be perceived as declining. It may just be staying the same.

#5 =Mark

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 06:37 AM

Might it be likely that as patrons of high end establishments that as we become more experienced as to what defines "fine dining" that expectations are raised? As the palate is refined and we become aware of more of the details of the dining experience we become more critical.

This being the case, it would be possible that memories of those first "wonderful" meals at particular restaurants remain unchallenged, and we return to the same establishments with unrealistic expectations as to the level of the overall experience? In this case we could almost guarantee a disappointment .
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#6 ballast_regime

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 04:56 PM

what is the measure of such a proposition? is a ten-year-old restaurant "worse" for a patron who has dined there week-in, week-out for a decade rather than a newcomer? or, if the same newcomer could pick random points in a restaurant's history from which to dine, would an earlier point offer a more positive experience than a later?

i understand the general intent of the statement, and i would say there are exceptions, like gramercy tavern or charlie trotter's.

i agree with tonyfinch's opinion to a degree: a newbie is more likely to be enthralled than an old hat. conversely, a restaurant that changes on a regular basis is going to be more exciting in the long-run for the old hat.

thankfully, i'm neither; i stand firmly at the intersection of inexperience and weariness. i.e., old enough to know what to expect, but not old enough to know better.

iml
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#7 robert brown

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Posted 28 March 2003 - 09:59 AM

Martin et al.: My sensing that the large majority of restaurants eventually decline instead of improve did not occur all that long ago. In fact it really hit home four or five months ago when, in a short period of time, I went to three of my preferred New York restaurants and walked out of all of them with the sense that they had lost something since my last visits. One, Ouest, I have to admit was a second visit that fell far short of the first; yet the other two, Babbo and Jewel Bako, struck me as having problems deeper than inconsistency. Jewel Bako lost its head sushi chef, so perhaps it will recover since its owner, Jack Lamb, is more than a restaurateur in sheep’s clothing. My long-time diner’s instincts told me, however, that Babbo had undergone a fundamental change in pursuit of a quicker buck; a primary cause of restaurant deterioration.

I do hope that in the way I wrote the topic starter that I welcomed reasons for and examples of why restaurants can get better. In chef-owned restaurants I think the chances are better of enco0unter restaurants on the upswing, especially when the chef is still young, energetic and on a learning curve. I imagine this is the situation with some restaurants I have been to in Piemonte. I have to believe, however that the current macroeconomic situation, the hiring of the better chefs by const-conscious restaurateurs and hotels mitigates against that.

#8 Wilfrid

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Posted 28 March 2003 - 10:13 AM

I do agree with the proposition. In fact, I asked Danny Meyer about it in the Q&A. I put it as delicately as I good - in terms of "How do you try to maintain your standards?" rather than "Why aren't Gramercy tavern or Eleven Madison Park as good these days?" :wink: Interestingly, his view was that restaurants take a year or so to settle in, then really start performing at their best. That hasn't been my experience.

#9 Craig Camp

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Posted 28 March 2003 - 10:22 AM

Would you have rather seen the Rolling Stones on tour in 1970 or in 2002?

How long is it possible to keep that fire in your gut? Once the person at the top loose their edge the entire restaurant starts to decline. I think this is the main reason chefs and restaurateurs keep opening new restaurants. They get a little bored and want the rush that comes with the new and fresh. So do customers and critics. No one wants to be yesterday's news.

It's more fun to create than administrate.

Edited by Craig Camp, 28 March 2003 - 10:23 AM.

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#10 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 09 May 2003 - 10:00 AM

I do agree with the proposition.  In fact, I asked Danny Meyer about it in the Q&A.  I put it as delicately as I good - in terms of "How do you try to maintain your standards?" rather than "Why aren't Gramercy tavern or Eleven Madison Park as good these days?" :wink: Interestingly, his view was that restaurants take a year or so to settle in, then really start performing at their best.  That hasn't been my experience.

I can't believe I haven't attacked this thing head on yet.

Restaurant's in general open too soon...for budgetary reasons mostly....Let's get this muthafucka open so they won't turn our electricity off before we even open. Spending all that capital, over half of it unplanned for, often times leaves the restaurateur in the shits. It's open or bust.
There's usually a maddening influx of rubbernecks, papparazzi and the uninitiated during the first push...the amateur hour if you will...where all of the kinks are worked out, the polish applied, the miscreant staff weeded for maximum efficiency.

Then you get big...if you've mastered the right balance of customer appeal and financial acuity. You think you can do no wrong and you start concentrating on other things...like working out trade-outs with the Porsche dealer or negotiating with your travel agents. You're never there, instead spending time in Perigord getting fucked up and searching half-assed for the elusive black gold. When ever the head of the beast (the one/ones who made the place rock out in the first place realize that they can easily swing half-days, distance vacations and new cars) leaves the rest of the body to carry on the killing alone there are always problems.

Then, the vacationing owners return from the brink of their own madness to discover that they've been cut off by every purveyor they use. Now the fish is coming from half way across the country, arriving two days past its prime, the beef is grade Z shit-select. The customer, who just wanted to get the same meal they got two years ago when Bernard Le What's His Name was manning the stoves vows never to return because they got the short end of the Cassoulet de Merde.

You've got to watchdog your business like you work in a light house that's run on a treadmill. Take a step off to smell the roses and the next thing you know you're filling out papers with the five million dishwashers you fired for coming in drunk.

Edited by Chef/Writer Spencer, 09 May 2003 - 09:45 PM.


#11 herbacidal

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Posted 09 May 2003 - 02:43 PM

I do agree with the proposition.  In fact, I asked Danny Meyer about it in the Q&A.  I put it as delicately as I good - in terms of "How do you try to maintain your standards?" rather than "Why aren't Gramercy tavern or Eleven Madison Park as good these days?"  :wink:  Interestingly, his view was that restaurants take a year or so to settle in, then really start performing at their best.  That hasn't been my experience.



i do agree with camp, that for some restaranteurs, they get bored. i think as much as anything, it's also being pushed on by the backers.
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#12 Pan

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Posted 09 May 2003 - 05:21 PM

Very funny writing, Chef/Writer Spencer! :biggrin:

#13 T. Brooks

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Posted 11 May 2003 - 09:47 PM

Here's the big thing, if it hasn't been said already.

Most of the people who own restaurants... shouldn't. The guy across the street from me owns four in town. All because he has an idea. Lives in a fancy limestone lake house, and entertains. Lucky for him, he got the property cheap, so he can recoup his expenses despite having subpar food for fine dining at prices that'll run him into the ground in the next three years.

#14 herbacidal

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Posted 12 May 2003 - 10:41 AM

Here's the big thing, if it hasn't been said already.

Most of the people who own restaurants... shouldn't. The guy across the street from me owns four in town. All because he has an idea. Lives in a fancy limestone lake house, and entertains. Lucky for him, he got the property cheap, so he can recoup his expenses despite having subpar food for fine dining at prices that'll run him into the ground in the next three years.

yea, that's always been true. maybe more true now than ever.

people open them b/c they've been told they make a good X, Y or Z at a party they hosted. blah blah blah

head swells, they go for it. they underestimate everything. everything they never thought of that happens in a restaurant, they didn't plan for, don't have the money for, whatever.

example i use often: here in philly, there was a guy who came into a couple million.
20something/30something daughter and son pushed him to open restaurant.
he does, they spent around 2 million. they hire professional people to manage the place. they don't listen to them. goes under somewhere around 6 months after opening.

2 biggest reasons restaurants go under:
undercapitalized from the get-go, or haven't assembled a deep, quality management team.
often, both together are the reason.

if you're undercapitalized slightly, a good team will know where to cut corners and not lose anything really.

i guess i think it's not pulling together good enough people more than anything.
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#15 herbacidal

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Posted 12 May 2003 - 12:11 PM

that's true, but the reasons i've been big on lately for restaurants failing are:

undercapitalized, or not good enough management.

undercapitalized, b/c people don't understand everything that money is spent on in restaurants.

management also should have diverse skill sets, be deep enough to overlap a few times, and committed to success.

truthfully, a good management team can get a restaurant through lack of capital, up until a certain point, at which miracles are necessary.
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#16 herbacidal

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Posted 12 May 2003 - 12:12 PM

that's true, but the reasons i've been big on lately for restaurants failing are:

undercapitalized, or not good enough management.

undercapitalized, b/c people don't understand everything that money is spent on in restaurants.

management also should have diverse skill sets, be deep enough to overlap a few times, and committed to success.

truthfully, a good management team can get a restaurant through lack of capital, up until a certain point, at which miracles are necessary.
Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

#17 herbacidal

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Posted 12 May 2003 - 12:13 PM

that's true, but the reasons i've been big on lately for restaurants failing are:

undercapitalized, or not good enough management.

undercapitalized, b/c people don't understand everything that money is spent on in restaurants.

management also should have diverse skill sets, be deep enough to overlap a few times, and committed to success.

truthfully, a good management team can get a restaurant through lack of capital, up until a certain point, at which miracles are necessary.
Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

#18 John Whiting

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Posted 17 May 2003 - 11:21 AM

All people become bored by repetition.

If that were universally true, no culture would have survived in preliterate eras. Traditions were preserved by constant repetition, until every detail was memorized.

Boredom is a learned emotion, taught by modern techniques of merchandising. Am I bored by yet another perfect cassoulet, which duplicates a previous perfection? I search for it!
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