How Dining Out Resembles Art

Food Writer Los Angeles

I’m wondering: doesn’t dining resemble art in more ways than we could possibly realize?

I’m not talking about cuisine or home cooking – I’m talking about dining out in the modern metropolis. Diners want more than anything to be satisfied by their time spent in the restaurant, an experience of performance art that’s paid-per-view. We make reservations to sit in glorified spaces, designed with whimsy, glamour or comfort in mind. We sit and expected to be served like kings or queens, with each beck and call at our bidding.

Then we order from a menu that’s supposed to be laid out with form and function, either consciously or unconsciously piecing it together like an exhibit. What’s the concept? Sometimes the answer is simple – Italian food. Modern Italian food. Californian Italian using market-fresh ingredients. We get these ideas based on the menu that we look at.

Price. Another indication though not necessarily the end-all. A piece of art could be fabulously expensive like a Damien Hirst piece, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good. On the other hand, sometimes a humble piece from the Arts District could be transformative, a discovery made by keen eyes. Price guides our expectations of a restaurant’s concept.

Personality. We look to a restaurant for the chef or restaurateur behind the project. We know that Michael Cimarusti will be overseeing the superb seafood dishes at Providence while we doubt that Laurent Tourondel is manning the broiler at BLT Steak on the Sunset Strip. But we trust the media’s perception of this personality and how its been painted in their previous ventures or that specific venture itself.

Execution. How was our expectation of the restaurant’s concept translated to a fulfillment of the promise? We wonder, has the dish done a successful job in not only giving us a simple gustatory affirmation of acceptance and pleasure or does it fail to fit the formula of what tastes good to us. This pondering is similar to the viewing of art, a constant evaluation that’s as conscious as we could make. Or sometimes not – sometimes we just eat without thinking about it too much, but maybe that’s what the chef wants.

Digestion and the Tab. There’s this moment when you’ve realized that a meal is done. The performance art for which you’ve paid has been expended and the session is drawing to a close. I find myself contemplative at this moment because I have to wonder if this meal is worth it. To me, value drives the entire experience of a restaurant. I’m not just talking about monetary value as that would be too limited a view. Especially in LA, we have to make long treks to certain restaurants from our office or home. Sometimes there’s simply a hassle with going to a restaurant, such as having to make reservation a month in advance.

It’s here that the restaurant experience bisects the art experience because there’s a moment in art as well when we wonder if that was worth it. Was it worth standing in front of this piece of work and reveling in its thoughts – what the artist was trying to communicate. Tolstoy wrote that art is essentially the expression of human emotion. So we wonder, do we feel this emotion?

We wonder in the few moments before our check arrives or perhaps on the walk to the car, or maybe on the car or train ride home – what did I get out of this meal? Was I merely fed?

If we’re just looking to fill our stomachs, there are countless other ways of doing so. As Earth’s supreme omnivore, there are so many things we humans could eat that could simply satiate hunger but instead as modern civilians and citizens we choose something more. We want to eat, to savor, to enjoy. Maybe like art, it’s this continual stretch, a journey toward this realization; or perhaps a pursuit of experiences that expands the very definition of what really satisfies us. Until then, we keep searching, and eating.


Matthew Kang

Find more of Matthew's writing on his blog, Mattatouille. Find him behind the Scoops Westside counter.

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