I am as guilty of culinary speed-dating as anyone: When I come to L.A. these days, a friend scours the food sites, curates a shortlist of the best new restaurants, and off we go. Forget the antiquated notion of being a regular. Even a single return visit seems as passé as an iPhone with an earbud jack.
We’ve yet to venture farther east than the landward side of Lincoln Boulevard — which is to say, we’ve barely made a dent in the available inventory of L.A. hot spots. There’s a bustling food scene downtown, after years of rolling up the sidewalks before dusk. And you have to eat in Highland Park — have to — now that Eater has dubbed a stretch of Figueroa Boulevard there “L.A.’s hippest block.” We no longer crave a specific cuisine; what we want is the place that just opened.
Some of these new restaurants are second or third efforts from a popular chef looking for the fiscal stability that comes with multiple outlets. Some are the hard-won realizations of young chefs’ dreams. Whatever they are, there are lots of them, and our credibility as diners seems to rest on how many we can get to before everyone else does.
Because of that, some of them will go out of business — both the brand-new ones and the old favorites.
Chasing the next happening place is a favorite indoor sport in any big city with a burgeoning food scene, and New York has the dubious distinction of having the oldest franchise. The latest food stampede here started in 2004, before the advent of competition food shows, websites and apps — and in their wake, things got even busier. The flood of chefs that followed made New York City a very crowded place to do business. Too many restaurants, opened to the constant clamor of social media, have bred a fickle customer base.
What’s been happening here foretells L.A.’s future, unless restaurant-goers change their ways, and it’s not a happy picture. The numbers don’t lie: New York has fewer full-service restaurants this year than it did last year or the year before that. Everything moves faster than it used to, including closures, thanks to people who would just as soon eat last month’s lettuce as patronize last month’s headline restaurant.
Chef Harold Dieterle won the first season of “Top Chef” in 2006 and by 2012 had three Manhattan restaurants. Now he has none. “Great neighborhood restaurants become forgotten,” he told Eater, “at times when everyone’s racing to the new hot spot.”
Diners have commitment issues, it seems. But we can change our ways, or at least adjust them somewhat. If we flit less, if we opt occasionally for the excellent and familiar over the shiny new toy, we can keep last month’s favorite place from becoming next year’s “for lease” sign.
Granted, your Instagram followers won’t care much about photos from a place everyone else blanketed weeks or even months before. But consider these retro joys: A favorite dish, reliably good service, none of the hysteria that accompanies an opening and — holy Cheers! — everybody knows your name.
I’m not suggesting that you spend the rest of your dining life in the equivalent of an ’80s sitcom bar, but you could add the occasional return visit to your weekly mix and still have something to talk to your friends about. When I’m back in Los Angeles — as often as possible — I see the signs of pending trouble. More and more restaurant openings amid worried stories about landlords, rent increases, higher costs and regret over a less-than-perfect space on an otherwise happening street.
Restaurants have been risky business since the first chef chiseled the daily specials onto a stone. There’s about a 10% cushion between costs and sales, and not even customer loyalty can save a place if the profit equation is unrealistic. But fidelity can make the difference for a good place in its second six months or even, ancient though it may seem, its second or third year.
A handful of chefs run empires that are immune to our meanderings; show up, don’t show up, they’re OK. The rest work long hours at repetitive tasks for middling pay, having gambled their sanity and other people’s money to make us happy at the table. That big tip isn’t enough. If you really enjoyed the meal, go back.
Karen Stabiner, who spent most of her life in Santa Monica, is the author of “Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream.”
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