Originally published 10/25/2015
By Bo Peabody
It is not new, nor a revelation, that we, as a country, like to eat out. We dine in restaurants for sustenance, sure. And to avoid doing the dishes, yes. But restaurants are not simply a matter of convenience. They provide entertainment, comfort and community—they make us feel important, taken care of, nurtured, fed.
I am both an owner—two restaurants in Massachusetts—and a constant connoisseur of dining out. I’m also the founder of Renzell, a new restaurant rating system with a unique data-driven methodology. I feel the experience of restaurants personally and professionally. I revel not only in good food, but also in the satisfaction of great experiences. I want artistry in the cocktails, thoughtfulness in the soundtrack, and TLC in the cuisine. Above all, I want it to feel personal. And I believe the best restaurants want that, too. Great waitstaff make you feel that your relationship to them is unique, making a public experience seem private.
Restaurants turn everyday moments into ones that are artfully crafted and choreographed, and not by accident. They are real life algorithms of preparation and product and design, where we are invited into a rarified world for a few hours. I have often felt, as a diner, as if I were an integral player in a larger production. Warner LeRoy, a classic restaurateur, and the late owner of Tavern on the Green, once said restaurants are “a fantasy—a kind of living fantasy in which diners are the most important members of the cast.” There are a million moving parts and pieces—both behind and in front of the proverbial curtain—where design and fashion and lighting and movement all meet to create a vast and complex production.
I eat out at least three times a week for dinner. I find the cultural enrichment—in the food, the people, and the setting—to be unrivaled in any other activity. It is not a great stretch to see why we choose restaurants—and not, say, a museum or a theater—to stage huge life events. It's where we convene family and friends to celebrate weddings and anniversaries and reunions, to say nothing about it being the most obvious place to propose. Restaurants are places of congregation and communication, but they are also personally satisfying.
It is a near universal truth that every American has eaten in a restaurant. It's not all fine dining, but more than half of the country (58%) eats out at least once a week. And they, like me, are finding the experience worth the time, the commitment, and the money. More than 130 million people find their way to a restaurant every day. That results in hundreds of billions of meals a year and, most impressively, more than $700 billion in total revenue (that's 4% of our GDP) for the industry as a whole.
As a country, our enthusiasm for restaurant dining is so intense that for the first time in our history the amount we spend at restaurants exceeds the amount we spend on groceries. Over the past sixty years, there has been a steady increase in restaurants’ share of the food dollar. In the 1950s, it stood at a mere 25%. This says much about the hold restaurants have on our culture, to say nothing of my own wallet. The restaurant industry has become the engine that keeps much of the economy humming—employment growth in restaurants has outpaced the national average for years and every dollar spent in a restaurant generates more than two dollars to the overall economy. Restaurants employ about one out of every 10 working people, and almost everyone has worked in one at some point, including me.
We also spend more on restaurants than we do on any other cultural endeavor. Eating well is a destination business. We plan entire vacations around reservations finally obtained at Noma in Copenhagen or Alinea in Chicago. Forty percent of fine dining sales are to travelers and tourists. Eating out has become about much more than the food. It has become a cultural event onto itself, recognized for service, design, décor, fashion, and the sheer brilliance of the nightly waltz of food, drink and people.
Dining has always been a subtle seduction, beginning with the look and feel as we walk through the front door, then slowly drawing us in with the service, long before we take our first sip or bite. That the storyline involves us, as guests, makes us feel that we are the intellectual and cultural equals of the restaurateur. As a restaurateur myself, I understand the need to have the same end goals as my customers. I want everyone to feel that they are at the forefront of something unique and potentially groundbreaking. And as a guest, I want to feel that I am an integral component of a successful production.
I have always believed in the totality of the restaurant experience, and been fascinated by those establishments that excel, and even get better, year after year. In an increasingly complex restaurant universe, it's often a more than remarkable achievement when places stay around for years. Yes, we like our favorite restaurants to always be there, but we also secretly want to discover the great new ones. We seek them out to feel adventurous. Walking into a new restaurant is an experience that I often find difficult to replicate.
As much as the fashion business begins with top fashion shows and trickles down the chain, food does the same. The elite chefs and restaurateurs play a unique role as the test kitchens for the entire food market. It is no coincidence that The Cheesecake Factory serves miso-glazed salmon or that Ruby Tuesday’s serves flourless chocolate cake. Twenty years ago Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten pioneered those same dishes.
As our society continues to slip into a digitized version of itself we increasingly require the human experience that dining out provides. Restaurants remain one of the last true analog experiences. Every bit of preparation and creation is done on-site, served by people in a physical setting made just for us. And I hanker for more than sustenance and biology—I want connection, edification, and validation. I want that direct experience to matter and the truly great restaurants make us realize how much they indeed do matter.