March 21-27, 2007

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Making Room At the Table

By Stett Holbrook

IN THE 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally, Carrie Fisher uttered one of movie's great lines: "Restaurants are to people in the '80s what theaters were to people in the '60s." To be precise, Fisher was quoting Bruno Kirby (may he rest in peace) who played a writer for New York magazine.

Anyway, that was nearly 20 years ago, and the stature of restaurants and chefs has only grown since then. Chefs have achieved rock star status and restaurants are their stage. Chefs have TV shows, product endorsements and even groupies. A good table on a Saturday night at a top restaurant is like scoring a front row seat to a sold-out concert.

And yet in spite of the public's celebration of chefs and restaurants, dining at high-end, fancy restaurants is perhaps our least democratic art form. Art museums are relatively cheap and even have free days once a month. Nosebleed seats are available for the theater, symphony and opera. But to enjoy the food at top Silicon Valley restaurants like Chez T.J., Le Papillon, Arcadia or Manresa, you'll have to shell out some serious cash. And that means most people don't get to enjoy the pleasure of a fine meal and dining out.

It's true that making great food is costly and food and labor costs get passed on to the diner. But there's still something about the elitism that bothers me. High-end restaurants are saddled with a stifling classism.

I was reflecting on these things after interviewing Grant Achatz, chef at Chicago's ultramodern Alinea. He was lamenting the fact that only those with fat wallets can afford to enjoy the edible art he and other top chefs are serving up.

Is it possible to make more room at the table for diners with less means?

From the restaurant's point of view, broadening their customer base to serve more than just the well-to-do certainly makes business sense. More importantly, I think there's a value in exposing more people to expertly prepared food made from premium quality ingredients. Dining out at top-rate restaurants can help build a constituency for fresh, local produce and seasonal ingredients, thereby raising awareness about where our food comes from.

Food is too cheap in the United States and as a result we're accustomed to eating bad, mass-produced crap. Unless you have a garden or shop a farmers market, high-end restaurants are of one the few places to enjoy food that's celebrated for its flavor and quality instead of how cheaply you can buy it in bulk at Costco.

Eating fresh produce grown by reverent farmers and high-quality meat and fish shouldn't be luxury that's just for the rich. But restaurants aren't about to give their food away. What we need in Silicon Valley are events like San Francisco's "Dine About Town" in which top restaurants offer bargain-rate prix fixe meals once a year. San Mateo is on the right track, too, with its "Dine Around" event this month. Restaurants including Astaria, Bistro Luneta, Central Park Bistro, Top of the Market, Left Bank, Spiedo Ristorante and Lure are offering specially prepared, three-course meals at a reduced, prix fixe cost. Lunch is $19.95 and dinner $31.95 per person. A portion of the proceeds benefits the American Heart Association.

Galleries have "first Friday" events to showcase new art and attract new audiences. It's time Silicon Valley restaurants get with the program and offer something similar—special, lower-priced menus that showcase what's new and exciting in their kitchens. San Jose has sponsored a "taste of downtown" event but it's held at City Hall, not in restaurants, and so attendees miss the experience of dining out.

There are plenty of great restaurants here, and finding a way to expose more people to them would create plenty of buzz, attract new customers and hopefully expose a new class of people to the pleasures of good food served in a nice restaurant. Everybody wins. Any takers?

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