Some people like to argue that decades are nothing more than arbitrary demarcations of time. But if I were to ask you to free-associate, and if I were to say the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties, et cetera, certain songs and movie scenes and sartorial flourishes would arise in your mind for each one.
No one would confuse the 1950s with the 1970s, except maybe in the case of Happy Days. No one would confuse the 1970s with the 1990s, except maybe in the case of the Weezer video for “Buddy Holly” in which the band members were inserted into a scene from Happy Days. Decades have signature styles and moments. Some great hand of American culture does seem to hit reset every ten years.
So what will we someday see as the emblematic flourishes of the past 10 years, when we think about going out to eat? “What the hell WAS the past decade in restaurants all about?” my friend Pete Wells, the restaurant critic of The New York Times, tweeted earlier this month, apparently ricocheting off an earlier tweet of my own. (After all, eating out over the past decade has come down to talking about eating out, whether on
Twitter or Instagram or Foursquare or Yelp.) Here is what I tweeted back off the top of my head:I have been covering the world of food for most of this decade, but even I’m hard-pressed, upon first glance, to figure out what that banchan spread of words adds up to. Nevertheless, it’s pretty obvious that the past decade brought about the fulfillment of a revolution that got started in the decade that preceded it.
In the first 10 years of the 21st century, American chefs began to unravel the Eurocentric white-tablecloth formalities that had dominated fine dining for much of the 20th. David Chang started out with a noodle shop in Manhattan’s East Village in 2004. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, a ramshackle pizza joint called Roberta’s opened in 2008 and pulsed with the energy of a new movement. Out in Los Angeles, Roy Choi changed the game with a taco truck.
In this decade, the idea that eating out didn’t have to be fancy gathered steam and gradually became the dominant way of doing things. The castle came down. We lost some of the writers and thinkers who had helped charge the gates (Anthony Bourdain, Jonathan Gold, Esquire’s own Joshua Ozersky), but their vision of a more democratic and more inclusive approach finally really took root. Political currents amplified those changes. As the Obama administration gave way to the Trump administration, and as the climate crisis intensified, and as movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo gained momentum, the old way of doing things seemed even more out of touch than usual.
Going vegan and drinking natural wine became, more than ever, expressions of belief—purpose, even. People want to eat and drink not only what’s better for their bodies but what appears to be better for the planet. (Even established restaurants have by now made room on their wine lists for the natural gang. Even steakhouses offer menu options for vegans.) Only a clueless reactionary would fail to notice the passion and urgency of restaurants run by women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people of color—restaurants like Nyum Bai in Oakland and Seven Reasons in Washington, D.C. and JuneBaby in Seattle and Via Carota in New York. In a time of divisive rhetoric, their stories—and recipes—provided an invaluable counterpoint. Cooking served as both a commentary on the times and a refuge from the tumult, just as music had in the Sixties.
Sure, we’ve seen plenty of restaurants (many terrific) that have paid homage to the over-fetishized Mad Men era as well as to older French traditions—Le Coucou and Frenchette in New York, Pasjoli in Los Angeles, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn in San Francisco, the rebooted Grand Café in Minneapolis. But I’d argue that those are restaurants (á la Happy Days) that exist as a commentary on a previous time, as opposed to the time they happen to occupy. (Or, as in the case of the Pastis resurrection in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, they’re like the Weezer video, layering one smear of nostalgia on top of another. Let’s rename it the Metapacking District.)
Are the restaurants we list below (after a few days of wrangling between me and my colleagues Sarah Rense and Kevin Sintumuang) the “best” restaurants of this maddeningly nameless decade? Some are. But that’s not our point. Our point is that when people look back on this arbitrary demarcation of years, these will be the restaurants that bring time-specific memories flooding back.
You have your own favorites, we’re sure, and we want to hear about them.