By the grace of a few generous friends, last month I had the opportunity to dine at two of the country’s top restaurants: Eleven Madison Park and Craigie on Main. Not bad for a Worcester girl.
While both establishments offer reputations for intense precision, the experiences provided great contrast. Eleven Madison Park exuded poise and elegance, whereas Craigie on Main embraced the radical and unexpected. Hospitality philosophies aside, I was able to identify one commonality right away — neither gave a damn about my Instagram feed.
I have grown accustomed to photo-friendly meals characterized by bright bulbs, eye popping hues and astounding construction. The fine dining world, on the other hand, has had enough. Ambience can’t flourish with the flash on. Dreamweavers can’t thrill through a screen.
Chefs want our attention, not our content. If you have to take a photo to remember an experience, they feel they’ve already let you down. Restaurants are dealing with this disconnect in different ways.
At Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, our party was encouraged to place our phones inside a hand-painted box for the duration of the evening. Dining at Eleven Madison Park, voted The World’s Best Restaurant in 2017, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. Without notes or photos, I was worried I’d forget all of the delicious details.
Everyone complied, obediently stashing their phones in the box. I, on the other hand, slipped my phone under a napkin with the promise to my table-mates that I’d be discrete.
There are a number of reasons why I probably shouldn’t have bothered to cling to my device. For one thing, each dish possessed the memorable mark of an elaborate science experiment. I couldn’t forget them if I tried. Even our bottle of wine generated a spectacle — clamped with fiery tongs and sabered open by our sommelier’s icy touch. At one point, a server approached with a teapot full of soy milk which she poured into a steamer atop our table. There wasn’t a time lapse or boomerang that could do our eureka-moment justice when she returned 15 minutes later to reveal that the liquid had transformed into tofu right under our noses.
Ten dishes later, the hand-painted box reappeared. Alongside their cellphones, my companions found sleek blocks of chocolate to reward their undivided attention. My only sweetener was an Instagram flex that, frankly, rendered fewer likes than I expected. In retrospect, I might have preferred the candy bar.
A few weeks later, I traveled to Craigie on Main in Boston for “The Punk Pig Dinner,” which brought together resident chef Tony Maws with Jamie Bissonnette of Little Donkey and Toro, David Bazirgan of Bambara, and guest bartender Sean Woods of Worcester’s deadhorse hill.
Gorilla Biscuits spun on a shadowy turntable. My blood and sand cocktail contained actual pig’s blood, which made for one hell of a story but photographed like a goblet of murky pond water. I ate crispy-fried pig tails that tasted like chicken wings alongside a pile of pork and snail stir fry served with (more) tofu and kimchi. Nothing about the evening felt subtle. It was dark, loud and pungent — traits of a counterculture that Instagram couldn’t capture if it tried.
“All the best chefs I know are punks,” mused Woods, who played every legendary venue in North America and Europe as a guitarist before making a home for himself in Worcester.
“The four of us were all involved in the punk/hardcore scene at one point or another,” he said of his Punk Pig Dinner collaborators. Woods believes strongly that the anti-establishment and DIY mentality is what drives restaurants like Craigie on Main as industry leaders, not likes or follows.
If Craigie’s embrace of the underground and Eleven Madison Park’s banishment of camera phones isn’t enough to prove the decline of Instagram-driven dishes, consider the #sadfood hashtag cited by Eater as a top “Ridiculous Food Trend Predicted for 2020.” Users post shots of haphazard food, as scrumptious as it is unsightly. Or, take into account the return of David Chang’s hit show "Ugly Delicious" in which the world’s most popular celebrity chef tests our preconceived notions about culinary superiority. Photogenic food is overrated.
I won’t stop taking pictures of my food. Particularly for small local businesses, crowd-sourced content is still especially important. Still, I like being reminded to eat with all of my senses and to prioritize the memory over the photo. Restaurants of a certain echelon are making this ethos easier to embrace.
Don’t let your dinner get cold.