09 May 2020


Dialogue restaurant, Pumpkin Ice Cream Sandwich, from THE BEFORE.
This week, I read that restaurateurs of a fine-dining restaurant in Austin, Texas, planned a novel idea for "service" during our collective state of COVID confinement. They would provide their tasting menu to reserving guests by virtually gathering them from scattered home kitchens to follow along and cook the menu in that "alonetogether" patchwork of screen boxes we've learned to substitute for a shared table.

I figured that the synchronous preparation and enjoyment of the same menu was meant to recoup not only some of the restaurant's revenue but also one of the fine-dining restaurant's profound services to humanity: I mean its ability to enhance civilization by offering a communal aesthetic and social experience that enlivens the senses and expands the imagination. Check and check. (And "Check, please!")

Upon reading this news, I was touched by the resourceful creativity of the restaurateurs. I marveled at their tenacity. I understood that doing anything other than adapting--however imperfectly, however not like it was--under today's dire circumstances might be far worse. Something had to be done, right? Leave it to restaurateurs to find imaginative solutions. I admired these people in Austin trying to make it work.

I also felt depressed. The news of this creative solution only highlighted the loss of what makes me want to visit a restaurant. The transformation of the restaurant into a home-cooking experiment might mean the financial survival of some business models (and I support any effort, really, at this terrible point), but it means losing what I love about restaurants. I love the kitchen staff's cooking and want to experience that, not mine. I love the ambiance. For this reason, I leave my home. I love the privilege of being served by competent, graceful servers. I appreciate what it takes to execute good service, and when I choose to go to a restaurant, especially a fine-dining establishment, I am willing to pay--and tip--well for it.

What can I do to get the restaurants I love back to what I loved about them? So far, all I've managed to do is get lots of takeout, donate whatever I can to the legitimate causes, including some Gofundme pages for specific beloved places, and calling and emailing Congress to fix the sorely lacking PPP bill so that it benefits restaurants. I follow Independent Restaurant Coalition and #saverestaurants (saverestaurants.co) and post what they suggest I post. I applaud my local government's employment of restaurants to help feed seniors and those too much at risk to venture out to get their own food.

If I can do more, I will. I want my beautiful, bountiful restaurants back. I don't want them permanently transformed into home-cooking courses and curbside pickup joints.

13 October 2018


Years in the making, it has finally arrived! 

Get yours at your favorite book store or directly via this link: 

We find restaurant menus everywhere. But we know little about how they work. In May We Suggest, I investigate how they try (and sometimes fail) to influence what we buy, how we dine, and how we feel about both. 

In 77 visits to 60 restaurant brands of all types throughout the greater Los Angeles area, I asked: How does a menu’s size, structure, imagery, language, materials, and pricing dictate what we buy or how we compose a meal? Does a fine-dining table menu try to hook us the same way as a signboard over a fast-food counter or a mobile-ordering app? What convinces us that one menu has enough choice and another too much or not enough? Along the way, I show how menus of differing styles operate. I also uncover what rhetoric works when, where, and why. 

You will not find a book about restaurant menus quite like this. I define restaurant menus in an expansive way, considering spoken variants, displays of real food, and digital varieties--not just sheets of paper and signboards. My study draws on an unprecedented range of disciplines, from experience design to behavioral economics. It is also the first book about restaurant menus to explore how, in their efforts to persuade us, menus seldom act alone. I show how they cooperate with restaurant décor, service, and other merchandising devices. 

Dear reader, if you are a restaurant-goer, a restaurateur, or a student of either, join me to find out how it is that, while we order from menus, menus try to order us. Anyone interested in the workings of restaurants, the experience of dining out, the rhetoric of things, and the subject of consumer choice will find the read enlightening and even amusing.

Copyright 2018 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

17 August 2017


Vespertine, Los Angeles. Photo by author.
Before my meal at Vespertine, chef Jordan Kahn’s fantastical restaurant in Culver City’s Hayden Tract, I savored anticipating it. In a blog post of July 9, I appreciated the beguiling pre-opening hype. Now, a few days since my visit, I can say that the aftermath is richer still. Some meals you digest mentally long after your stomach does its part.

Partly because I’m still processing the five-hour extravagance, and partly because I have a pressing work deadline and can’t write as in-depth as I’d like, it’s premature for me to speak about my visit. But I feel an urgency to stick up for Vespertine in the face of negative commentary, especially by one Hollywood Reporter critic and a snarky Instagramer, whose conclusions about the place have received outsize attention.

The Hollywood Reporter said Vespertine was “intentionally joyless.” I’ll never know if the staff corrected attitude after that review. All I can say is that every member of Kahn’s team was warm and gracious to me and my companion, and generous and knowledgeable when asked about the food. Never were they cold or overly solicitous.

The Reporter went on to say that the seating in the dining room somberly faced people toward the center of the room and each other. I thought the furniture was smartly designed and configured for privacy and splendid views. Tall, curved booth backings encased the banquette seats, separating the dining parties visually and aurally just enough. The curving backs allowed me to twist inward, better facing my companion, or outward, to take in the restaurant’s spectacular architecture and surrounding industrial park. Through the glass-and-steel grid on three of the building’s four sides, we saw a campus of warehouses, the afterhours and back doors of our “creative economy” and imaginative buildings by Eric Owen Moss for which the area is renowned.

As if it was an undue affront, the Instagramer complained of being berated for taking pictures. That person clearly provoked his or her own bad time by fighting the premise of the restaurant.

If we want to enjoy them, it's best to understand that restaurants exist on a spectrum. At one extreme, we diners are the stars of our dramas, while the restaurant staff and décor play supporting roles. At the other end, we have places like Vespertine, where the restaurant is the main player and the guests take in what should be a unique and worthwhile show. For this, as on a night at the opera, we ought to accept the house terms: in this case, no taking pictures once inside. They do ask nicely.

It’s hard for me, as one who writes about restaurants, to refrain from the photography that helps me remember details or to accept what sometimes seems like an undemocratic restriction of my pictorial “speech.” But, after visiting Vespertine, I understand why the no-photography rule stands. So much delight depends on surprise in every space and moment of the meal that to proliferate images, beyond the teasers the restaurant metes out to press, would deprive future diners of something vital.   

In these early days of the restaurant, I don’t mind being an accomplice, keeping Vespertine a little hidden. That way, others can enjoy the experience as I did. For that reason, I won’t get too detailed when describing the experience, revealing in words what pictures threaten to do. But, to give the restaurant the credit it deserves, I must convey at least in general terms what impressed me most.

At every restaurant, architecture shapes the event of the meal. But the role the Eric Owen Moss building plays at Vespertine is well beyond the norm. Our meal progressed in multiple phases and settings, which took us through every interior floor—even dramatic parts of the building’s exterior.

When I arrived early, I waited in the outdoor garden behind the building and marveled at the manufactured pond along the entrance side. Paved with puzzle pieces of geometric white “rock,” it reminded me of another planet on Star Trek. I admired this scene from my petite concrete chair, among other uniquely proportioned chairs, benches, and tables landscaped over and under by little green hills and stalks of bamboo, giving semi-privacy to anyone there. While I waited for my friend, a swelling abstract soundtrack surrounded me, perfectly calibrated to advance and recede at the rate of my attention. (Here, I was served water and a juice I will only say involved a tree in striking glassware). 

From this vantage point, I could see the party who arrived before me as well as servers ascending and descending stairs suspended from an upper level of the building’s exterior. This foreshadowed our journey to the first phase of our meal and the reason the reservation system asked if anyone in my party had extreme fear of heights.

Once my friend arrived, we were escorted to the ground-floor elevator, which took us to the second, kitchen, floor, where chef Kahn graciously greeted us. From there, a staff member led us up those external stairs to a magical rooftop haven where we enjoyed our first five courses. (If you can choose your reservation hour, time your visit a half hour before the sun sets. The sky up there is at its most royal blue, and the temperature is ideal.) The meal proceeded on another floor, beneath, in the official dining room.

At every point, the building asserted itself. I took to it immediately and remained enraptured by it at every turn. What Eric Owen Moss did to create fluidity between inside and out, to frame views, and give a perpetual sense of openness—with multiple parts of the building visible in every part of the building—was ingenious. Putting the bathroom—and what a bathroom!—at the bottom and rear of the building showed even a sense of humor. After dining at Vespertine, I felt an anthropomorphic affection for the structure. Look at my picture of it, and maybe you can understand that. It even has a human scale.

Kahn’s cuisine and its artful presentation also stand out. I don’t want to say too much. I hope these notes will suffice: Few ingredients take the form you think they will when the servers point them out. Undoubtedly, Chef Kahn uses the full range of contemporary culinary technique and technology, and his artistic sensibility is second to none. I admit that most of the time I didn’t know what I was eating—the staff’s spare introductions, citing approximately three ingredients, served more to cast a poetic spell than to explain what were obviously complex and intricate dishes—and I didn’t care. The thrill of unexpected flavors, textures, temperatures, and weights in the food and its vessels and platforms was great enough for me on a first visit.

Nevertheless, my friend and I did notice certain patterns in the chef’s aesthetic. Over five hours, we had plenty of time to discuss them. Kahn conceived of the food inseparably from the service wares. Dish components lodged in crevices, and hid color-camouflaged among raised or concave surfaces of unique trays. Some adhered to sides of a bowl. Kahn likes vertical plinths and containers that rest on more than one side. We saw well-paced contrasts of color and texture; some like asphalt, others like cream. Kahn switched up cool and warm, temperatures we could taste in the food and feel in the ceramics. Certain vessels not only looked stunning but were functional, their thickness holding heat and cold. If you dine at Vespertine, you’ll spend a lot of time fondling and peering into bowls as if you discovered a stalagmite-filled cave. Food may be horizontal, vertical, tucked, layered.

Kahn is clearly a student of gastrophysics, the multisensory science of how we perceive food and drink. Not every dish came with a metal utensil. Sometimes a spoon was not just a spoon. He overlaid some elements just so their scent could contribute to taste. And he experimented with different weights of the dishes and utensils we held.

Near the end of the meal, before one last visit to the garden for postprandial drinks, we were brought back to the ground floor to pick up a gift from the so-called “table.” I won’t ruin it by telling you what the resinous thing was. In any case, the real gift is what Kahn has brought to the L.A. restaurant scene.

09 July 2017


Vespertine, Los Angeles. Still from trailer on the restaurant's website, vespertine.la.

I read about it. I went to the website. I watched the trailer four times. When the ticketing system finally went live, I made a reservation.

It’s hard for a restaurant to live up to a lot of pre-opening hype. In this case, the hype is for savoring all by itself. It is, at least, by thrill-seeking aesthetes like me.

From the restaurant’s website and advance press, here's my summary of the concept: Vanguard chef Jordan Kahn, whose previous ventures in Los Angeles include Red Medicine and Destroyer, intends to create an ultra-fine-dining experience that departs from today's mainstay of locavore rhetoric and aesthetics radically. He wants diners to feel transported beyond any known place. To banish signs of Earth, he has marshaled a cadre of kindred designers. The website credits Eric Owen Moss for the architecture, musicians This Will Destroy You for the "score," Ryota Aoki for "ceramics," and Jona Sees for "textiles and garments." Kahn's total theater--buzz-killers say, of the absurd--will take diners through many courses and several spaces in the building. Each space will have its own sonic ambiance. Kahn has kept the style of his food semi-veiled. What I've glimpsed seems so alien among existing forms that even a sharp photo of a dish doesn't clarify what it is. No shapes on the "plates" resemble known edibles. Hints of Vespertine's food appear sparingly in press and the trailer.

Oh, the trailer. It's the restaurant’s tone poem. The main mood is part early Alinea, where Kahn once worked, a study in luxury grays, and part otherworldly Björk, whose 2001 album is named Vespertine. It conjures an ambient music video on another planet, where a simple walk along the hills turns up transparent spiny things and geometric white flora. I think these are foretastes of Kahn's cuisine. Scenes follow a wandering waif, half hidden under a hood, who periodically fondles dirt and strange plants. Shots of the restaurant’s building, a wavy postmodern grid in dark glass and red metal, splice in toward the end, suggesting the waif’s destination. Because we never see the ground that it stands on, the structure looks like a floating world.

The branding is novel, and so I’m seduced. I have Vespertine day dreams. In one, I am swaddled in gray felt, placed by a glass wall, and allowed to marvel at sculptures they call food brought by servers in silent slippers. I imagine not moving my own body, but being transported from one room and soundscape to another as the courses of the meal progress.

My cossetting fantasy is no accident. Leading up to the opening, Vespertine has promised a kind of escape. The illusion of placelessness is temporarily unburdening. It suggests relief from a nagging conscience about exploiting Earth's creatures just when other restaurants in Vespertine's class have intensified it. Even today’s most extravagant places remind diners of food shortages and inhumane practices by citing their sustainable methods and virtuous sourcing.

The Vespertine aesthetic also removes the onus of considering labor just as the troubles of restaurant work have confronted diners via new tipping policies and surcharges for employee healthcare. In her GQ preview of Vespertine (June 7, 2017), Marian Bull reported that Kahn trained his servers to seem invisible and charged designer Aoki with making their shoes inaudible.

As long as Kahn’s labor practices really are fair, I don’t think self-effacing service is bad. On the contrary, the commitment to hospitality and fidelity to theatrical concept is admirable and consistent with good craft. Still, there’s no denying that, in Kahn’s dining drama, labor--at least of the physical kind--is a background actor.

Even the chef’s culinary aesthetic, as tentatively revealed, avoids signs of handicraft. You won't find the plate-scattered look of so much contemporary high cuisine, which at least vaguely shows evidence of handling. The glimpses I’ve gotten of Vespertine’s food suggest architectonic objects by way of CAD and the 3-D printer. Here, labor seems purely conceptual.

As with all earnest and ambitious attempts at total theater, Vespertine’s will be vulnerable to parody, camp, and unwitting pops of the proverbial balloon. I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some glitch in the matrix—like catching the Ronald McDonald you hired for a kid’s birthday taking a cigarette break. There’s bound to be something like a dropped glass or passing glimpse of routine Earth life out the window.

But I respect the extent and courage of Kahn’s imagination, and his willingness to take the financial risk of bringing a grand fiction to life. In recent memory, I've seen no offering like it in Los Angeles--really, and that's saying a lot. The aesthete and the contrarian in me want Kahn to pull this off.

Phase one of my Vespertine experience--making the reservation--has ended. Reserving through a ticketing website is nothing new for venues with high-end tasting menus. But never before have I been asked, as I was in the final screen of the process, if anyone in my party has extreme fear of heights. A message warned that part of the evening will involve traveling to the top of the tower. (I thought I read “tower.” I was in a hurry to fill out the form before the impatient Tock system could boot me out, rescinding my hard-won reservation slot, for a second time.) Yes, I mused, take me to the tower! 

Maybe, like the spaceship I have in mind, it’ll take flight. If not, I'll always remember how good was the hype.

02 April 2017


Gwen restaurant, Los Angeles. Photo by author.
Normally, when we think of a restaurant menu, we picture the list of dishes and drinks. But restaurants may be full of other kinds of menus, which may take unexpected forms. At Gwen in Los Angeles, for example, the food menu gives way, just prior to the service of the meaty main course, to a novel sub-menu: the presentation of a choice of knives. Thus, as the meal progresses, one set of choices yields another.

To be sure, the knife menu at Gwen is a novelty and therefore a conversation piece. As such, it's a neat bit of experiential marketing. Gimmicky, perhaps, but not pretentious because the choice has legitimate weight. Have you ever tried to eat a steak with a knife too light or too dull? If you do, you won't enjoy the steak anywhere near as much as if you'd equipped yourself with a sharp and solid tool. The choice of knife really does matter.

Of course, Gwen could have made this decision for you, providing you with a recommended blade. Why create an unnecessary ritual?

In its defense, I would say that the knife menu isn't just experiential marketing. It's also experiential design. It modifies our experience of the food. By making us mindful of the choice of knife, we become more attentive to the multiple dimensions of artistry behind our culinary pleasure in the restaurant. Even if we don't realize this consciously, we've gained an appreciation for the meal, and the restaurant, as a total work of art. We've picked up on the fact that our experience of the food is affected greatly by the myriad other sensory inputs in its vicinity.

(I wonder, too, whether our awareness of these dynamics makes us more or less or differently affected than we would be if left in the dark. Cognition is powerful, too.)

Those who want to study the effect of our other senses on our sense of taste will enjoy further research into a relatively new field known as gastrophysics. Look into it. Go down the rabbit hole.