Restaurant As Amusement Park

There’s a commercial for a service that allegedly protects against identity theft. In it a guy sings about why he is wearing a pirate costume serving tourists in a restaurant. (It’s because he was bankrupted when his identity was stolen.) When I think of restaurants that set out to entertain, that’s the first image that comes to mind. The theme restaurant. Mariachi guys serenading over bad fajitas. Chuck E Cheese, where your kids will be distracted enough you might get a moment to just sit and watch them spend your money on games, or it’s adult incarnation, Damon’s, where you can play a quiz using the electronic quiz thingy on your table and play, not only against the other geniuses in your particular restaurant, but against people all over the country eating at Damon’s and ignoring their food just like you are. And although Damon’s food is not horrible, it isn’t exactly a crime to ignore it, either.

There’s been a kind of an upsurge of food as fun for people who might even like to eat. Probably the bottom feeder of this is The Melting Pot, which is fondue. Fondue is a license to officially play with your food. But it isn’t particularly great food. I mean, any time you let the customers cook for themselves, the point is really not cooking technique. I like fondue, but mostly I like it sitting around with friends, getting drunk and threatening each other with the little forks—in other words, I like fondue the way it was done in the fifties, when everyone got a fondue set as a wedding present. The idea of opening a restaurant where I let non-professionals anywhere near hot oil for cooking seems rather scary to me.

My kid, Adam, is a meat eater. He, like me, would really like to be a vegetarian. But the fact is, if we were vegetarians, we’d have to give up meat. I’ve tried. I’ve failed. Now I cook with duck fat and constrain myself to a kind of low level sniping at vegetarians who I resent because I consider them morally superior to me. Texas is a meat lovers paradise and Adam is a fan of BBQ. But I found a restaurant recently that pretty much nailed the food as amusement thing, the Brazilian Steakhouse. I’ve actually eaten steak in Brazil and it’s very good. Brazil happens to be geographically sitting next to Argentina, where cattle is king. But when I was in Brazil, I never ate at anything like Fogo de Chao. First of all, the entire wait staff is wearing gaucho attire—shirts, short pants, black shiny gaucho boots. I said to Adam that at least they weren’t wearing pirate costumes and he gave me a withering glance. He was right, this wasn’t exactly an improvement.

There are Brazilian gauchos, but gauchos and gaucho cuisine—beef roasted over a fire and a drink called mate—are really Argentinian. I don’t know why Fogo de Chao isn’t an Argentinian steakhouse. But I am quibbling. And Brazil is a big country with a number of different cuisines, including Bahian—which figures big in Jorge Amado’s luscious novel, Dona Flora and Her Two Husbands. Maybe in the south, where the jungle gives way pampas, there are Brazilian steakhouses. Continue reading