Manhattan Restaurants Yesterday and Today

Food for Thought @ The Jones

The Jones kept the bright orange facade and the signage from when it was the Great Jones Café. My wife grew up two doors down from there and had eaten their cajun food countless times. Despite the original exterior, the inside is not the same. She lamented that the original kookiness is gone. According to Eater, the cafe opened in 1983 by the partners who now own Two Boots. Six years later, a regular customer named Jim Moffett bought the place and ran it until his death in the summer of 2018. He resisted the pressure to upscale the cafe.

The food critic Robert Sietsema once expressed a sentiment similar to my wife’s: “It made me nostalgic for an era in downtown New York when real estate pressures didn’t dominate everything, when food didn’t always have to be the best and most expensive it could be, when a meal was simply a meal, best consumed among friends.”

“Food didn’t always have to be the best,” is a strange thing to say for a food critic, but it resonates with me. In the 90s, there were still many restaurants and cafes like the Great Jones that served their local communities. It was the Dotcom boom that decidedly changed the restaurant landscape. In order to survive, every aspect of a restaurant now has to be carefully calculated and optimized. But this isn’t to say they are all about money; there are much easier ways to make money than operating a restaurant. Today, Manhattan restaurants are about social and cultural capital.

Because Wall Street bankers have an obscene amount of financial capital but zero social/cultural capital, they are eager to convert some. One is supposed to earn the latter, but it’s possible to buy it if you have enough money. They “invest” in trendy restaurants and contemporary arts for bragging rights, which is a big part of what turns me off about both. They have been co-opted by Wall Street bankers as status symbols. The food, I’m sure, is amazing, but the excellence is being used to assert the superiority of the rich. It feeds their egos, not our hearts.

If we were to rate restaurants, not based on food, but on how they serve our community and culture, Manhattan restaurants today would not get any stars.