On the way to this literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Queens, I was wondering why I find “fine dining” restaurants boring. In my mind, regardless of the cuisine, they are all the same. Whether it’s Japanese, French, or Mexican, they cater to a specific demographic. These fine diners must have high disposable income. They tend to be predominantly white and well-educated. They seek status, comfort, and luxury.
All high-end restaurants must cater to their taste and expectations. When you are seated, they bring you the menu and ask if you want to order something to drink. The menu is structured as courses, and each course is served simultaneously to all customers at the table. They pay careful attention to the sound level and temperature. Lighting is generally soft and dim. Reservations are required to avoid frustrating wait times. The tables have tablecloths and multiple sets of utensils. The plates are oversized and elaborately designed. The waitstaff is discrete but attentive. The fine diners demand these conditions regardless of the type of food you serve.
In contrast, the Mexican hole-in-the-wall was completely disorienting. I had trouble finding it because I didn’t realize it was served through a window. The menu was in Spanish, and I couldn’t read it. When I placed the order and received the food, the lady didn’t ask for money, even though it’s a takeout restaurant. I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to pay. But through this type of experience, you learn something about the culture of the cuisine.
Fine dining restaurants do the opposite; they alter their own cultures to suit the expectations and comfort level of the diners. They don’t serve fermented tofu or beef liver even if they are popular in their home country because it would be too far outside the fine diners’ comfort zone. They need to be keenly aware of where the lines are, lest they ask too much of their customers.
But great artists demand more from their audience. James Joyce didn’t care whether you were familiar with the Irish culture. If you were going to read his book, he wanted you to learn it. Artists expect more from you, and entertainers expect less from you.
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