Dining as Social Construction

Since the deep pockets at Oakland’s hot Camino restaurant won’t be fazed by any criticisms I make — the place was packed last Friday night — I’m going to remove the gloves.

A box, even a box with a high, pressed-tin ceiling, a full bar in front and an exhibition kitchen in back, isn’t necessarily a restaurant. Nor is eating at long (30’) wooden tables, communitas-style, necessarily “dining.” (Could this be the result of an entire generation eating in shopping mall food courts and thinking it was “dining out?”)

Three entrees, a few appetizers, no décor unless you count a huge wall of brick, and a kitchen so overwhelmed that dinner arrived an hour late — this is what now passes for dining in the age of recession. And believe me, I (partly) see the point.

No linens, no plants, no candles — these are all cost-saving strategies. Only three entrees means the kitchen, presumably, is cooking in earnest and without waste. Great. I’m down with that. But here’s what we actually experienced for our $100.

Simple, simple cooking. (Read between those two “simples” — what I mean is I could do this myself.) Okay, but still good flavors might just be worth going out for. And I was dining with a dear friend, someone I don’t see enough, and that in itself made up for the extremely long wait for our entrée. The glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape helped too.

When they arrived, the plates had been sort of piled clumsily with food. Beets plopped down next to the greens, next to the very nice slab of swordfish. On my plate, artichokes smothered with onions, next to piles of mushrooms, next to braised fennel, and a nicely-poached egg.

Given the seating arrangement – long, long tables – I couldn’t help but feel the obvious resemblance to institutional dining. Where else do you sit down next to strangers, on hard chairs, on bare tables, and with all the food on a single crowded plate? Right! In high school cafeterias. Or in correctional facility dining halls.

Not the most glamorous analogy.

Oh, people stake out their turf anyway, even though you’re sitting close enough to your neighbor to hear the details of their messy divorce. Territoriality, if not privacy, is established by the careful placement of electronic accessories – Blackberrys and iPhones positioned just so, as if to remind neighboring diners, “we’re upscale and we’re very busy, so keep your distance.”

What was I in the middle of? Possibly the result of decades of hive mind indoctrination. This was no longer a restaurant, it was a fashion obligation — eating out, as a group, as a socially-constructed set of behaviors.

The bottom line on the food: too many different unrelated flavors on a single plate to make any sense. Too dark to see, too loud to hear or taste. Like dining in a fashionable urban cage, where that second cocktail helping you endure the long wait for your meal, makes sure you’re too sloshed to care about what you get. And I know that you know what I’m talking about.