Restaurants fulfill two functions in our society: some, the majority, serve to solve a need, to feed those who cannot return home to do so or do not have the option of preparing a meal at that time. However, the restaurants we pay most attention to are often in another realm. Perhaps sometimes they fulfill that first function, but they tend to be places that we associate with free time more than with what is necessary.
It is interesting to try to understand why a place created, in principle, to solve a problem becomes a leisure space; what drives us to go to these places and what drives us to return regularly.
I believe, in this sense, that there are also two axes that motivate our decisions. Sometimes, the gastronomic experience in a restaurant becomes a problem solver. We want to get together with friends, with our partner or with our family and we want to do it without worrying, within our comfort zone. Hence the success of croquettes, for example; of the snacks to share, of the places of tapas or rations to the center in which we know that things are going to be reasonably good and that allow us to focus our attention on other aspects that are important at that moment, in the chat, in the company, in the group.
But there are still a number of restaurants that do not fit into any of the above categories; places that suppose an effort, sometimes economic, sometimes logistical, sometimes intellectual and sometimes all of them combined and to which, however, we return. Things happen in these places that go far beyond the simple fact of eating or meeting with a social nature. An aesthetic event takes place in these places.
What happens inside these restaurants has to do with what reaches the plate, but also with everything that surrounds that plate, I would dare to say that at least as much as with the kitchen itself. When we go to one of these places we put ourselves in the hands of someone who has thought of an aesthetic event around the kitchen, who has created a sequence of recipes, intensities, more or less unexpected moments and others that are familiar to us; of rhythms, of rituals, of symbols that refer us to the everyday, to the evocative, perhaps to the unexpected.
Sometimes what they offer us also confronts us with our limits and our prejudices: the raw and the cooked, the acceptable and the improper, textures that make us feel good and others that do not belong to the sphere of what comforts us. What are you proposing to me? How am I supposed to react? Should I be amused, surprised, take it for granted, should I feel uncomfortable, should I make an effort to like it? Why?
All of that sets up a sequence that is impossible to replicate anywhere else. That is why the kitchen of a restaurant does not usually work in any other context, it does not matter if it is another restaurant, a dinner at a congress or a meal in a private home. It can make us look at what can be, but it doesn’t work because it needs space and, above all, it needs us in that space.
Erika Fischer-Lichte, one of the main scholars of theater and performance, proposed a series of characteristics that define the performative aesthetic event that also have a lot to do, although she did not enter that field, with the experience in the restaurant : The spectator (diner) enters a zone of uncertainty, spatial, but also mental. He leaves the comfort of his everyday spaces to enter a place that he often does not know, that is alien to him and over which he has no control.
The event needs the spectator (guest) to be able to take place. It is not a closed work that you attend in the same way as when you go to a museum to see a Renaissance painting. The author proposes his work to us, according to a sequence and rhythms that he decides; based on some raw materials, on some techniques and on a series of cultural references, taking into account what the diner expects, what a specific product means in this culture, how a certain raw material is usually prepared, etc.
But then a threshold is crossed that is physical and mental at the same time. And that threshold is different each time, with each diner or even with the same diner, on each new visit. The author’s work begins a new journey there each time in which everything he had designed, everything to which he applied his technical knowledge, is analyzed from other parameters that have to do with the cultural references of the diner, with his personal baggage, with their memories, their affections, their philias and their phobias; with his state of mind, with the reason for his visit, with whom he sits at the table with him; with his physical limitations, his age or his tiredness.
That is why the same restaurant does not work the same, even the same menu, when it is full or when we are the only table in the premises, on our first or fourth visit, when we go with friends or when we sit alone, when we are 30 years old or when we are 75. Comfort and discomfort, how much we let our guard down and put ourselves in the hands of the team, how much attention we pay to the moment, what distracts us from the plate and what focuses our attention on it are elements that modify the event and make it into something different each time, sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating. Almost always, if everything fits, illuminating in a certain sense. That’s why we want more. That’s why we come back.
The restaurant experience needs the diner to be complete. Because without it there is no business, obviously, but also because it is an experience that requires corporality, for an organism to interact with the physical and conceptual experience of the menu. It requires significant associations, cultural references and a predisposition that is marked by rhythms, sequences and the environment, as occurs in any other symbolic event.
Restaurant cuisine is very much an allegorical act, in the sense that Walter Benjamin gave to this word. The dish, the menu, the visit to the restaurant are not closed elements that are offered to us already finished for passive enjoyment, they are something that is offered to us halfway and that runs through the other half hand in hand with our subjectivity, with the appropriation what we make of them generating new meanings and, at the same time, an ephemeral, unique and unrepeatable aesthetic experience. They are a celebration in which we participate, not objects of contemplation, and as such they require our participation.
The restaurant has to do with our memory. With the episodic, which is based on the memory of spaces and events, but above all with semantics, which gives meaning to each new visit, to each dish, to each ingredient, to the warmth of the space, to how the team is directed room to us and translates them into something that is only ours.
The restaurant exists because we exist as spectators/diners. That relationship is what makes a restaurant much more than a place where you cook well; it is the one that leads us to return, it is the one that gets us to dedicate our free time, our economic resources and our attention to something apparently as simple as eating. Because around that solved physiological need we build meanings, relationships; we build image, aspirations and status. But above all we build an aesthetic experience that completes us and that becomes one of the defining characteristics of contemporary society.
The restaurant is a cultural phenomenon. A complex cultural phenomenon, because unlike others it has to do with our corporality and with a physical need; a place of events that fill our day-to-day with symbolism, that talk about us, our moment in history and how we relate to others and our environment. It would be a shame to understand it simply as a place where you can eat delicious food.