Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s brand-new app.
Here are a few favorite stories about the notoriously brutal restaurant business. We went for an array of perspectives here—everything from the most mass-produced food on the planet to what it takes to get a table at the hottest spots in New York. If you’re still hungry, we’ve got nearly 50 more food stories in the Longform archive to choose from. Enjoy.
Bruce Feiler • Gourmet • October 2000
If you walk into New York’s best restaurants without a reservation, what does it take to get a table?
“It’s just after 8 P.M. on a balmy summer Saturday and I’m heading toward one of New York’s most overbooked restaurants, Balthazar, where celebrities regularly go to be celebrated and where lay diners like me call a month in advance to try and secure a reservation. I don’t have a reservation. I don’t have a connection. I don’t have a secret phone number. The only things I have are a $20, a $50, and a $100 bill, neatly folded in my pocket.
"I’ve never bribed my way into a restaurant. I’ve never slipped a C-note or greased a palm. In truth, I’ve never even considered it. I’ve assumed, of course, that people do such things. I’ve seen my share of Cary Grant movies. I’ve heard—and wondered whether such old-fangled gestures would work in the high-stakes, high-hype world of New York City restaurants. For everyday diners in Manhattan, cracking the waiting list at Nobu is said to be harder than getting courtside tickets for the Knicks. But is that true?“
Larissa MacFarquhar • New Yorker • Mar 2008
David Chang’s manic quest for a flawless restaurant:
“They’d been working on the scallop dish for weeks. It was a thing of beauty: a smear of black nori purée on the bottom of the bowl; then a layer of sea scallops and chanterelles and possibly clams; and then, spooned on top in front of the customer, a soft heap of foaming dashi (kelp and dried-bonito broth), made intentionally unstable with just a little methylcellulose, so that in front of the customer’s eyes the bubbles would burst and dissipate into a fishy liquid, at exactly the speed that foam from a wave dissipates onto sand. It looked like the sea and tasted like the sea, and Chang was extremely proud of it. The only thing he was worried about was the word ‘foam,’ which, owing to its trendiness in the nineties, had become a symbol of everything pretentious and unnatural about nineties cuisine. In Chang’s mind, he was making fun of foam, but of course some people were not going to get that and were going to think he was just another leftover foam slave. ‘It’s gonna piss people off,’ he said happily."
Jackie Kruszewski • This Recording • October 2011
An essay on waiting tables:
"Waiting tables has never paid my bills, a fact which I prefer to hide from my colleagues with deep sighs about the price of just about everything. But through the managerially-induced eye rolls, the horrific tippers, the empty-table boredom, and the mild injustices of everyday service industry work lies my dirty secret: I could quit any time I want. I went to pick up my last paycheck from the French restaurant and ended up with two shifts a week. My name is Jackie and I am addicted to waitressing.”
Krista Ninivaggi, Nicola Twilley • Edible Geography • Nov 2010
An interview with Alan Stillman, who in 1965 founded T.G.I. Friday’s, the first singles bar in America:
“I don’t think there was anything else like it at the time. Before T.G.I. Friday’s, four single twenty-five year-old girls were not going out on Friday nights, in public and with each other, to have a good time. They went to people’s apartments for cocktail parties or they might go to a real restaurant for a date or for somebody’s birthday, but they weren’t going out with each other to a bar for a casual dinner and drinks because there was no such place for them to go.
"It took off extraordinarily quickly. In the first six to nine months, T.G.I. Friday’s got written up in Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post. Then Maxwell’s Plum opened up across the street, which was another singles bar. It was really quite a phenomenon.
"I believe that the first line in the history of bars, restaurants, and discos may have been at T.G.I. Friday’s. Inside of three months, we had to hire a doorman. One night I was tending bar, and he walked up to me and said, ‘Listen, there’s a dozen people standing outside, and we have no tables and no room at the bar. What do you want me to do?” And I said, “I tell you what. Why don’t you just tell them to wait, and when someone comes out, you’ll let them in.’ He said that he didn’t know whether they would wait or not, and I said I didn’t know what else to tell him, and so he went back.
"Next thing you know, I came out from behind the bar to get something and I looked outside and there were forty people standing in line. The next week we ended up buying velvet ropes.
"There was nothing like that anywhere else.”
Eric Schlosser • Atlantic • Jan 2001
Mysterious, man-made “natural flavor” explains why most fast food—indeed, most of the food Americans eat—tastes the way it does. An early excerpt from Fast Food Nation:
“Open your refrigerator, your freezer, your kitchen cupboards, and look at the labels on your food. You'll find "natural flavor" or "artificial flavor" in just about every list of ingredients. The similarities between these two broad categories are far more significant than the differences. Both are man-made additives that give most processed food most of its taste. People usually buy a food item the first time because of its packaging or appearance. Taste usually determines whether they buy it again. About 90 percent of the money that Americans now spend on food goes to buy processed food. The canning, freezing, and dehydrating techniques used in processing destroy most of food's flavor -- and so a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable. Without this flavor industry today's fast food would not exist. The names of the leading American fast-food chains and their best-selling menu items have become embedded in our popular culture and famous worldwide. But few people can name the companies that manufacture fast food's taste.
"The flavor industry is highly secretive. Its leading companies will not divulge the precise formulas of flavor compounds or the identities of clients. The secrecy is deemed essential for protecting the reputations of beloved brands. The fast-food chains, understandably, would like the public to believe that the flavors of the food they sell somehow originate in their restaurant kitchens, not in distant factories run by other firms. A McDonald's french fry is one of countless foods whose flavor is just a component in a complex manufacturing process. The look and the taste of what we eat now are frequently deceiving -- by design.”
Mark Arax • Los Angeles • April 2008
OK, so this last one is way more of a murder story than a restaurant story. But it’s so good! (So’s the chicken.)
“He had lived his life like one of those princes of Armenian fable, maybe Ara the Beautiful or Tigran the Great. His story began in a tiny storefront in Beirut, where his mother in her apron hand spooned the fluffy white garlic paste that would become the family fortune. From Hollywood to Anaheim, he had opened a chain of fast-food rotisserie chicken restaurants that dazzled the food critics and turned customers into a cult. Poets wrote about his Zankou chicken. Musicians sang about his Zankou chicken. Now that he was dying, his dream of building an empire, 100 Zankous across the land, a Zankou in every major city, would be his four sons’ to pursue. In the days before, he had pulled them aside one by one—Dikran, Steve, Ara, Vartkes—and told them he had no regrets. He was 56 years old, that was true, but life had not cheated him. He did not tell them he had just one more piece of business left to do.”