Note: This is an old post from 2005. The basic text is the same but I had to update the particulars to match the current restaurant scene in the city, so I updated the date too.
There are a lot of ways to rate restaurants. The assumption is that most reviewers are there to rate the food, but really they are looking at many other aspects of the place. Therefore, in rating surveys like the Zagat’s, you see multiple numbers written down and averaged and weighted: food, decor, “value” and so on. Recently the thought occured to me to try and define a simple measure to summarize my feelings about a restaurant. Thus, I present to you: the pretension quotient.
Simply put, this quotient is derived by comparing how good the food in a particular place is with how pretentious you perceive a place to be. If you take the ratio of these values, restaurants then naturally fall into four general classes:
Low Pretension, Great Food
Here we have the best ratio of food quality to pretentiousness. These tend to be small places that serve simple regional food that is just too good to pass up. I would eat real barbeque off a picnic table before I’d sit down at most of the fancier tables in Pittsburgh and get served a “flame roasted pork loin with quinoa, baby spinach salad and a cranberry apple demi-glace relish” which ends up being a tasteless piece of white rubber with a red sauce, stale raw spinach with some fake cheese on it and that execrable fad grain that tastes like grass.
Locally, many of my favorite places hit this sweet spot. This is especially true of the more “ethnic” places, exemplified by the increasingly great Chinese Food corridor in Squirrel Hill.
High Pretension, Good to Great Food
Of course, we go to fancy places too. The good ones have a quality level is at least as good as their pretentiousness. One of the nicer side effects of the great Pittsburgh restaurant scene revolution of the late 2000s and early 2010s is that more and more ambititous places actually manage to do this. The list now is almost too long to try and enumerate, but here are a few favorites: Dish, Morcilla, Dinette, Legume, Station, Casbah, Union Standard, etc.
Low Pretension, Mediocre Food
Here we have the places that equalize their quality to pretension ratio from the other direction. So they are not great, but they do not try to convince you that they are shooting terribly high. I find these to be tolerable because they basically serve you exactly what they advertise. Locally, a place like Atria and the chain places fall into this part of the matrix. Of course, one prefers to avoid chains if one can help it.
High Pretension, Mediocre to Bad Food
Finally, we get to the places that dominate my bad experiences in restaurants. These are the more up scale stores with big rooms, fancy menus, medium to high prices and completely generic, tasteless, unoriginal food. Here are some things you can do to gain yourself pretension points while not improving your food at all:
Food as Sculpture. Very few people do this well. In general, stacked food is not interesting to look at and is just harder to eat. It’s hard to cut that rubbery pork chop when it’s sitting on top of the cold mashed potatoes.
Weird Tableware. I don’t need forks and knives that weigh eight pounds, or huge plates for small food items, or bowls that are crooked on top. This generally serves no purpose but to distract you from how utterly boring the actual presentation of the food is.
Novel Length Menus. Spare me the biography of every lamb leg you serve, or the trading routes used to obtain the rare olives in your salad. Too often the breathless descriptions of hand picked herbs and organic micro-greens are just an elaborate ruse to make you think the place is not just serving you a plain piece of frozen fish with a white sauce.
Fruity Sauces. You better know what you are doing if you are going to have me put fruit on my meat. Also, you don’t gain my confidence by calling that reduced sauce “saffron jus”.
Snarky Waitrons Dressed in Black. The customer experience is not improved when the pouty waitstaff dressed all in gothic black sneers at me through hip thick rimmed glasses. Also, make sure they can at least pronounce the food.
These days it’s harder for me to name names in this category for two reasons:
Many of the places that I hated on in the past have closed.
There are enough choices in the “good” category above that I don’t find myself trying some new try-hard joint all that much, so I haven’t had the experience in a while.
The most recent place I can think of that fell into this bucket was the breakfast place in Denver that we went to that was very expensive, had bad pancakes, and sold some froo-froo fake ketchup. Don’t let this happen to you.
Anyway, you will note that the list below for this bucket is mostly old places that people have forgotten about. I just threw Pork and Beans in there for personal reasons, and to highlight the generally sad state of BBQ in Pittsburgh. But that’s another post.
Here is a handy table to keep with you to figure out how to classify your own favorite (or not so favorite) places based on how I have classified the places described above (and a few others). Send in your suggestions!
- Not pretentious, not great: Atria, Kelly O’s Diner
- Not pretentious, great: Rose Tea, Salem’s, Banh Mi and Ti, Chicken Latino
- Pretentious, not great: Pork and Beans, Cafe Zinho, P.F. Chang’s
- Pretentious, good to great: Dish, Legume, Morcilla