Goodbye Signature Dish, Hello Instagram Hero

Header image: Tucano / Flickr

Writing about restaurants’ signature dishes, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer runs the curse narrative: When a dish becomes popular, a chef can never take it off the menu without customers getting pissed.

“The late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe used to complain about having so many dishes she couldn’t remove,” Bauer writes, “which meant that few people ordered the specials and other new items.”

With a new chef, a Berkeley restaurant is taking its two-decades-old mushroom fritters off the menu gently. They’ve disappeared from the printed menu, though customers can still get them if they ask. This is like killing a spider plant by gradually cutting down the water you give it, until the leaves are brown and crackly and taking it out to the compost bin is pretty much an act of mercy.

Andrew Lin Yikai / Flickr

This is an older, analog way of thinking. In our digital age, when it’s kind of unthinkable for a new restaurant to last more than five years, the curse is likelier to be never rising above the noise on social media.

In The Guardian, Marina O’Loughlin suggests that more and more restaurants are making a play for instant signature-dish status, not by patiently cooking the same dishes for half a decade, until you’re hooked, but by vying for Instagram glory.

“Today,” O’Loughlin writes, “it is impossible to scroll through any timeline without encountering other people’s lunches, and, worldwide, there is an increase in dishes that appear to be deliberately engineered to get you snapping before tucking in.”

ccho / Flickr

O’Loughlin notes this as an intro to a lovely listicle on this summer’s cult dishes in Britain: Bao’s blood cake, Craft’s Celtic-looking duck in clay, Duck & Waffle’s, uh…duck and waffle. She quotes a restaurant PR person whose key question, meeting with a prospective client, is about what's likely to be the furiously photographed “glory dish.”

Unlike the old model—that roast chicken that will probably be the last dish served in whatever far-future dystopia where Zuni Café must cease to exist—this new one has an awareness of obsolescence baked in.

“Social media is driven by the thrill of the new,” O’Loughlin writes. “Tweeters move on to the next big thing without a backward glance. Six months down the line, there’s a chorus of ‘we’ve all seen that bloody pithivier’, a mindset that compels chefs and restaurateurs to reach ever more attention-seeking heights, dreaming up the culinary equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s bottom to penetrate the noise.”

There’s nothing more boring than last year’s food porn. The challenge these days is designing this year’s.

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