The point is this: in Pittsburgh, the template holds. A visionary restaurant group (started by people who spent time in SF and NY) serves as a creative cauldron. Its acolytes go on to their own projects, which beget more projects from the people working for them. Young people move to the city and color their hair unnaturally. An Ace Hotel opens. And voilà: a gritty industrial city becomes a Hot New Food Town.
But let's take a deeper look. It is true the city is experiencing its own -- powerless to stop the phrase -- Golden Age of Food and Drink. But only on a local level. What's happening in E Liberty and Lawrenceville and the Strip District isn't an explosion of new ideas, per se. They're just new to this place.
Look. This is not the story I intended to write. I interviewed chefs and bartenders and food writers and presidents of cool hotel groups all over the country because I was trying to understand the good and bad sides of being named a Hot New Food Town, and what the repercussions were one, two, and five years down the road. But when I examined each of the cities that was being lauded in these ways, and the same templates showed up again and again, it became unbearably obvious that we in the food media are sticking to one particular story, and just rewarding a new city every time one does its 2007 Portland impression.
I am as guilty or more guilty than most in perpetuating this narrative. Every year I do Thrillist's 21 Best New Restaurants in America, and I am absolutely tickled when I can write about a restaurant doing something cool in a city we usually don't cover. As journalists, we love the idea of the underdog, of that undiscovered place no one else knows about, so we perpetuate the myth that what it's doing is new and creative, when, at best, it's micro-creative.
You can't blame a chef in Pittsburgh or Nashville or anywhere else who just wants to make good food and be able to make a living at it, and is savvy enough to notice that the food media tends to pay the most attention to places of a certain ilk. And once you get the food media, you get the diners that follow said food media, ranging from the hipster millennial contingent who use trendy food as their social currency, to the older Chowhound crowd who tend to introduce themselves as "foodies" using air quotes. And that means crowded, successful restaurants. So really, if, as a chef, you're offered a litany of financial and critical incentives for doing the same sort of thing that has won praise in other cities, why wouldn't you do it?
To their credit, the chefs I talked to in Pittsburgh, to a man/woman, all seemed to think the deluge of national press exposure is a little ridiculous. "I don't think it's a coincidence that once some of our restaurants were able to afford to hire NY PR firms, we started to see national exposure," says Bill Fuller. "There's a sentiment here now where people are like, 'OK, stop telling everyone how fucking great we are.'" He went on to talk about how many of the national stories just get things wrong anyway. "I saw one story praising Justin [Severino]'s Morcilla, and how good it was. It wasn't opening for another two months."
"People read these stories," says Severino, "and think that when they come to Pittsburgh, they're going to dine like they're in SF, but way cheaper. That's never going to happen. The food culture here is really young."
Chef Sonja Finn of Dinette (and consulting chef at the Carnegie Museums) puts it a different way: "We appreciate the press obviously. But when you can see that the narrative is written before the writer gets to town, there's not much to be done."
"Plus," she laughs, "I want to see all those people calling us a Hot New Food Town come back through here in the winter."
In the end, I'm not even sure if any of this matters or should matter to people outside of my own little food-world bubble. As I said before, if people are caring more about what they eat, and food is better, local farmers are being supported, and chefs are encountering more open-minded diners in cheaper places, maybe that’s enough and I should just be happy that the Good Food Revival Movement took place at all.
But I can't stop thinking we can all do better. That the food media can stop treating every city that goes through this revival movement as the next culinary Shangri-La. That diners can stop complacently demanding and rewarding the same types of things on each and every menu (if I see another Brussels sprouts dish with/without bacon, or a vegetable "tartare," or another fucking thing made into "pastrami," I might lose my shit). And that more chefs see past just introducing a "concept" that worked well in another city, and really try and push the gastronomic envelope until that envelope is filled with all sorts of weird, cool, scary foods.
In David Chang's incredible "The State of Ramen" essay from last year, he mentioned his opinion on why food and restaurants were becoming more uniform: "It's because there's no more thirst for knowledge, no catalyst for imagination or reason to try to create new and different things anymore."
Until we start searching out and celebrating new and different things, the Hot New Food Town playbook will keep repeating until every city's 5 Points, E 6th, N Mississippi, King St, and Highland Ave just becomes a more stylized form of homogeneity -- post-suburban America's answer to the strip mall, where the exact same people you imagine from every other city are all there, sipping the exact same "updated" Mai Tais in between bites of the exact same venison soppressata, striving to be different by doing the same exact thing.
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large and a former shameless promoter of the Hot New Food town. Buy his Good Food Revival Movement bumper stickers: @KAlexander03.