Eating dinner at Red Robini the other night with The Girl, I couldn’t help but be struck at how satisfying the meal was given the relatively paltry financial outlay.
For $75, we had a lovely ninety minute conversation, each enjoyed a couple of drinks, practically waddled out carrying our full bellies, and we still had enough food leftover for another square meal the next day. Compare this the “hottest” new spot in town, Braven at the JW Marriott in Edmonton, we’d have spent 3x for a less satisfying meal with arguably no better service and arguably worse ambiance.ii So why eat out at Braven at all, you might be wondering ? Why go to the trouble and expense ? Why, as one of my good friends does, eat out there five dinners a week ?
Quite simply, because art and life begin where narrow rationality end, and very little of the “logic” of eating out at restaurants has to do with satisfying the nutritional requirements of our biological vessels. Basically, the appeal of fancy restaurants has only loosely to do with the food and much more to do with the signal the whole experience represents. Despite what “economists” would have us believe is dictated by “logic,” humans are really not very rational creatures, which is why the once-promising “nutrition pills” of the mid-20th century never came remotely close to supplanting regular meals.iii We’re social creatures, so we want to “break bread” together when we seal a business deal, we want to follow the same dietary laws as the rest of our in-group,iv and on holidays we want to bring our families together to eat and talk about weather/sports/politics.v Similarly, when we go out to fancy restaurants, the more socially ambitious of us want to rub shoulders with others in their esteemed social circles, and preferably the social circles above, or at least impress our dates. Eating isn’t just about nutrition, it’s about social signalling.vi
And as with love languages,vii we tend to socially signal what we actually want to receive instead of what the other person wants to receive. In essence, we tend to treat other people how we want to be treated, not how they want to be treated. It comes as no surprise to evolutionary psychologists but it turns out that we (ie. our genes) are massively self-interested and that this is a very difficult bias to overcome, though not impossibly so. You just have to know thyself a bit better. But even when we know ourselves better, we’re still inclined to play the games we’re best at. So it is that I don’t personally care much for fancy restaurants because I’m not much for the theatre of food presentation, I’m generally disappointed with the service (at least in Edmonton), I’m not much for “working a room,” and other than the odd special occasion when it serves as a useful signal to The Girl that we’re not in any particular financial distress, I’m much happier dining at Red Robin, Remedy, Famoso, Doan’s, or Meat, none of which cost more than $50-100 for both of us to dine and drink.
Where I’m keener to socially signal is, seemingly paradoxically, on rigorous intellectual debate and well-designed material goods. While the former is at least somewhat evident on these pages, though perhaps less so in the last two years,viii the latter is well expressed through my love for Mercedes boats, Margiela sleds, elegant watches, beautifully crafted furniture, and all manner of paintings and sculptures. For me, deeper conversations and deeper physical experiences are what connect me to my abstract ideals of legacy and eternity. A sense of these ideals is what I respect in other people, particularly when expressed articulately and materially, so this is what I in turn project, for better or worse.
I have no doubt that many people derive immense joy from Michelin starred restaurants and the instantaneous feedback such experiences provide, but other than exactly one dinner at Monte in Rovinj that very nearly had me in tears and was worth every one of the thousands of kuna it cost, I’m really quite content with Red Robin. For a good conversation and a satisfying meal, it hit the spot.
Now I just have another excuse to spend more time in Vancouver.ix
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- Sadly, Red Robin will be leaving Alberta next month. In response to the announcement, the restaurant was absolutely packed this past Saturday night. Our waitress informed us that the chaos we experienced had been par for the course since the decision to close their five Alberta stores was made public last month (still leaving a dozen locations open in BC), with waiting times for tables stretching as long as two hours. This, for a 150-seat restaurant with several locations in the city and very middle-of-the-road dining fare!
Unfortunately, in difficult economic times, and in increasingly interconnected times, as is certainly the case in Alberta at present, the middle-of-the-road options are squeezed out of the marketplace. As with department stores like Sears that have struggled badly in the last decade while Holt Renfrew has remained strong, mainstream restaurants like Red Robin are similarly being pinched. Why ? Because growing inequality ? Not quite… it’s just that these days people either want a good deal (low-end) or they want a treat (high-end), and this is mostly true regardless of the consumer’s budget. The middle just gets squeezed out in favour of a dichotomy that pits the necessities against the luxuries. In a highly interconnected world that favours the extreme, the middle is no man’s land psychologically. ↩
- Braven is dark and windowless and Red Robin’s is beautifully daylit. Even when the sun sets at 4:30pm as it does at 53 degrees north latitude in mid-November, at least you can see through the windows onto the well-lit streets! ↩
- The same fate was destined for Soylent because Silicon Valley is particularly hell-bent on repeating many of the overly rationalised mistakes of mid-century modernism without nearly as many of its aesthetic successes. ↩
- Eg. Vegetarians, Vegans, Muslims, Jews, etc. ↩
- Speaking of talking about the weather, isn’t it hilariously common for university educated types to shit on little people who talk about the weather ? It’s so “pointless,” apparently, to talk about the weather. But is it really ? I’d argue not, that in fact it’s the all-too-common hilariously narrow definition of rationality that borders on pointless. We talk about the weather because it matters! When it’s cloudy and cool, we don’t feel like moving faster than snails, yet when the sun is shining and there’s nary a cloud in the sky, we feel energised enough to run up a mountain! That’s a real effect that actually matters in practise, though scientific theory obviously has some ways to go in catching up to how exactly it all works. ↩
- I’m certainly not diminishing social signalling either. Read up on Status isn’t a zero-sum attention game. ↩
- See Dr. Gary Chapman’s book from 2009 for more on “love languages.” ↩
- Post-La Serenissima, and post-social media, I have considerably less interest in trying to change the minds of online acquaintances (if not outright strangers) whom I never have and likely never will meet. Even if I was fortunate or skilled enough to change their minds in the first place, what good is changing their minds when I’m not going to change their behaviours ? It matters far less what we say than what we do, and I’m still not 100% convinced that internet debates or internet communities can meaningfully improve individual behaviour. It seems they rather tend to encourage herd-like behaviour as a form of signalling in-groupness, much like kashrut worked originally, but without any obvious productive benefit other than the sense of belonging.
We obviously all need a sense of belonging to survive, but survival isn’t in and of itself productive. Just as we need clothes to keep us warm in winter, doesn’t mean that clothes improve social behaviour or collaboration within groups or productivity. Or do they ? Maybe the insta-fueled surge in 5711 prices actually has larger economic and social benefits that simply aren’t being captured by existing metrics! We can dreaaaam!!!1 ↩
- Speaking of Vancouver, BIG’s Vancouver House is almost complete! Tempting!! ↩