Old people are offensive – I get it. As The Globe’s food writer Chris Nuttall-Smith suggested on CBC’s The Current last week, people in their 50s and 60s don’t belong in today’s trendy restaurants, and not just because our grey hair is an unsightly reminder of human decay. Because we’re decrepit stiffs stuck with outmoded baby-boomer bodies and values, we’ve become the deserving casualties of a downtown-hipster scene that defines itself by eardrum-perforating ambience, unchewable house-cured offal, self-taught twentysomething chefs with laughable tats and a two-hour wait for unpadded seats at the communal picnic table.
Predictably, we even take offence at being mocked, to judge from the social-media outbursts that tasked my colleague for fomenting intergenerational strife. All Nuttall-Smith said, more or less, was that once you hit the age of a Barack Obama, the kind of restlessly fashionable dining experience that serious restaurant critics overvalue becomes disorienting, confusing and hard to take. Which is entirely true – with the exception of a few friendly, tradition-respecting Mediterranean and Asian joints, and a cloistered hideaway at the University of Toronto, I haven’t eaten at a local restaurant for nearly a decade.
My reluctance is entirely stereotypical, on both sides of the generational divide. I want to talk and this gang of restaurateurs wants to blast music that codifies their centre-of-the-universe specialness. I want to eat and they want me to wait, preferably with bizarre cocktails and insipid wines that privilege the hipster notion of laborious obscurity. I want to enter a world different from my own and they want to segregate according to age, taste, social class and, often, ethnicity.
These are niche restaurants, private clubs imbued with a self-referential silliness and a sadistic no-reservation policy. As an unwanted outsider, I could happily live with that – while awaiting my imminent mortality – if they didn’t pretend to be so much more. The idea that a few conformist kitchens in an off-centre (but not suburban!) neighbourhood of a dour North American city could define the meaning of food is laughable to anyone who has travelled, who has cooked for themselves, who has lived with their eyes and mind wide open. There is so much more out there, and so much less – who bothers with hipster Paris when you can eat perfect bread and cheese? – and I pity my fellow oldsters who still feel some atavistic urge to follow fashion and impale themselves on the culinary cutting edge. Get over it, get old, eat what you want with people you like.
But what really troubles the out-of-date and price-sensitive egalitarian in me is the idea expressed by the cool crowd that the modern restaurant scene is fundamentally more democratic. Compared to some high-end, faux-French, hushed-tone, Michelin-courting edifice of the 1980s, maybe. But let’s not get too carried away with our Momofuku brand of populism: If levelling is what you’re looking for, the average McDonald’s is far more accessible, diverse and inexpensive. And somehow they’ve managed to hang on to the ancient and still-wonderful idea that our meals should be happy.
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