It’s dinnertime, and you’re meeting friends at Locke-Ober or L’Espalier, Doyle’s or Durgin-Park — one of the city’s many eternal restaurants whose existence is taken for granted. At the table, over large plates that aren’t meant to be shared by all, family-style, in the order in which they are received, you catch up distraction-free. No one is texting, tweeting, or photographing the food. And if you have that after-dinner drink you’ve been contemplating, you’re going to have to find a taxi home.
It’s 2010. Uber doesn’t exist; the iPhone just turned 3. Everything you need is about to be at your fingertips, for better and worse. But the future isn’t here just yet.
The life of restaurants is ever changing. Over the course of any decade, things wind up in a different place from where they started. But this decade, in Boston and beyond, the change in the dining landscape has been tectonic.
It is a story about changing tastes and trends, of course, but also about technology and the ways it has changed us. Outsourcing our executive functions to a tiny, easily lost handheld device is a human experiment still underway, but at the table, at least, the impact is unmistakable.
If once we ate with our eyes, now we dive in lens first. Instagram launched in October 2010, and with our fancy smartphone cameras we began to capture and post everything we consumed, along with catchy hashtags. For chefs, this was a burden and an opportunity. They had to pay attention to a new platform, but they could also create for the ’gram. Making a visually irresistible egg-salad sandwich or over-the-top milkshake could lead to viral buzz and new business, as well as a trend that traveled at the speed of WiFi. Invent a rainbow bagel one morning, and a chef on the other side of the world could be copying it the next. (The same went for recipe creation, with everyone making the chickpea stew or crinkled chocolate-chip cookie of the moment.)
“Instagram has really changed the thought process as a whole as a restaurateur,” chef Chris Coombs told the Globe in 2017, just before opening the downtown location of Boston Chops, which features an Instagrammers’ table with its own photo-friendly lighting system. “There are nights when more than half the people in the dining room are taking pictures.”
This put power directly in the hands of consumers, creating a cadre of influencers that could be both more relatable and less transparent about motivations and influences than old-school media gatekeepers. Further democratizing the court of public opinion, Yelp came into its full powers. The restaurant reviews we read were often written by our peers rather than professional restaurant critics. Pros: You had access to popular opinion and the ability to crowd-source. Cons: Opinions were sometimes less knowledgeable and/or informed by freebies and special treatment.
About halfway through the decade, we began to hear the same refrain from chefs and restaurateurs: “Nobody wants to leave the house anymore. If a drop of rain falls, people don’t come out.” There was no need. We could Netflix, chill, and order in from a food-delivery service such as Caviar, DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates, Seamless, Uber Eats, or Yelp (half of which owned the other half anyway). The delivery business is now so important to the bottom line, restaurants are retooling how they operate and what they offer to meet demand. One new consideration in menu development: Does the dish travel well?
But as much as tech, it was the human stories that shook the underpinnings of the hospitality industry this decade. In 2006, activist Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement to help survivors of sexual violence. In 2017, it became a hashtag. The Harvey Weinstein story broke and opened the floodgates. Allegations of sexual harassment and assault emerged against high-profile figures from all industries, including chefs and restaurateurs: John Besh, Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Mike Isabella. More than simply exposing individuals, #MeToo shined a light on structural issues within the restaurant industry, illuminating a culture where bad behavior was too often tolerated and dismissed, where substance abuse and mental health issues went too often unaddressed. And it started a conversation about how to make things better, from training staff to hiring and promoting more women.
“There is no better argument for having more women running companies,” said Big Heart Hospitality chef-owner Tiffani Faison in a Globe story at the time.
Tipped workers were particularly vulnerable: According to a 2016 report released by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 35 percent of those working for tips in Greater Boston reported they had been sexually harassed by customers, more than twice as many as nontipped workers in the survey. On the other side of the issue were those working in the kitchen, untipped, earning significantly less than front-of-the-house staff. We began to talk more about equitable compensation, benefits, and how to ensure restaurant workers could earn a living wage. Should tipping be eliminated altogether? Restaurateurs began experimenting with that and other solutions; many introduced the kitchen fee, a small percentage added to the bill to boost back-of-house wages and help close the gap.
This was important not just for workers but for employers, who needed to do what they could to retain staff in the face of a mass labor shortage. Development was changing the face of the city: Over the course of the decade, whole neighborhoods were remade, from the Fenway to Kendall to the Seaport. In the process, new dining hubs rose up. In the Seaport alone, said Massachusetts Restaurant Association president and CEO Bob Luz in February, about 60 new places have opened in the last five years. Every luxury condo building needed a restaurant to anchor it; retail was hardly a viable tenant in the Amazon age. And then there was the Encore Boston casino, with more than a dozen places to eat and drink.
Rents climbed to new heights. Restaurant broker Charlie Perkins said base rents that were $30 per square foot in 2010 are $40 per square foot for 2020. Revenues had to keep pace with the increase, but even at national chains with large marketing budgets, sales were often down, he pointed out.
It all added up, and took its toll. Over the course of a decade, a city that made its culinary name via independent chef-owners — Gordon Hamersley, Barbara Lynch, Lydia Shire — became increasingly inhospitable to such operators. (Other cities, such as New York, have seen similar changes.) “Due to today’s escalating rents and the increased cost of construction, the days of the small 1,500-2,000 square foot neighborhood bistro are gone as the young chefs are being priced out of the market,” Perkins wrote in an e-mail.
A breathtaking number of restaurants closed, many of them pillars of the dining scene. (A short list: Blue Ginger, the Blue Room, Brasserie Jo, Chez Henri, Clio, Doyle’s, Durgin-Park, East Coast Grill, Erbaluce, Hamersley’s Bistro, the Hilltop Steakhouse, the Hungry I, Hungry Mother, L’Espalier, Les Sablons, Locke-Ober, Market, Olives, Radius, Rendezvous, Rialto, Ribelle, Shepard, Stephi’s on Tremont, Strip-T’s, Towne Stove & Spirits, Townsman, Via Matta, and West Bridge.) Chefs looked away from fine dining and toward fast-casual when considering new concepts. These franchises proliferated, along with other chain restaurants and food halls and markets, such as Boston Public Market, Bow Market, and Time Out Market Boston.
This also reflected how our tastes and eating habits had changed. We had less time and energy for formal, multicourse meals, and less money for them, too, after the economy crashed in 2008. Small, shareable plates knocked the old appetizer-entree-dessert structure off the menu. We loved food trucks and pop-ups. Plant-based diets became a serious, mainstream force in dining, and the market for meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger grew. Chefs adjusted their offerings to accommodate specialized diets and food allergies. Pickling and fermentation were everywhere, seafood restaurants stepped up their game, and breweries and taprooms exploded. Spain’s El Bulli, one of the world’s most influential restaurants, closed. The kind of cuisine it championed, a melding of cooking and science often referred to in this country as molecular gastronomy, was on the wane. It gave way to New Nordic cuisine, a rigorous exploration of hyperlocal, seasonal, sustainable ingredients brought to the forefront by Copenhagen’s equally influential Noma.
And media notions about what kind of restaurants deserved attention, which chefs warranted celebrity, expanded.
In part, this was counterbalance. The immigrant workforce that powers the hospitality industry was under existential threat. After the election of Donald J. Trump, the country’s climate darkened for those who weren’t “from here.” There were ICE raids, detention camps, hate crimes. And there was response, from those who believed these were not the hallmarks of the American Dream.
Protesters heckled Trump officials when they tried to eat at restaurants. As part of nationwide “Day Without Immigrants” protests, many restaurants closed or scaled back their offerings. Top chefs like José Andrés spoke out: “The Trump administration’s decision to revoke protective status for Salvadorans (affecting 200,000 immigrants living in the United States, including 32,000 in the Washington area), Haitians (59,000 immigrants) and possibly Hondurans (86,000 immigrants) has thrown families across the country into chaos. This policy shift also has the potential to devastate my industry and hurt the overall economy,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece in 2018.
Against this backdrop, food media increasingly put immigrant cuisines, experiences, and viewpoints at the center. There was greater diversity among winners of prestigious food-world accolades like the James Beard Awards. We had conversations about cultural appropriation. And food continued to be a sphere in which our societal interests and issues played out, because everybody eats.
How will this look in the next decade? Concerns about the environment will change what’s on the menu. The upcoming election, and the food policy and cultural climate that result, will have an impact on what and how we eat. It’s hard to remember what it felt like to be in a restaurant where people weren’t interacting with screens. The 2029 equivalent of that sentence is something we can’t yet imagine.Devra First can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.