A couple of weeks ago, while attending the New England Museums Association conference in Portland, Maine, I had a lovely meal at Isa, a little bistro in the city’s Bayside neighborhood. The food was delicious, the space well lighted and designed, the service attentive but informal, the atmosphere convivial – a happy local crowd on a weeknight out. But maybe the nicest thing about the whole experience was how refreshingly straightforward and unpretentious it was.
It’s no secret that in the past twenty years restaurant dining in the United States has undergone a transformation. No longer simply sustenance, or even entertainment, a meal out nowadays (with exceptions, of course) is increasingly seen as a cultural event. Restaurants are the new theatres, venues for participatory drama and storytelling. (Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Underbelly, in Houston, has even given his restaurant a subtitle: “The Story of Houston Food.”)
Many of the effects of this shift have been positive: small farmers and food producers, and small restaurants, are far more prevalent and sustainable now than they once were. I am continually surprised and delighted by the quality of food I find these days in even the smallest cities I visit, and the term “culinary arts” no longer induces snickers. But at the same time there’s been a steep escalation in over-designed, overly complicated, self-indulgent recipes and menus: “tall” dishes composed of artfully sculpted components balanced precariously on a brushstroke smear of sauce; ingredients whose provenance is too exhaustively footnoted; “molecular” compositions so thoroughly deconstructed that they are less about eating than intellectual gymnastics.
I worry lately that our profession is falling prey to some of the same excesses. As interpretive planners and designers, authenticity is the coin of our realm: real things, real experiences, real people and real places. Our job is to locate something powerful and true, make it engaging and accessible to guests, then get the hell out of the way. But all too often, with the best of intentions, we seem to be trying too hard. We’re afraid to leave well enough alone. Seduced by our own cleverness and the ever more sophisticated tools of our trade, we add on layer upon layer of design, of technology, of so-called interactivity, until the authentic thing itself risks being obscured rather than revealed.
Sometimes you don’t want a challenge or an adventure; you just want a nice plate of food.