The Food Revolution at the Dive Bar.
Almost every day, I'm struck by the food revolution that has changed the landscape of eating and dining out in these United States. It wasn't too long ago that food was mere sustenance for most of the population — and that sustenance was basically, well, crap. The flavors were dull, the ingredients processed, the experience generally lousy. Sure, there were the upper echelons of fine dining, but even many of those, like so many things meant to indicate the wealth and importance of the patrons, have always edged toward vapid and fussy. Tiny squares of curious ingredients, served on oversized plates by waiters dressed as the fools they assume you are.
Now, great food is everywhere. Even when you travel to places far from our urban centers, you'll find at least one or two spots run by people who believe that if they provide, say, a locally-sourced frisee salad with lardons, or a starter of beef marrow on toast, it will be appreciated. Extraordinary food can be found all over — I've been thrilled by meals in Fargo, in west Texas, even in desperate airport terminals.
Many will point to fast-casual restaurants and new burger chains as prime examples of this sea change — the pre-E. coli Chipotle, Shake Shack, Tender Greens — and indeed they are. It's not just the food they offer but their realization that Americans are interested in where the ingredients come from, what those ingredients mean for our bodies, and most of all, whether the establishment can make it all taste like something we want to eat again.
Last Sunday afternoon, however, I realized there's an even better example. And it was pointed out to me by the fine people at The Infatuation. My lovely and beautiful wife is the person who introduced me to this web entity, and today it is our go-to resource when we're considering where to eat, especially in New York City. To provide insight on the site and its reviews, I would suggest that its editors and writers tend to favor establishments that not only serve up great food, but are, well, atmospheric. Not atmospheric in some bullshitty, airy, laced-with-an-Enya-soundtrack way, but places that make you feel like you've momentarily left the rest of the world behind. That usually means a spot where, when you are in it, you feel like you are flat-out having a fucking night. Or a day, if the sun is still shining.
In these establishments, there's a mix of people that keeps you interested, and maybe you're not 100% sure if the guys with the women in the slinky dresses aren't Russian mobsters. The bartenders know their stuff but don't make you feel like crap for not knowing quite as much. The waiter might be a hipster or he may be an old-timer who's been there 50 years, but he's likely not an asshole. It's lively and loud and fun. They make you feel like you're in it, really in it, that you're taking a big bite of out of the peach, that you're in a place that is awesome and unapologetic and comfortable in its own skin. And you're happy as hell you're not at home scrolling through Netflix.
But these guys at The Infatuation aren't just about vibe. Because food matters to them. I mean, it really matters to them. It's not some precious bit of lobster foam sitting on top of a twice-boiled sliver of sea urchin they care about — even though they understand that kind of thing has its place and they'll tell you about those restaurants, too. But what they really seem to appreciate is whether the oysters can transport you back to that summer you spent on Cape Cod when you were twelve, if the fries cooked in duck fat will make you declare that you'll never go vegan, if the roast chicken makes you think you've never really had a piece of poultry before.
All this ass-kissery for a band of restaurant reviewers is a long way to get to my point. Which is that they recently pointed me towards the best example of our food revolution. Not an upscale downtown salad shop or a grass-fed bison burger spot, but a dive bar. More specifically, Belle Reve in Tribeca, which The Infatuation recommended to my wife and I on a steamy summer afternoon when it wasn't just the heat in New York City that was appalling, but the heat and the bloody humidity. Hot as balls, it was.
Belle Reve was a dive bar before the current owners took it over. Then they decided to keep it looking like a place where longshoremen can drink enough at night to forget their day, even as the kitchen turns out food like no other gin joint you've ever been in. Just look at their menu. Try a burger with diced ham and see if you're not convinced. Imagine the crummy hot dogs on rollers at the place you loved in college now replaced by a perfect frisee salad. Cut into the seared lamb chop and toss some of those marrow-splashed fries on your plate, too.
When we were there, some 20-somethings were out front, in the street, splashing about in kiddie pools in their bras and underwear. There was a keg on the sidewalk and one of the heavily tattooed, bra-wearing patrons came in to let the assistant manager know, in a helpful way, that it wasn't functioning especially well. When the assistant manager asked if the malfunctioning keg had been pumped, the woman replied, "Oh, yeah, I pumped it like a prom date."
My wife and I laughed out loud.
I took another bite of my kale Caesar salad, a bit of greens that was making me think I had to get back to eating more kale, despite what the haters say.
If you go, make sure you look around. There's probably a guy at the bar who is supposed to be somewhere else. There's a table full of old college friends who would be irritating if it wasn't so obvious they were having a great time. In the bathroom, there are prints of naked women, more than a few with old-fashioned bush. And there's laughter. Lots and lots of laughter that you won't be able to resist. Take in the scene and marvel at how well you're eating within it.
Fact is, dive bars are flat-out fun. Some people will be talking too loud, a few will dance suggestively, one or two might even throw a punch. But a dive bar with great food? That's a winner, my friends, and that's a good reason to be very, very happy about this food revolution.