Like “simple”, “make it nice” is one of those things that means something different in a kitchen. In the Momofuku cookbook, David Chang recounts the lethal emphasis added by chefs – “make it nice” – that suggests nothing so achievable as basic nicety is the goal: this is about the monomaniacal pursuit of excellence dressed up as effortless competence, the humourless drive towards the perfectability of the pleasant.
It’s no surprise that Make It Nice is the name of the group set up by Will Guidara and fun-loving Swiss uberchef Daniel Humm, or that Made Nice should be the name of their fast-casual concept. The false, forced ease of “make it nice” informs everything that happens at (Definitely Not) The Best Restaurant In The World, Eleven Madison Park, from the cringe-worthy magic tricks that were done tableside in one of the restaurant’s iterations, to the stalker-turned-serial-killer earnestness of the service culture, to the impossibly wack, irony-free on-the-nose touches incorporated in its latest redevelopment.
“Make it nice” – the cheffy version – is also the driving philosophy behind a large chunk of Jeff Gordinier’s 18 Best New Restaurants in America list, recently published by Esquire. “Remember restaurants?”, he begins, before launching into a groan-worthy half-cocked evisceration of strawmen so insubstantial they practically blow away unbidden: “Not the places where you have to wait for three hours until someone texts you. Not places where you drop in once, shave off a lump of your retirement savings, and endure five hours of high-concept origami so that you can brag about your accomplishment on Instagram while you make a beeline for Popeyes because you’re still hungry.”
So, yeah, Jeff ain’t fucking with those places. Instead, he’s all about “the restaurants that make you want to become a regular”; the ones “where you sit down and order and feel, for a couple hours, happier to be alive than when you first walked in”. Which, fine. A laudable aim, even (although quite why any Best New Restaurants list would want to promote somewhere that made you actively unhappy suggests Jeff isn’t exactly ploughing the freshest of furrows). With one exception, tasting menu joints are excluded: this is about going back to basics, rediscovering “the simple pleasures”.
Ah, yes. Simple pleasures, made nice. Like the food at The Grill and The Pool, the bonkers-expensive Major Food Group Twin Towers monument to white male executive privilege (Gordinier actually uses the phrase “opulent simplicity” to describe the latter). Or at Roister, the casual (nice) neighbourhood restaurant simulacrum from those totes-casual lads behind, uh, Alinea and The Aviary, where lasagna costs twenty-eight dollars (actually cheap compared to the 115-buck wagyu with sea urchin butter). Or at The Charter Oak, newly arrived from three-Michelin-starred Chris Kostow, offering “elemental pleasure” and “unfussy flavours”, like a “family dinner” at $85 a head, and an $18 broccoli salad.
It is no coincidence that people like Humm and Alinea’s Grant Achatz are making it nice. They – and / or their business partners – are canny operators; they have noted our fatigue at expensive, high-concept joints and expensive, lengthy tasting menu joints and parlayed “make it nice” into extracting almost as much cash from us in exchange for a comfort-blanket of no-frills prime-ingredient excellence. We virtue-signal so vocally about how we’re so done with unnecessary faff – It’s the end of the world! Let’s just kick back with some simple seafood crudo followed by some simple smoked duck, paired with a simple Nebbiolo – whilst not really pausing to wonder whether rejecting one sort of expensive experience in favour of an equally expensive but faux-humble experience is really just privilege at its most oblivious. Gordinier’s list features ingredients like foie gras and oysters, prime rib and caviar. These are simple pleasures, in that they don’t require much adornment – but to hold them up as an antidote to restaurant industry excess is to indulge in the paradox at the heart of Make It Nice ideology: this stuff may be simple, but it ain’t cheap. The food may be nice, but the bill won’t be.
Actually nice places do not look like Roister or The Charter Oak, three 3-star chefs doing dress down Friday. They are necessarily small, independent, staffed with nice people serving you food that is pleasant. In the past week – without meaning to – I have been to four such places: a weeknight dinner at Lupins; a Saturday night at Brawn; Sunday lunch at Oldroyd; a Wednesday evening at Lorne.
Making it genuinely nice – as these places do – doesn't stop you from making it cleverly: I remember some tiny cubes of cucumber cutting through the fattiness of a pork chop schnitzel at Lupins; I loved the use of fried Guindilla peppers in place of the more usual Padrones at Brawn. Bread at Oldroyd came with deep, funky anchovy butter; some charred sweetcorn intruded on a very seasonal Parmesan / mushroom gnocchi assemblage at Lorne (a neat, cute reminder that autumn is really just very late summer).
Making it genuinely nice also doesn’t mean stripping dishes back to a single, gleaming square of prime-cut protein cooked via “elemental” means like a wood fire; making it genuinely nice involves thoughtful, resourceful cookery, getting the most out of your ingredients, however low or luxe: crab thermidor at Lupins came with the pure 1970s pleasure of heedlessly buttery garlic bread; at Brawn, fried lamb’s sweetbreads were rounded out with celeriac puree and offset by pickled walnuts. In Oldroyd’s astonishing carbonara, Berkswell took the place of the usual Italian cheese; at Lorne, deeply on-trend smoked eel was enlivened by the unusual pairing of mandolined pear and oyster leaf.
If I say none of these restaurants blew my mind – truly reconfigured my appreciation of restaurant food – this is not a criticism. We are so focused on superlatives: we read our Essential 38s and Best New Restaurants lists and compete to see who can shout the loudest in support or outrage on social media. Gordinier’s list tries to circumvent this discussion but becomes complicit in it anyway; as much as he posits that “a lot of people have forgotten what restaurants are actually for”, many of his selections suggest he’s forgotten something fundamental about restaurants, too. That true simple pleasures come not from restaurants in the Best New Restaurants conversation; that talking about Best New Restaurants and “simple pleasures” in the same breath is basically to operate in doublethink. Food made nice doesn’t have to come with a three-figure price tag, or be as ball-bearing flawless as everything else coming out of Grant Achatz’s workshop. It can be as flawed as it is charming, cooked in the sort of place you’d recommend to friends before a readership of strangers. Newly opened in the last few months, Lorne and Lupins aren’t the best restaurants I’ve been to this year. But they’re definitely among the nicest.