Restaurants aren’t what they used to be

Nineteenth-century travelers to Paris expressed astonishment at the delights promised by the capital’s finest restaurants—oysters by the dozen, followed by truffled turkeys, capered turbots, roast partridges, and then onto sugared peas, smothered artichokes, layered pastries, and brandied apricots—but they also took great care to explain to their correspondents that the printed menu defined and limited what any restaurant had to offer. Customers might be sitting at separate tables, having their own conversations, but they were all, in some sense, eating the same food.

Today, personalization is the norm—who among us has not said “dressing on the side” or ordered the Reuben without sauerkraut? And startup delivery services are pushing the restaurant logic of individualized choice to its breaking point. Why bother to go to a restaurant at all if Uber Eats will bring you the salad from one, the cauliflower from another, and the fish from a third? Services such as Deliveroo and Seamless have grown so quickly in the past five years that some new “restaurants” in London exist only as kitchens.

If brick-and-mortar restaurants become mere storefronts for delivery services, they will cease to be public spaces in any sense of the term. When dinner from a restaurant replaces dinner in a restaurant, we lose track of all the other people who are dining as well. Part of the transformation of daily life wrought by Amazon and on-line retailing more generally, this hyper-individualization of consumption may bring a new political revolution as well.