Michael Whiteman, the restaurant industry guru who sends out a list of coming restaurant trends each year, calls this “dumbelling.” When Whiteman (whom I know well) first wrote about the trend, he had fast food in mind — in particular the simultaneous drift towards “premium” items on one side of the menu, and ultra-cheap “value” items on the other. At McDonalds and other burger chains, the marquee burgers are edging upward to $6 or even more; meanwhile, unspeakably gnarly, $1 burgers occupy the bargain basement. It’s not just at McDonalds that this sinister tendency plays out; dumbelling is happening in the culture as a whole, with a Funyun economy existing for the poor, and an heirloom tomato one for the prosperous.
Consider the state of our restaurant life. And when I say “our,” I mean we as Americans, not just the coterie of effete gourmands I tend to eat with in New York City. As I noted here a little over a year ago, the gradual disappearance of the family chain restaurants – the Friendlys and Ground Rounds of the world, while far from tragic from a culinary perspective, is a major loss to our society. Being able to eat out, at least once in a while, has for at least three or four generations, been part of the birthright of most Americans. And eating out should mean eating a decent meal, with silverware and a server to bring you your food. One reason so many of us are smitten with Chipotle, aside from their sustainable food aspects, is the space they occupy between fast food and traditional restaurants. But on the other hand, Chipotle, despite its high quality and moderate pricepoint, is still a cafeteria-style burrito place.