Hemlines rise and fall, and politicians come and go, but few things are quite as inconstant, even fickle, as our eating habits, especially when it comes to dining out. Nothing withers faster on the vine of public opinion than a restaurant’s reputation. All you have to do is to make your way through back editions of a Zagat’s—any one will do—to realize the speed with which America’s culinary landscape changes from one year to the next. Today’s darling is tomorrow’s has-been.
Those who study the restaurant business are quick to point out the odds against any establishment taking root, noting that close to 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year; a whopping 80 percent don’t last longer than five. A cornucopia of factors—the high cost of food and labor, undercapitalization, and what the Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly calls “organizational adolescence,” or growing pains—makes enduring success unlikely. Factor in a low profit margin and the emotional toll that running a restaurant takes on one’s personal life and, voilà, you have a recipe for distress.
If running a bistro or a trattoria is fraught, imagine the perils associated with owning and operating a serious kosher restaurant, by which I don’t mean a deli, pizza place, or falafel joint. I have in mind a kosher establishment committed to fine dining, a place whose food and service is first-rate rather than tolerable, an eatery where you linger over your meal instead of gulping it down.
Can you name one?
Just the other day, my friends and I indulged in a kind of parlor game in which we sought to recall the names and menus of the “fancy” kosher restaurants of yesteryear. We came up with L’Etoile in D.C., and La Difference in New York, as well as Lou G. Siegel’s, the grand-daddy of them all, whose location in Manhattan’s garment center ensured a steady clientele for as long as clothing was produced in the United States. Does Moshe Peking (I kid you not) ring a bell? How about Diva, Domani Ristorante, and Papa Lou’s? Or Shallots (in New York, not the bistro in Chicago, which is alive and well)?
None of these establishments survived the passage of time. For a brief spell, each held its own, drawing substantial crowds and generating buzz among those who valued both kashrut and good eats. But not for long. A fine kosher restaurant able to retain its clientele and sustain its reputation for more than a decade—Levana’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, for instance—is the exception, not the rule.
Explanations abound for the limited shelf life of a fine-dining kosher restaurant. Some observers suggest it has to do with the added cost of the mashgiach, the gentleman (and it’s always a man) who makes sure that the complex laws of kashrut, which encompass vegetables as well as fish, meat, and poultry, are scrupulously followed. His salary, which can reach as high as $60,000, encumbers the restaurant’s payroll. Others point to the exceedingly high cost of kosher meat and foodstuffs, which cuts into profit margins even further.
True enough. Yet, the economics of kosher food are hardly the only culprit. Demography, too, plays a hefty part. The number of American Jews who consistently observe the dietary laws and who value the experience of fine dining is not plentiful enough to keep a good restaurant afloat night after night. With the exception, say, of New York and Los Angeles, there’s no deep bench, no steady pool of customers. Plenty of Jews throughout the country keep kosher these days, but they’re apt to have large families that place a premium on speed, convenience, and affordability when eating out.
To compound matters, many of those who have the means and the inclination to while away the hours in an upscale kosher eatery are out on a date. It’s no exaggeration to say that date night is what powers these venues, filling their seats with courting couples. Eventually, American Jews of a marriageable age commit to one another, marry, and have children. Their life cycle, in turn, affects the restaurant’s life cycle. Once a regular part of their routine, dining out becomes occasional: the stuff of anniversaries or birthdays rather than an ordinary Monday or Thursday night. And even then, it’s a stretch. Atop the high cost of maintaining a robust Jewish life, what with synagogue dues and day-school tuition, an expensive meal becomes an indulgence.
The biggest obstacle to a fine kosher restaurant’s staying power, though, is not economic, demographic, or situational, but cultural and deep-seated: the relationship of observant Jews to food. Judaism ceremonializes and ritualizes sustenance. It takes the substance and the manner of what, how, and when we eat and transforms these quotidian, earthly matters into an exercise in discipline, in mindfulness, of the highest order. There’s nothing frivolous or lighthearted about it. Food is sacred.
While many of us highly value the experience of fine dining, even going so far as to characterize it as heavenly, we cannot legitimately get away with saying it’s an encounter with the divine. The restaurant, after all, is not a religious institution. On the contrary. It belongs to an entirely different cultural system, one animated by appetite, abandon, gratification, and the pursuit of pleasure.
Yes, both the restaurant and traditional Judaism place a premium on the ceremonies of the table—but for entirely different ends. The first is rooted in sociability, the second in covenant. When these two sensibilities clash—how could they not?—the kosher restaurant, inevitably, winds up a casualty.
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