How A City’s Dining Culture Can Define Its Soul: What Our Restaurants Say About Us

Is Vancouver suffering from a form of Omnivore’s Paradox? If so, have we swung too far to one side?

Photo by Calum Lewis on Unsplash
Food is central to our sense of identity. The way any given human group eats helps it assert its diversity, hierarchy and organization, and at the same time, both its oneness and its otherness of whoever eats differently.
Omnivore’s Paradox — “on the one hand, needing variety, the omnivore is inclined towards diversification, innovation, exploration and change, which can be vital to its survival; but on the other hand, it has to be careful, mistrustful, ‘conservative’ in its eating: any new, unknown food is a potential danger.”

— Claude Fischler, “Food, Self and Identity”

I came across two things in my perusing that I found interesting. One was the release of the Vancouver Magazine awards, while the other was a story from Vancouver Magazine on the opening of a new Commercial Drive restaurant. Both bits of information struck me as snapshots of where Vancouver’s dining scene currently finds itself. On the one hand, the Vancouver Magazine awards are seen as a positive cumulative tally of who’s doing what and why we should care. The other however, was a story of transition, respect and a hopeful chance to sprout a new leaf. What these two themes caused me to wonder was how polar opposite they seemed to be. The Vancouver Magazine Awards are a vital showcase for the city and its restaurateurs’ who’ve excelled, hopefully, in innovation and diversification. As cited above, this bit of exploration is central and vital for a burgeoning metropolis. But as the paradox I’ve mentioned goes on to further explain, the omnivore oftentimes has to be wary and cautious with regards to new and unknown dangers. The column I read on Vancouver Magazine touched on this bit of insecurity as the restaurateurs involved in the new venture have decided that they want to keep as much of the history of the location they’ve taken over as they can. In reading the story, it comes across as vital for themselves personally but also for the community and the city.

As I sat back and digested both of these topics, it struck me to wonder: how important is balance with regards to the Omnivore’s Paradox?

When I first heard that Paul Grunberg, owner of acclaimed L’Abattoir would be opening a new Italian restaurant on Kingsway, I was elated by the news. Having had the opportunity to get to know him over the years, his foresight and knack for wanting to deliver the highest of quality led me to believe his newest venture would be of the best kind. Savio Volpe, I can assure you, has lived up to what my earliest imaginings could have hoped for. It’s a beautiful room that serves delicious Italian fare. But, regardless of his past business acumen, opening an Italian restaurant has to be one of the safest choices any one restaurateur could make. It touches on the cautious and wary part of the Omnivore’s perceived fear of the unknown. As a businessman however, his choice to open something safe, like an Italian restaurant was a no brainer. But then does this present a dilemma for the omnivore, the city and for other restaurant businesses — should they emulate what he and his partners have done or should they explore new ideas? As author Neal McLennan writes in the Vancouver Magazine column, “Savio’s success — the trio repaid their debt from the restaurant in an unheard-of 15 months — enabled the team to start casting about for other projects.” In reading this, any would-be prospective restaurateur couldn’t be blamed in wanting to follow in the trio’s footsteps. Success in restaurants is finite. Success at this level is unheard of.

But is that a good thing?

In asking this question, it feels apparent that Vancouver and many cities across Canada are tipping the balance of the paradox towards a more, one sided, cautious view — hence the rise and popularity of chain restaurants. The “unknown” has become a big part of our distrust and desire to remain stagnant — opening an Italian restaurant is a careful, safe choice. As Fischler goes on to report in his study, “there is perhaps a fundamental anxiety in man’s relationship to his foods, resulting not only from the need to distrust new or unknown foods, but also, and more importantly, from the tension between the two contradictory and equally constraining imperatives of the omnivore’s double bind.” This double bind comes from the notion that if you were to take two individuals and make one cautious while the other was explorative, the need to balance each other out would be imperative if the population were to grow. For a city like Vancouver, this is vitally important as the tipping point of one too far in the wrong direction could swing the balance disproportionately off its axis. If money is to be made, being a restaurateur in Vancouver, you’re better off opening a pizza joint, Italian restaurant or a taco spot. Anything else is a grind. Grunberg even concedes as much in the Van Mag piece saying, “…If we wanted to just focus on making money, we’d be opening a pizzeria.”

Back in the 1970’s, a man by the name of Howard Moskowitz was hired by Pepsi to help them come up with a soft drink that would include aspartame. They wanted to create a Diet Pepsi. Howard was a curious fellow and a psychophysicist. In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell profiled Howard in a now widely popular Ted Talk where he discussed Howard’s soon to become obsession of choice and happiness. Howard’s claim to fame came a few years after he worked with Pepsi, when he was hired to help Prego formulate a new style of tomato sauce. Howard eventually landed on the, then groundbreaking, idea that there wasn’t just one type of tomato sauce people liked, but many and that this many is what shapes how different each of us are. Eventually, Howard’s revelation in this process gave way to the idea that for all of us, as Gladwell puts it, is: “that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.” Moskowitz’s research and development for Prego led them to the top of the tomato sauce game as he helped them realize that choice is at the forefront of what most of us desire. This realization eventually gave way to the myriad of options you now see on grocery shelves everywhere.

For the food industry, Howard Moskowitz and his work with Prego helped fuel a drive in business as it gave us, the consumer, more options for the foods which we enjoy. But, there is a counter to this revelation; one psychologist Barry Schwartz argues is at the core of the human paradox of choice. Schwartz states in his book that: “Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” Like Gladwell, Schwartz spoke at Ted the following year in which he discussed his book, The Paradox of Choice — Why More is Less. This quote is central to his argument in that, for all of us, standing in an aisle at the grocery store while looking at 75 different types of salad dressing can, in theory, be a good thing as it gives us the freedom to choose. Yet, it’s this amount of choice, in which Schwartz argues, that can cause us to panic. He further states in his book, “There are now several books and magazines devoted to what is called the “voluntary simplicity” movement. Its core idea is that we have too many choices, too many decisions, and too little time to do what is really important. […] Taking care of our own “wants” and focusing on what we “want” to do does not strike me as a solution to the problem of too much choice.”

Now to bring this all back to the omnivore’s paradox, it’s fair to say that exploration of desires and the wants of choice are vital for us all, but that with this amount of choice there are drawbacks to being overrun with too many options — hence the omnivore’s paradox. But, the paradox as itself can also be explained another way. Back in the 1950’s, an economist and psychologist by the name of Herbert A. Simon came up with the theory of bounded rationality, a theory about economic decision-making. Simon would eventually settle on calling his theory “satisficing”, a combination of two words: “satisfy” and “suffice”. His theory was based on the idea of maximizers and satisficers. A maximizer is someone who expects everything to be correct, a perfectionist; they’re people who need to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best one that could be made. The only way a maximizer knows they’ve made the right choice is to consider all the alternatives they can think of. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even scarier as the number of options increases. The opposite of being a maximizer is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about what might be out there, that there might be something better. For them it’s a waste of time and energy.

Now this theory by Simon, taken into the context of the omnivore’s paradox and related back to the culinary scene here in Vancouver, leads me to realize that for most of us, a cautious, satisficer approach to dining out is at its core the best option. It’s why we choose chains and Italian restaurants most often than not, as it’s not because they are the best option, but that they are the most satisfying or rather, easiest. As Schwartz discusses in his book, the difficulty we all face with regards to choice is where some is good, and too much is not. When going out on a Friday night, the options we all face can be somewhat overwhelming. Try this new restaurant or that hip spot screams at doing something new, difficult or exploratory, which for most of us, is not easy. When a new restaurant opens we only go once we’ve been told it’s hip and great but not until then. It’s why chains survive and thrive while many independents do not, their brand appeal has been made simplistic — you know what you’re going to get. For Grunberg and his partners, Italian food is simple and accessible. Taking the reigns in the Old Nick’s Spaghetti house and trying to cleave to some of its nostalgia strikes for them the balance of the cautious reality we all know exists — we’re afraid to try new things.

For the Van Mag awards, St. Lawrence, a Quebecois influenced French restaurant won the award for best restaurant. This bit of acclaim should prove profitable for the barely a year old forty seater just on the outskirts of Gastown. But for Van Mag and Vancouver in general the win isn’t much more than that, with regards to signifying who we are as a dining public. I say this and I feel confident in doing so that for most Vancouverites, St. Lawrence will go unnoticed for most of us. Why? Because going there is hard work. What they offer isn’t mainstream, it’s haute couture. Cactus Club is what we want; Joey’s and The Keg. These are the restaurants, which we live and die for. They’re why the omnivore’s paradox is tipping in the balance and why restaurants like St. Lawrence (innovative independents) will always struggle, even in the face of such high praise. Grunberg knows this and he’s chosen to play the game. Give the people what they want versus making things difficult. Nick’s was an institution for over 62 years!!! My mother’s not even that old. Nick played the game and so will the guys from Savio, it’s why they were able to pay off their debts in 15 months. Again, I don’t blame them. But like I asked at the top, is this a good thing?

The psychology of choice and the freedom to choose comes with it its own set of issues. Schwartz goes to great length in discussing them in his book, but ultimately, he eventually agrees with Simon’s conclusion, which was that satisficing, is, in fact, the maximizing strategy. If the world were filled with only maximizers we’d never decide on anything or at the very least it would take us a long time to do so — the effort put forth wouldn’t be worth it. It’s why when given a choice; humans will always choose the path of least resistance. Satisficing is a great theory, but it doesn’t help solve our dining problem. What we choose as a dining public says a lot about who we are. For Vancouverites, most of us have finite amounts of money to spend on eating out, which, more often than not, causes us to become conservative and mistrustful of new phenomena. Our dining identity is wrapped in this dilemma. We’ve chosen what we’re willing to try and our restaurateur’s have responded accordingly. Grunberg’s opening another Italian restaurant. Big surprise. But can you blame him?

Are we to blame?

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