Fine dining and the accolades of Michelin stars once meant chandeliers, white tablecloths, and suited waiters with elegant accents. The stuffy attitude and often scant portions were the punchlines of sitcom jokes—it was unthinkable that a gourmet chef would stoop to plate a burger or a taco in his kitchen. And yet today many of us will queue up for a seat at a loud, crowded noodle bar or eagerly seek out that farm-to-table restaurant where not only the burgers and fries are organic but the ketchup is homemade—but it’s not just us: the critics will be there too, ready to award distinction. Haute has blurred with homey cuisine in the last few decades, but how did this radical change happen, and what does it say about current attitudes toward taste? Here with the answers is food writer Alison Pearlman. In Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, Pearlman investigates what she identifies as the increasing informality in the design of contemporary American restaurants. By design, Pearlman does not just mean architecture. Her argument is more expansive—she is as interested in the style and presentation of food, the business plan, and the marketing of chefs as she is in the restaurant’s floor plan or menu design. Pearlman takes us hungrily inside the kitchens and dining rooms of restaurants coast to coast—from David Chang’s Momofuku noodle bar in New York to the seasonal, French-inspired cuisine of Alice Waters and Thomas Keller in California to the deconstructed comfort food of Homaro Cantu’s Moto in Chicago—to explore the different forms and flavors this casualization is taking. Smart Casual examines the assumed correlation between taste and social status, and argues that recent upsets to these distinctions have given rise to a new idea of sophistication, one that champions the omnivorous. The boundaries between high and low have been made flexible due to our desire to eat everything, try everything, and do so in a convivial setting.Through lively on-the-scene observation and interviews with major players and chefs, Smart Casual will transport readers to restaurants around the country to learn the secrets to their success and popularity. It is certain to give foodies and restaurant-goers something delectable to chew on.
About the Author
Alison Pearlman is a Los Angeles–based art historian and cultural critic who blogs under the name the Eye in Dining. She teaches modern and contemporary art and design history at Cal Poly Pomona.
"Drawing from personal dining experiences, interviews with chefs and an eye for detail sharpened by years as an art historian, Alison Pearlman explores how gourmet restaurant style in America has shifted away from the maître d’s stand and toward a 'come as you are' mentality over the past several decades. Open-kitchen concepts, relaxed dress codes and haute upgrades to everyday favorites (remember the gourmet hamburger trend?) all come under Pearlman’s insightful study in this quick read, making it a perfect accompaniment for solo trips to Startle.com Tastemaker Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery or fellow Tastemaker David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar—New York eateries that represent the scope of Pearlman’s commentary to a casual, tasty T."
— Forbes Travel Guide
“If you have ever seen an open kitchen or enjoyed a tasting menu on a bar stool and wondered why, Smart Casual is certainly the book to read!”
— Wylie Dufresne, chef of wd~50
“Alison Pearlman knows not only what we want to eat, but where we want to eat it, and how we want it served. She shows us how we changed the food-service industry (and how it changed our expectations of it). The amazing thing is she does this in a book that informs, intrigues, and often amuses us. Who knew a book about business could be so delightfully tasty?” — Gary Allen, author of The Herbalist in the Kitchen
“Alison Pearlman’s Smart Casual is a delicious romp through America’s rapidly changing and diverging restaurant scene. It begins with the old haute cuisine establishments frequented by the upscale, well-to-do diners, but concentrates on contemporary restaurants with their experimental, innovative, and exotic cuisines. It is an informative, witty, and delightful book brimming with hot anecdotes and tangy tidbits. It is a must read for all serious foodies.” — Andrew F. Smith, Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink
“Among all the books about shifts in American taste during the past few decades, this stands out as the most meticulously detailed, insightful, and well researched, including interviews and even first hand experience. Pearlman captures perfectly the shift in gastronomic sensibilities, the demise of stuffy white-tableclothed shrines, and the rise of good, honest food served without pretension. This study is erudite and hip, written with both verve and a keen analytical eye.” — Ken Albala, author of Pancake: A Global History
"Alison Pearlman visits dozens of today’s restaurants and reports on how they meet contemporary expectations with fresh interior design, innovative cooking, and daring business plans. Culinary students and budding restaurateurs will definitely profit from Pearlman’s research."
"Smart Casual is concise and well researched. . . . It should serve as a useful addition to food studies, cultural studies, sociology, and design history collections. Recommended." — Choice