When I first moved to Philadelphia six years ago, I remember stumbling across the Continental in Old City and thinking it was the coolest thing since sliced bread. My friends and I had been having a hard time finding the kind of hip, trendy city spots that were supposed to thrive in a major metropolitan area, and finding the Continental--and with it, the rest of Old City's then-burgeoning scene--was like stepping onto a movie set of what we thought a city ought to be.
Needless to say, for a bunch of suburban kids in their first years of college, Old City was the place to be. Bars didn't card, bouncers were eager to let a few well-dressed girls slip by the velvet ropes and we were hooked on the so-cool vibe.
But eventually the whole thing started to wear thin. There are only so many nationalities Stephen Starr can mine for concepts (Cuban! Asian fusion! Moroccan!), and eventually going out started to feel less like fun and more like a prolonged trip to Disneyland. Why were we so eager to pay for atmosphere and so unable to find simple, good food?
It's not that the food isn't often good at Starr's or others' ultra-themed locales. It's more that the price of good food, when combined with the price of all that atmosphere, starts to break the bank. As a city, Philadelphians turn out in force at new restaurants--but for the food, or for the flavor?
I remember wondering, when I was working as a Starr restaurant manager, why our menu prices were so high. Within a few weeks I was the one pushing to inflate them. There were India Mahdavi custom couches to pay for at every table in the dining room; precariously fragile, expensive glassware constantly breaking; decorative candleholders, brand-name silverware and leather menu covers to buy. Our guests didn't just pay for their meals--they paid for the entire space where the meal took place and all the hands that helped make it happen. And that shit gets expensive.
These days, when my friends and I dine out, we're constantly on the prowl for well-prepared food, and atmosphere comes in at a very distant second. It's not that we like dining in cafeterias, but we prefer to spend our money on what we're actually buying rather than on that vague feeling of cool. After all, I wouldn't buy an India Mahdavi couch for my dining room. Why should I pay to sit on it in someone else's?