In the last issue of this newsletter, I wrote about how incentives in real estate markets align to generate demand for restaurants from an unexpected direction – not from diners, but from developers and commercial landlords. One reason landlords like restaurants is that they bring people to an area, usually at night, and that changes the feel of a block, a street, or a whole neighborhood. But another reason landlords like restaurants is that restaurants are engines of cool. This is probably not news, but the dynamics behind it are worth unpacking.
Independent restaurants resemble sports or entertainment in that they have a presence in the popular consciousness out of all proportion to the amount of restaurant there actually is. We spend much more time being exposed to movies than we spend actually watching them, and so it is with restaurants.
Prima facie, this is great. The existence of restaurant culture on the internet enables a restaurant to be experienced – in however thin and illusory a fashion – by hundreds or thousands more people than the restaurant seats. Some of those people may, in theory, one day make their way through its doors and actually give the restaurant some money. In a crowded market, this kind of exposure is life.
But as Drew likes to say on Kneeling Bus, on the internet, “voids are just filled by other people’s content.” If it’s not your restaurant being seen on the internet, it’s someone else’s, and people eat there instead. Merely existing on the internet requires a certain minimum level of engagement, so restaurants have to participate in the content economy.
Since many restaurants operate in an atmosphere of creative ferment anyway, joining the ranks of content creators on the internet isn’t hard. Cooks and bartenders make stuff up in their spare time, new wines come on the list… the constant desire for novelty isn’t new, and restaurants have fed it since the first cook came up with the first dish of the day. The only difference now is that all this gets documented on the internet before it gets put in front of actual people.
But the internet has a way of separating content from its physical origins, and redirecting the financial flows the content generates. Very little of the material that constitutes restaurant culture online actually comes from restaurants. The vast majority of a restaurant’s internet footprint is actually created by food media, the folks who hand out awards, influencers trying to scrape by, and your friend who just posted a photo of that great night at that one bar.
All this content wouldn’t exist without the creation of something in the real world (a dish, a cocktail, a dining room), but it takes on an intrinsic worth that’s almost completely separate from the artifact that inspired it. For precisely the same reasons that restaurant content has a wider reach than a restaurant, the dish begins to matter less than the fact that it was photographed. The photo makes the plate exist on the internet, and once that happens, its value is measured less by the experience of someone eating it, and more by how frequently it’s photographed, by whom, and where those photos appear. Somewhere between the real world in which we eat food and the internet on which we read about food, the creative work intended to bring people to the door of one specific restaurant is subsumed into a torrent of content which constantly reminds diners that there are other restaurants out there.
In a way, what matters to the internet (or at least the multitude of people and companies who instantiate the real world online) is that there is a dense and nearly endless array of restaurants to provide the content behind the content, and to give you a reason to keep drinking from the river of data. The wider the range of real world choices, the more incentive we have to read about them online. It’s easiest to transform reality into information where human attention is densest.
The accretion of content around restaurants, in turn, is what gives them weight as a creative force. What matters to the broader economy, including property owners, is not that restaurants create new experiences all the time, it’s that so many people talk about the experiences they create, thereby connecting a physical address to the content economy.