HOW BIG IS YOUR BUBBLE?
One-item restaurants are popping up again, it happens every stock market peak: Investors will finance a dancing eggplant because money's plentiful and dirt cheap.
With stocks at their all-time highs, people in the business of making money are wallowing in profits. So investing in oddball restaurant concepts amounts to risking mere loose change.
For example, take a look at the profusion of one-item restaurants opening not just in the US but in Europe as well. What's stunning is not their sheer quirkiness -- but the fact that consumers have enough pocket money to patronize them.
I'm thinking of the profusion of one-item restaurants -- like the all-cream cheese restaurant opened earlier this year on a fairly pricy street in New York's East Village. Or the new XO Marshmallow Cafe in Chicago serving marshmallow-based variations on s'mores, lattes and afogatos.
In Amsterdam there's The Avocado Show, perhaps the world's first all-avocado restaurant. It has green walls and pink couches, and puts your standard avocado toast to shame. You want to their sausage-and-bacon "burger" with buns that actually are avocados (right), or their toast with a picturesque avocado rose and wasabi. It has spawned some copycatters: In London there was an avocado bar summer popup in Shoreditch serving goodies like avocado tempura. And in Brooklyn (what took so long?) there's Avocaderia serving toasts, salads and smoothies out of a 450-sq.ft. quest for franchise stardom.
If you thought we'd gone beyond peak bacon, note a restaurant called Belly that opened midyear in Brooklyn serving a Korean-inflected $55 bacon omakase -- a nine-course onslaught of torched bacon sushi, pork jowl with salted shrimp, ricotta ravioli with pork belly and pickled red chili, and kimchi-sauced sausage.
There's another one-dish wonder opened this very month -- braised chicken and rice called --whose Chinese founder has 6,000 franchised locations around the globe, with the US's first in Tustin, California. Yang's Braised Chicken Rice serves only clay pot-braised chicken thighs with mushrooms, ginger and chilies over rice with a secret sauce.
A tartare-only restaurant in Lisbon generates lots of attention. Tartar-Ia, in the Time Out food hall, serves three kids of beef tartares, tuna, herring, salmon and sea bass tartares, and even a vegetarian rendition, most of them fussy-cheffy style (photo right). Now there's a version in Amsterdam.
In Singapore, a fast-cas Modern Peking Duck had one item for several years but now has doubled its assortment with a roast suckling pig wrapped in a crepe. But Decoy, a one-item set-price Peking Duck dinner venture in New York has kept to a single-item concept; when they're out of duck, they're out.
All this froth doesn't necessarily indicate failure or foolishness. After all, everyone laughed when New York's Meatball Shop opened, but it now has seven locations as well imitators in London, called Balls & Co (left). And there were snickers all around at the first mac-and-cheese emporium and the first grilled cheese shop. An unlikely raw cookie dough crowd-pleaser called "Do" opened in January in New York and is still standing.
But there's danger in being co-opted. In the '70s there was an explosion of croissant specialty shops in the US and they all went under when Burger King used the item for sandwiches, followed by half the country's restaurants. Same thing with Arby's, which began life as a roast-beef only restaurant until menu expansion become inevitable as others easily added roast beef to their menus (Arby, by the way, stands for the initials R and B, or roast beef).
Poke-only fast-casual places are, to mix a metaphor, multiplying like rabbits but this raw fish recipe is rapidly appearing in multiple variations on restaurants menus all kinds, so perhaps we're looking at croissant-type vulnerability. Anyone remember the fro-yo fallout? Today you'll find raw cookie dough on menus of yogurt and ice cream shops as well as bakeries, so who knows how long it'll take to become generic.
Meanwhile, they're still lining up for Dominique Ansel's original Cronuts in New York, London and Tokyo (photo right). And while most of Ansel's imitators have disappeared a new spot in Birmingham England is serving cronuts and cruffins.
So ... where does that leave us? As long as financial markets hold up, there'll be plenty of money for offbeat -- even wacky -- ideas. Many will be sited in urban areas with furious rentals, in which case a downturn signifies donsky. Others will locate in public markets and upscale food halls where they'll stand a better chance because of lower investments, but it'll be dog-eat-dog there, too. Adam Fleischman, founder of Umami Burger, last month opened a peanut butter-and-jelly stand in the Los Angeles Public Market, which suggests that there's still unbounded optimism. (Perhaps it'll merge with one of the marshmallow enterprises and then we'll have a national fluffernutter explosion.)
To find out what might be next let's return to the Netherlands, where they seem unusually receptive to one-item menus. Prowl around a bit and, in addition to Tartar-Ia, you may find remembrances of Vittore C., the "C" signifying an all-carpaccio restaurant that seems to have closed; so maybe all good ideas are not good ideas. And at 14-seat Polvo Vadio you'll encounter a menu with more than 20 different preparations of octopus -- so there's lots of room for fertile (or insane) creativity.
The new Dessert Bar in New York has a five-course omakase sort of menu starting with olive-oil gelato with lemon, olive oil and sea salt; followed by a parfait of honeycomb, pearl barley gelato, bee pollen, yogurt pop rocks and yogurt meringue; followed by ... well, you sense that this one won't be knocked off; or franchised for that matter.
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