During a brief visit to Berlin several months ago, I excitedly accepted a dinner invitation by two friends celebrating their third wedding anniversary at unsicht-bar, where you dine in complete darkness and you’re served by blind waiters. At the entrance, we followed the waiter by holding onto each other’s shoulders towards our table. We opted for the surprise menu, knowing that it would add more fun to our pitch-black evening trying to guess what we were served. The ambience was initially awkward, but jazz and waltz music helped us relax. We didn’t wait long before Angela, our friendly and legally blind waiter brought our meals. In a unique experience, we took turns relying at first on the senses of smell and touch before involving our taste buds in attempts to remove the mystery from our meals. My hands were my utensils tackling my meal, which was a slice of roast beef with pasta and green beans. Even though the food was mediocre, the experience was thought-provoking, at least to me.
Image via Romania-Insider.com
Berlin is reputed for its eccentric fine dining; there’s a restaurant where you can pay what you wish (Weinerei), and another that caters for anorexics (Sehnsucht) and employs bulimic waitresses. There’s also a toilet-themed restaurant (Klo, German for toilet), and the more popular, but still unconventional, Hard Rock Café; a casual dining venue built around a theme of rock and roll, from live music to interior décor. Later on, it became apparent to me that these restaurants were not only limited to Berlin. In fact, it has been a growing global phenomenon over the past three decades called “concept restaurants,” sometimes also called “theme restaurants.” I wondered about what underlies that trend and whether there’s a common thread among concept restaurants. Based on a lot of research and travelling, I drew the conclusion that they all reflect a relatively recent worldview prevalent in contemporary culture known as postmodernism.
From the mid-18th century forward, the Modern era brought along the Enlightenment Age (sometimes labelled “Age of Reason”), introducing ideals that were upheld and venerated for two centuries. Scientific progress during that period spawned the Industrial Revolution, and mass production. Modernism was regularly under attack, during its heyday from different sectors in society, but most still believed its basic promise to make the world a better place, through science and reason. However, in the horrors of World War II, all grand expectations were lost. Reason, science and technology were masterfully employed by governments to end the lives of millions. Undeniably, science played a central role in the efficiency of Nazi gas chambers and the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So-called modern ideologies adopted by totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, such as Stalinist socialism and Nazi fascism led to mass killings and genocides, viciously annihilating more humans, than ever before in history.
Postmodernism emerged in the 1960s as a disillusioned post-WWII reaction against the failings of Modernism and everything it espoused. The uncreative name that stuck with it literally means “after modernism,” audaciously declaring the Modern era is over, as the name implies. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as a “Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; [and] a general suspicion of reason.” Looking back at the atrocities of war, some philosophers went beyond simply blaming those responsible for war destruction, and aimed their criticism directly at the flaws of science and reason, and the Enlightenment project. It rejected “meta-narratives” (or “grand narratives”), a reference to any universal truth that transcends all peoples regardless of their culture or geography, which could be a religion or ideology (e.g. communism) or even science. There’s no objective truth, they believed, but alternative subjective truths, choose your own, and “what’s true for you, may not be true for me.” Postmodernism ushered in cultural relativism and stressed that there’s no absolute right or wrong, therefore you could choose your own values. In the process of questioning and “deconstructing” many long-held ideas, reality itself was considered a conceptual construction. It developed into a comprehensive intellectual and cultural movement, noticeable in literature, film, music, architecture and eventually, even in restaurants.
Known for embracing irrationality and contradictions, the movement’s perceived anything-goes attitude inspired a joke in the academic circles in the 1990s which went as follows: “What’s a postmodern restaurant? The waiters demand a tip before they take your order.” Little did they know that, over the following two decades, restaurants that intentionally or unknowingly embraced the postmodern way of thinking displayed even more bizarre and irrational behavior. At a restaurant in Japan, Ogori Café, waiters serve you what the person in front of you had just ordered. The anti-reason mentality is clearly manifested in the hospital-themed Heart Attack Grill (Las Vegas) which promotes overeating and offers a fatty, high-calorie menu, and whose 261-kg spokesperson died from a heart attack at the age of 29. There’s no deep or greater meaning in having a “Dinner in the Sky,” strapped to a seat and hoisted at 150 feet in the air, or why customers would wine and dine in utter darkness, unless you prefer to believe the flimsy and common explanation by the owners that it enhances the experience in absence of sight. What’s behind such restaurants is nothing but sheer meaninglessness. Alternatively, it’s open for interpretation where you could fill in the blanks with your own rationale.
Well, you ask, if these odd restaurants are Postmodern, what’s a typical restaurant from the modernist era? Fortunately for my research, I stumbled upon a fast food restaurant that did not just emerge with modernism, but became the epitome of that era, so much so that its name and methodology is now a social theory studied in universities around the world; McDonald’s. Inspired by the automobile manufacturing industry, Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, integrated in his restaurant the Fordist strategy of the assembly line creating standardized and mass-produced fast food meals. Sociologist George Ritzer coined the term “McDonaldization” and used it in his best-selling book “The McDonaldization of Society” (1993) to explain how its four principles (efficiency, calculability, predictability and control) have been transforming many industries beyond the fast food one, such as banking, healthcare and education. Reflecting the fundamentals of modernism, and embodying industrialization and mass production, McDonaldization became an extremely successful model that was globally emulated. Extreme rationalization and scientific management are its heart. Rationalization is the breaking of a traditional process that involves spontaneity, creativity and informality into smaller tasks based on efficiency and practicality.
As a complementary to Ritzer’s theory, British sociologist Alan Bryman proposed in 1999 that “whereas McDonaldization is a modern phenomenon, Disneyization is a post-modern one.” Based on the Disney theme park formula, he identified both theming and dedifferentiation of consumption as among the main dimensions of Disneyization (sometimes used interchangeably with Disneyfication).
Theming is the most visible trend of Disneyization, seen in hotels, casinos, malls, restaurants and of course, theme parks. Las Vegas hotels are excellent illustrations of the trend, for example the Roman-themed Caesar’s or Egyptian-themed Luxor. The exaggerated reality in such places is beyond real; they’re considered hyper-real, a term coined by French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard to describe a condition where distinguishing between reality and fantasy is increasingly difficult. In today’s society, people willingly shun reality and spend most of their time absorbed in a simulation of reality, be it the Internet, video games or the so-called “reality” TV shows. Hence, businesses exploit that predisposition by constructing realities, as in theme restaurants to draw customers, where eating would be secondary to the experience of being immersed in sights and sounds that blend reality, history and fantasy. Moreover, theming itself attests to the characteristic postmodern breakdown between matchless, timeless high art and low art, which is kitschy, exploitative and mass-produced. Themes include music (Motown Café), movies (Planet Hollywood), sport (All Sports Café), geography (Rainforest Café), history (Soviet-themed restaurants), nostalgia (British pubs and Irish bars) or one-off themed restaurants (Harley-Davidson Café). Additionally, in a world where reality is manufactured to satisfy all kinds of customers’ fantasies, no matter how bizarre they are, you’ll find restaurants whose themes revolve around death, masochism, Holocaust, or, as above-mentioned, toilets.
Postmodernism, which is rooted in its pessimistic view of science and technology, is skeptical at best and downright neo-Luddite at worst. However, in a great irony, contemporary postmodern society embraces the latest technologies to temporarily alter its very perception of reality in places like theme restaurants.
Hybridization or dedifferentiation of consumption is the removal of distinction between different consumer activities within a particular space. That aspect is exemplified in combining playing, eating, and buying in Disney theme parks, or in the architecturally integrated hotels and casinos of Las Vegas. Canada’s West Edmonton Mall and Minnesota’s Mall of America are known for their indoor Disneyland-style amusement parks, turning the shopping mall into a tourist attraction. Similarly, concept restaurants give customers other reasons to stay beyond eating, customers, while dining, could get a massage (Sur un Arbre Perché, France), soak their feet in a hot spring (Naraya Café), or do their laundry (Harvey Washbangers). This hybridization does not end with the activity of eating but also extends to the food itself. Italian university professor, Remo Ceserani, recounts a dining experience in Auckland, in what he considered to be a perfect example of a postmodern restaurant: “We could, combining the various menus [Italian, American, Chinese-Thai, and Japanese], make fanciful creations; we could, I might say, intertextualize our dinners: have, for instance, some sushi with a ratatouillie à la provençal, coconut soup with a pizza al pesto, and so on.” Since the 1970s, fusion cuisine has become a gastronomical portrayal of postmodern zeitgeist of a globalized world that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism. Even though the hybridization of different cuisines might often seem irrational, in a typical postmodern fashion, it still sends out a familiar relativist message that no cuisine is superior.
Disneyization (or Disneyfication) is adequate to describe only a subset of concept restaurants, here are other defining features of postmodernism you could find in such restaurants:
- Irony and Parody: An example is Conflict Kitchen which serves cuisine from countries that are in conflict with the United States. Another American restaurant, Dick’s Last Resort, mocks restaurants that go far and beyond to please their customers by being entertainingly obnoxious and rude to their own.
- Pornography infiltration into mainstream culture: Customers of Quebec’s Les Princesses are served by topless waitresses (ordered in 2010 to cover up) while porn films play on TV screens. In Rome, patrons of Yoshi eat sushi off a naked woman’s body in an obscure tradition appropriated from Japan called Nyotaimori, and often referred to as “naked sushi or “body sushi.”
- Liberation from traditional values and standards: By rebelling against the McDonaldized way of mass culture and mass consumption, postmodern restaurants caters to special interests and niche markets. Case in point are the restaurants with menus entirely based on potatoes (Kartoffelkeller, Berlin), apples (Pomze, Paris), garlic (Garlic & Shots, Stockholm), or cheese (L’art du Fromage, London). On the other hand, some restaurants replaced the conventional waiter with children (Kinderkookkafé, Amsterdam), robots (Hajime, Bangkok) or even monkeys (Kayabukiya, Japan).
- Rejection of authority: A restaurateur’s anti-establishment attitude is best demonstrated in the “underground restaurant” movement. No license, no advertising and no full-time staff. It’s usually run from somebody’s home and operates on either an invitation-only basis, or word of mouth and social networking. It has more in common with a dinner party, than the typical restaurant. That explains why some enthusiasts call it the “anti-restaurant.”
Postmodernism is a revolutionary cultural shift in Western society and fundamentally a philosophical product of the fight against oppression and oppressive ideologies. It accepts diversity, welcomes cultural dialogue and seeks to banish stereotypes. It has been a period during which women’s rights and gay rights achieved unprecedented progress. Nonetheless, in a metaphor for a worldview struggling to survive, theme restaurants over the past decade, such as Planet Hollywood and Wilderness Café, had to shut down many of their locations. Most concept restaurants suffer from lack of repeat customers or lack of emphasis on the quality of food. The previously-mentioned Ogori Café, where you never receive what you ordered, or Sehnsucht, which embraces anorexia, have both shut down as well. Despite many positive contributions to our society, postmodernism does abound in paradox and self-contradictions. An ideology of “no ideology” inevitably self-destructs. When I reflect on my first experience in a postmodern restaurant, I regard my dinner in darkness as an ironic symbolism of our arrival at a dark cul-de-sac in the human intellectual journey.