March 24, 2005

The Pretention Quotient

by psu

There are a lot of ways to rate restaurants. The assumption is that most reviewers are there to rate the food, but really they are looking at many other aspects of the place. Therefore, in rating surveys like the Zagat's, you see multiple numbers written down and averaged and weighted: food, decor, "value" and so on. I was reading a ranty blog entry about a few local places and the thought occured to me to try and define a simple measure to summarize my feelings about a restaurant. Thus, I present to you: the pretention quotient.

Simply put, this quotient is derived by comparing how good the food in a particular place is with how pretentious you perceive a place to be. If you take the ratio of these values, restaurants then naturally fall into four general classes:

Low Pretention, Great Food

Here we have the best ratio of food quality to pretentiousness. These tend to be small places that serve simple regional food that is just too good to pass up. I would eat real barbeque off a picnic table before I'd sit down at most of the fancier tables in Pittsburgh and get served a "flame roasted pork loin with quinoa, baby spinach salad and a cranberry apple demi-glace relish" which ends up being a tasteless piece of white rubber with a red sauce, stale raw spinach with some fake cheese on it and that execrable fad grain that tastes like grass.

Locally, my favorite places hit this sweet spot. La Cucina Flegrea has some of the best Italian food in the city coming out of a place with barely two rooms and a dozen tables, and they let my kid run around near the kitchen while I eat. Similarly, Rose Tea Cafe has simply the best Chinese food in town but is utterly straightforward and lacking in pretense.

High Pretention, Good to Great Food

Of course, we go to fancy places too. The good ones have a quality level is at least as good as their pretentiousness. Locally, Dish and Vivo both aim high and generally hit their targets. Bona Terra is also a nice local place that easily justifies the amount of text they use to describe their food. Casbah is a place whose food exactly matches its pretention level.

Low Pretention, Mediocre Food

Here we have the places that equalize their quality to pretention ratio from the other direction. So they are not great, but they do not try to convince you that they are shooting terribly high. I find these to be tolerable because they basically serve you exactly what they advertise. Locally, a place like Atria and the chain places fall into this part of the matrix. Of course, one prefers to avoid chains if one can help it.

High Pretention, Mediocre to Bad Food

Finally, we get to the places that dominate my bad experiences in restaurants. These are the more up scale stores with big rooms, fancy menus, medium to high prices and completely generic, tasteless, unoriginal food. Here are some things you can do to gain yourself pretention points while not improving your food at all:

Food as Sculpture. Very few people do this well. In general, stacked food is not interesting to look at and is just harder to eat. It's hard to cut that rubbery pork chop when it's sitting on top of the cold mashed potatoes.

Weird Tableware. I don't need forks and knives that weigh eight pounds, or huge plates for small food items, or bowls that are crooked on top. This generally serves no purpose but to distract you from how utterly boring the actual presentation of the food is.

Novel Length Menus. Spare me the biography of every lamb leg you serve, or the trading routes used to obtain the rare olives in your salad. Too often the breathless descriptions of hand picked herbs and organic micro-greens are just an elaborate ruse to make you think the place is not just serving you a plain piece of frozen fish with a white sauce.

Fruity Sauces. You better know what you are doing if you are going to have me put fruit on my meat. Also, you don't gain my confidence by calling that reduced sauce "saffron jus".

Snarky Waitrons Dressed in Black. The customer experience is not improved when the pouty waitstaff dressed all in gothic black sneers at me through hip thick rimmed glasses. Also, make sure they can at least pronounce the food.

And, in case you were wondering, local places that I think fall into this class include Davio, where you can spend your whole college fund on pasta in red sauce, and The Church Brew Works which is great when it sticks to beer and pizza, but for some reason needs to convince me that a Grilled Strip Steak served over a roasted garlic orzo cake and topped with a wild mushroom Dunkel sauce is a good idea, when I know it's just going to be a grilled steak with some stale starch and cold vegetables. I'm sure I could think of a few others, but we've avoided them for so long that they escape me.


Here is a handy table to keep with you to figure out how to classify your own favorite (or not so favorite) places based on how I have classified the places described above (and a few others). Send in your suggestions!

Food Not Great Food Good or Great
Not Pretentious Atria, Chiodos Rose Tea, Cucina Flegrea, Chaya, Udipi
Pretentious Davio, Church Brew Works, Cafe Zinho, P.F. Chang's Vivo, Dish, Casbah

Posted by psu at March 24, 2005 08:41 PM | Bookmark This

See, I basically never go to Cucina because while the food is good I always end up feeling like they think they're doing me a favor by allowing me to eat it.

Posted by Nat at March 24, 2005 09:14 PM

I think it's possibly also a stretch calling Chaya non-pretentious. Although I listed it as such in my table too. It's probably largely based on whom you know.

Posted by peterb at March 24, 2005 09:31 PM

I dunno if I'd call Chaya pretentious. The people there are just too damn friendly to fully count as pretentious.

There is the weird little "our wasabi is FAR SUPERIOR than normal wasabi, so I will teach you how to use it thing", but they're kinda right about that, so I will forgive them.

Posted by Nat at March 24, 2005 09:38 PM

Tram's Kitchen is on my "unpretentious and great" list but not on psu's probably specifically because Le always tries to tell him how to eat the Phǒ and then he gets all pissed off.

Posted by peterb at March 24, 2005 09:53 PM

I have no problem with Tram's. It's a fine, average, Pho and other stuff joint. I just don't think it's any better than that.

Posted by psu at March 24, 2005 09:57 PM

I was going to say "Church Brew Works? Ungreat? Are you nuts?" but
then I read your comments. I've never gone in there and wanted
anything *except* pizza or a sandwich. And a slab of bread pudding the
size of my liver. Mmm.

So there's an obvious "Do you know what to order?" axis which you have
to consider. Anyhow, I would not *divide* by "pretention", because
pretention isn't a negative for me. It's funny, like modern art.
(Unless the place is so pretentious that I can't or won't walk in the
door, in which case food quality is hardly an issue.)

I also wonder how you can categorize P. F. Chang's as pretentious,
since the one time I went in it seemed to have a perfectly
straightforward atmosphere of "We are a cafeteria the size of PNC
Park. We will serve you the same menu as every other Chinese
restaurant in America. We will lower the lighting, though." Then the
food all tasted like lighter fluid.

Posted by Andrew Plotkin at March 24, 2005 10:51 PM

the fact that p.f. chang's is even claiming to serve
chinese food qualifies them as pretentious. plus
the horsey

Posted by psu at March 24, 2005 10:59 PM

I had forgotten the horsey. Yes. Okay.

Now, are giant flaming tiki heads pretentious or anti-pretentious?

Actually, don't answer that.

Posted by Andrew Plotkin at March 25, 2005 01:31 AM

new place I've eaten at last couple of times is The Green Mango
very simple, seats only 4 people, takeout mostly, family operated, superb thai food and the people are great.

Posted by Dan at March 25, 2005 07:42 PM

Thanks for the recommendations. We hit Cucina Flegrea last night based and found it to be quite good, a place to try again. It might have been great, but my enjoyment was probably tempered by the fact I was paying $20 for rather simple pasta.

Oh, I'd add The Mighty Oak Barrel (in Oakmont) to your Not Pretentious but Good category. Although the food is a bit pretentious, the building has all the ambiance of a VFW. Worth a visit.

Posted by Mark Denovich at March 26, 2005 09:32 AM

The Mighty Oak Barrel has fantastic food, not just 'good'

Posted by Deb Denovich at March 26, 2005 12:18 PM

I can't decide of it's misguided pretention or just sort of strange that the Oak Barrel's website has links to define arcane menu items like "scallions", "goat cheese" , "cilantro" and "ragu" (sic).

Posted by a. at March 26, 2005 06:37 PM

What's pretentious about the Oak Barrel's website defining terms for site visitors? It's simply a kind gesture. Possibly you should look up the meaning of pretentious!

Posted by p at April 22, 2005 12:12 PM

I was trying to be sort of sarcastic, which admittedly is hard in an online forum and also because I have a poor sense of humor. In general, I was just remarking on the fact that it seemed kind of silly to define foods and terms that I feel are pretty common. It wasn't supposed to be a serious attack on the restaurant. Pretention means exaggerated importance, right, so to me it seemed the menu was exaggerating the importance of fairly mundane foods. Most people I know are aware of what scallions and goat cheese are, so I didn't really get what their motive for defining the stuff was. I mean, it wasn't exactly rare monkey-picked scallions or goat cheese from 2-headed circus goats.

But, if that sort of menu glossary encourages diners to explore foods they otherwise might not, it's by all means a positive endeavor. Even if Oak Barrel's definitions are not too useful in my opinion, at least they are a bit more down-to-earth than some of the *really* pretentious places, like "baby greens which have been picked by 13 year old blonde swedish virgins and watered by the tears of a miraculous weeping statue" which actually means something significantly less impressive.

Posted by a. at April 22, 2005 03:49 PM

Also, don't forget La Feria (in Shadyside) for super-good, quite cheap, unpretentious food! One of my favorite places in Pittsburgh. Sadly, few people know about it.

Posted by -a. at January 4, 2006 06:16 PM

Please help support Tea Leaves by visiting our sponsors.

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January