One-Trick Ponies: Why Single-Dish Restaurants Are Here to Stay

Looking at the roster of restaurants that opened in New York last week, you could draw two conclusions. One, entrepreneurs continue to ignore reason and solvency in order to take a shot at culinary glory (or, at the very least, mediocrity). And two, one-trick ponies—places that specialize in one dish, albeit with multiple variations—aren’t going away.

Late last week I learned that Little Muenster will soon bring “Super Fancy Grilled Cheese” to the Lower East Side; Tommy Lasagna, “the ultimate lasagna destination,” has started slinging its eponymous pasta, tricked out with ingredients like lobster and black truffles; and the Meatball Factory served its first dinner to mixed reviews.

The Meatball Factory is located 15 blocks north of the Meatball Shop (“we make balls”), which in turn happens to be one block away from Little Muenster. It's merely the latest in a long line of New York grilled cheese places, taking a "We Are the World" view of the sandwich, tarting it up with ingredients like cumin seeds, candied ginger, sweet corn purée, and sage brown butter.

The slew of one-trick ponies trotted out across New York and beyond share Little Muenster’s MO, which you could call the 31 Flavors approach: Take a comfort/nostalgia food and offer between 12 and 48 variations. One of the most notable recent offenders is Brooklyn’s Empire Mayonnaise Co., which peddles 40 different flavors of emulsified egg yolks.

None of these places represents a new trend, exactly. You could argue that the one-trick ponies first escaped the paddock in the early days of cupcake mania, when every week seemed to bring another New York storefront smudged with pastel buttercream. Observers have pointed to the crap economy as the progenitor of the latest herd. Americans are broke and want comfort, the logic goes, gravitating toward places selling anything remotely redolent of Mom’s kitchen and caloric oblivion.

But people have always been drawn to romanticizing the foods of childhood. No surprise that the same kids who grew up eating Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese, hanging out at mall food courts where “restaurants” were a series of cuisine-specific counters, are the same ones now selling nothing but meatballs, dumplings, or mac 'n' cheese.

The website of Homeroom, a mac 'n' cheese restaurant in Oakland, California, underscores both the lingering pull of childhood and the urge to elevate the food that accompanied it. Besides the requisite cheese and carbs, Homeroom’s “About” section says, “We also carry nostalgic treats like homemade oreos and peanut butter pie.” And its “Classic” mac 'n' cheese is an “extra cheesy remake of the all-cheddar mac you ate as a kid.”

The rise of mac ‘n’ cheese cafes and all-mayonnaise shops dovetails not only with the rise of haute stoner food but also the latest Internet bubble. One CHOW editor calls the grilled cheese sandwich the tech industry’s fooseball table, adding that it has become symbolic of “the infantile, devil-may-care young programmer culture.”

Critics, of course, charge that infantile foods (even those tricked out with Iberico ham and black truffles) are less a triumph of ingenuity than a sign of challenged ambition. Does lasagne really cry out to be embellished with lobster and sherry sauce? Maybe not, but you can’t deny the continued appeal of such a thing.

Each generation of chefs reinterprets seminal food memories. Perhaps this generation’s one-trick ponies signal not so much a lack of personal ambition as the extent to which fast food and processed ingredients have remade American culture. The Meatball Shop’s balls may be to Quiznos as silk is to rayon, but unsheathing a greasy hero from its wrapper will always offer a thrill, whether the sandwich that emerges is fancy or not.

That thrill isn’t likely to fade anytime soon. What will, I hope, is the level of pretentiousness that accompanies each new attempt to pair melted dairy with the entirety of one’s spice cabinet. How many ways can you tart up a grilled cheese before descending into self-parody? Given the way things are going, we’re sure to find out sooner than later.

Image source: Sandwich from Gorilla Cheese NYC by Flickr member rachelkramerbussel.com under Creative Commons