While I’ll readily admit to being a fan of quirky restaurants, I will do so only hesitantly, in the same way that I’ll admit I am a fan of quirky people. That is, I love them up until the point where they describe themselves as being ‘quirky.’
On the recommendation of someone much cooler than me, my friend and I decided to try out this trendy new restaurant. On the way there, we stopped off to grab a couple of quick martinis because we were being trendy and trendy people never arrive on time. When we finally reached the address we’d been given and found ourselves standing in front of a neon-lit sex shop, pawing at our iPhones to make sure we’d definitely not gone wrong, we began to question what the actual hell had been in those martinis. Sure enough, however, Google maps said that this was the place. With iPhone reassurance and a vague memory of the friend who’d recommended the place doing so with a wry smirk, we bravely ventured past the blacked out windows and neon signs to give it a shot. While I wish that this was a story about how the fungal rise of ‘quirky’ eateries had lead me to blunder into a sex shop thinking it was a restaurant, it’s not, so hold on tight. In addition to the exterior reminiscent of a sex shop, the inside of the place was a dingy cavern with the sort of décor that kitsch-apologists might deem “Brazilian Slum Chic.” Now, just in case you’re not keeping up here, my friend and I had just walked into a Mexican restaurant masquerading as a favela masquerading as a sex shop. And it sucked.
In my efforts to be cooler than I am, I’ve been to my fair share of underground cafés and gimmicky venues: bars with Fuhrer-themed cocktails and coffee shops hidden behind bookcases, you know the sort. I adore the fact that these kinds of venues recognize that eating out is a multisensory experience and that atmosphere is as important as delicious, varied food and charming service. That said, there is some sort of threshold level after which alarm bells start to ring, as they would if every dish on the menu were served with truffle chips, or the waiters all wore identical maniacal grins. Usually, too much quirk conceals something rather ugly and insecure, and this place was right up there on the kooky bingo card. My companion sat awkwardly on a small wooden crate that they must have paid someone to deliberately rough up as I tried to decipher the menu, which was printed on yet more crate. We tried to chat about how ‘interesting’ the place was, but our voices wouldn’t carry over the din of our fellow diners; whether they were frat boys in suits or investment bankers in sneakers we couldn’t tell. See, that’s another risk of these places. They become a bit like the Disneyland of the restaurant world: a wondrous eclectic kingdom where the wonderless and the dull come to soak in the pre-packed whimsy. As I forced down another limp taco, I realized that the people who were really cool and interesting had probably grabbed a bottle of whatever they had at hand and were drinking it in some grassy nook under a railway bridge accompanied by chowing down on street food.
I realized then that the coolness I had been striving for had slipped from my grasp by virtue of my having strived for it in the first place. Similarly, this contrived carcass of a cantina had arisen from a failed attempt to emulate the effortless spontaneity of some imaginary lost weekend. That’s the thing about getting too caught up in romantic ideas and empty nostalgia: You find yourself wearing uncomfortable vintage galoshes sitting on uncomfortable fake-crates conversing with uncomfortably dull strangers and wondering why you hadn’t just stayed home with the cookie dough.
Naomi has been looking for an opportunity to rock those galoshes for years.