The Restaurant: A Table Divided

There's a lot more happening at a restaurant than simply ordering from a menu and getting your food. Restaurants are sites of self-expression — spaces in which status and distinction are performed and lines between class, race, and gender are reflected and reinforced. Contributing producers Michelle Macklem and Zoe Tennant explore how we've gone from dining in to dining out, and what dining out reveals about our identities.
(Cailleah Scott-Grimes/CBC)
Listen to the full episode53:59

**This episode originally aired May 21, 2018.

Ever since they began, restaurants have been mirrors of who we are: our social aspirations — and our social inequalities, reflecting and refracting both our best and worst selves. And today, Canadians and Americans spend more money dining out than ever before. 

Through conversations with restaurateurs, chefs, food sociologists and food historians, producers Michelle Macklem and Zoe Tennant ask one central question: what does this institution — the restaurant — reveal about us as people? 

Their immersive documentary The Restaurant: A Table Divided is composed of interviews and soundscapes recorded in: two cities (New York and Toronto), four restaurants, an old tavern, and two kitchens. The Restaurant is a story about the French Revolution, turtles, the Civil Rights movement, disappearing white table cloths, Williamsburg, sexual anxieties, and colonization.

The restaurant is the perfect institution to understand all the promise and problems of the modern world.- Krishnendu Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur

Caviar and the Civil Rights Movement

One of the biggest shifts in dining out in the last fifty years is the toppling of French cuisine's monopoly. After French food was displaced, we stepped out of an era of overt snobbery, featuring white tablecloths and polished silverware, and into our current era of covert snobbery.

"Inequality has become so extreme that there is a backlash to people who display their wealth and status too overtly," says Josée Johnston, author of Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape.

"Like eating caviar while riding around in your Bentley. So instead you're eating a rice bowl with truffles on it, driving around in your Tesla. You have these things that kind of take the edge off of wealth inequality. It's like an homage to the common person. I think this is a way, at a larger cultural level, to make inequality more palatable."  

Today, diners who eat up and down the food chain — from Jamón Ibérico to mac and cheese — are those with the most status. And dining out on culinary traditions other than French has become more valued. "I think that is part of a democratic opening," says Johnston.

Josée Johnston is author of "Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape". 1:31

The democratic opening in dining out cannot be overlooked, but it should not be overstated.

The Civil Rights movement slowly eroded undisguised discrimination based on race and class. But discrimination is performed in more slippery ways today, explains Krishnendu Ray, author of The Ethnic Restaurateur. "Now we do it implicitly. We do it quietly."

Restaurants can be read as a map of global inequalities, says Ray. "The restaurant is the perfect institution to understand all the promise and problems of the modern world," he says.

Guests in this episode: 

  • Jen Agg is a restaurateur and author of I Hear She's a Real Bitch. She was interviewed in her restaurant Grey Gardens. 
  • Floyd Cardoz is a chef and restaurateur, executive chef at The Bombay Bread Bar in New York. He was interviewed in his restaurant The Bombay Bread Bar. 
  • Paul Freedman is a professor at Yale University in the Department of History, and author of Ten Restaurants that Changed America. He was interviewed in Delmonico's, the oldest restaurant in the United States. 
  • Josée Johnston is a professor at the University of Toronto in the Department of Sociology, and author of Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape.
  • Krishnendu Ray is a professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur.
  • Johl Whiteduck Ringuette is an Indigenous chef and owner of NishDish in Toronto. He was interviewed in his restaurant NishDish. 
  • Julia Roberts is a professor at the University of Waterloo in the Department of History, and author of In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada. She was interviewed in The Wheat Sheaf, the oldest tavern in Toronto. 
  • Rebecca Spang is a professor at Indiana University Bloomington in the Department of History, and author of The Invention of The Restaurant
From their beginnings, restaurants continue to be a reflection of gender inequality. 2:18

**This episode was produced by Zoe Tennant, Michelle Macklem and Nicola Luksic. Original music composed by Michelle Macklem and The Black Spot.  

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