Korean BBQ restaurant recommendations are always followed by a caveat “the food is great but you'll stink afterwards”. There's just no way around it.
In the early nineties, Citrus was the place to see and be seen in LA. Its posh dining room with indoor beach umbrellas and large ficus trees extended directly onto a wide open kitchen giving diners a full view of the pristine back of the house. It was the first time I saw the ballet of chefs in a fine dining restaurant. It was mesmerizing, I couldn't take my eyes off it. Between me and a vast array of steamy pots and pans, only a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. And that was perfect. Like it often happens to most "it" places in LA though, Citrus went démodé and later out of business. And while its open kitchen was ahead of its time, it influenced many restaurants that followed. But at some point, the glass wall came down.
As Top Chef steals American Idol's spotlight at the Emmy's and Gordon Ramsay's third TV show ranks at the top of FOX's primetime lineup, our fascination with cooking is also increasing the popularity of restaurants with open kitchens. The back of the house is moving front and center and the bustling business of cooking becoming a lively spectator sport. Cooking as a dining performance is nothing new—Benihana has been around since the sixties; nor is a passing fad—more and more restaurants are being built around their kitchen. But while I admit to enjoy the view, sometimes I wonder if the architectural decision fell victim to an unplanned marketing gimmick.
Take the new Commonwealth in the Mission. My first impression when I walked in was great; a beautiful crowd of hip Missionites dressed in trendy evening-wear. For a moment it didn't look like San Francisco (no fleece vests in sight). The modern space features a large skylight through which the light reflections from a disco ball gently trace the room. And of course, an open kitchen. The menu is quite impressive; a nice selection of inventive and appetizing dishes. But you pay a price. House-made chips with malt vinegar foam is a fun alternative to bread and butter but requires a deep-fryer running all night. Not to mention the popular Crispy pig ears appetizer. The food is very good but while my favorite meals are the ones I find memorable, taking home their smell doesn't make for a good memory.
Restaurants with table-cooking like Korean BBQ and Fondue are naturally the biggest offenders. If the dining room suffers from poor air circulation, it’s like dining in a sauna, or a smoker. A visit to The Melting Pot can turn you into a human skunk. So if you choose to spend two hours seated by a pot of boiling oil that's perfectly fine, you made a conscious decision. And you deserve to smell like french fries. But if you reserved a table in the dining room, dolled up and showed up on time, you deserve to smell your own perfume. As long as you don't force your neighboring tables to smell it too, of course.
Most chefs would agree that few things are more damaging to a dining experience than the smell of overpowering perfume. The aroma of a great dish entices your curiosity and arouses your appetite, before you even put it in your mouth. Flavor is by definition a combination of taste and smell; the last thing I want is for my risotto to hit my palate like Chanel Nº5. But I also don't want to leave a restaurant smelling like chicken croquette. That doesn’t seem like a big ask. Or is it?
The costs of designing and running a restaurant in cities like San Francisco are higher than ever. Few projects can afford the luxury of having an ample dining room and a kitchen not sharing the same area. Much like in modern homes, bringing down the walls simply creates the illusion of a larger space.
So here’s my plea to chefs and restaurateurs. If an open kitchen is an important part of your concept and fried chicken is a must on your menu, consider giving your diners a brake. Put the fryer outside, increase the air circulation in the room or buy a more potent exhaust hood. If all fails, bring back the glass wall. There are plenty of open kitchen restaurants that don’t steam diners with their culinary scent.
Restaurants should be rated not just by their food quality, atmosphere and noise level, but also by the stench they leave on you afterwards. The next time I recommend such place I'll make sure to warn, “the food is great but you'll stink afterwards”.