Shortly after I wrote a post about how much I loved the "no ketchup!" burger place Louis' Lunch and the "no brand names!" beer bar McSorley's, the New York Times' Diane Cardwell wrote a piece declaring no-choice restaurants to be a trend:
At a pea-size Lower East Side bistro known for its fries, the admonition is spelled out on a chalkboard: No ketchup. At a popular gastropub in the West Village, customers cannot have the burger with any cheese other than Roquefort...
New York has spawned a breed of hard-line restaurants and cafes that are saying no. No to pouring takeout espressos, or grinding more than a pound of coffee at a time. No to taming the intensity of a magma-spicy dish. And most of all, no to the 21st-century conviction that everything can be accessorized to the customer’s taste.
This is a movement that I completely support. I do not go to a restaurant (or even a take-out place) so that the staff can question me on how to best use the ingredients they have on hand. If they care about their work, they already know how to prepare a meal. Good restauranteurs are like artists, musicians, scientists, and architects, and I'm not going to mess with the formulas they've spent countless hours (10,000 of them, according to Malcolm Gladwell!) getting just right.
The cost of providing a bottle of ketchup at a restaurant that specializes in fries is very low. The point of this is to signal culinary sophistication to customers. This is the kind of restaurant that refuses ketchup to fry-eaters. It sends a message about the kind of food served and the kinds of customers who eat there. They're selling cultural exclusivity.
I won't disagree. I love cultural exclusivity when it's available to people who didn't go to the right colleges! I love faux speakeasies (I won't tell you where) that require passwords and reservations but serve cocktails at the same price as any other bar.
I want a place that only serves poutine in the traditional way (squeaky, high-fat cheese curds only!), and I want a place that only serves poutine with paneer cheese and Indian spices. I want a place that only serves veggie burgers but with bacon strips on top. And I want Boston to finally get a place that served only fish tacos — with only one kind of salsa.
Part of my attitude comes from the "paradox of choice" phenomenon that often freezes us into indecision when confronted with 30 brands of laundry detergent or a restaurant menu thicker than an issue of Vanity Fair. (If Trader Joe's is your favorite supermarket, it has something to do with its blessedly limited product line.) And part of it comes from the fun of shared experiences with friends. It's fun to go to the same movie or play and compare notes afterward, and it's fun to compare reactions to a shared bottle of wine or to someone's idea of the perfect hummus wrap.
And if you accompany me to such a place, I promise we can go somewhere with a gazillion flavors of ice cream for dessert.
P.S. It occurs to me that "no substitution" places work best for parties of two or three. Once you hit five people, my guess is that someone is going to veto the restaurant. But this could be an advantage for an eatery with a small space or a preference for a rapid turnover of customers. So there is a motive to keep out ketchup-eaters other than snobbery. Plus you get a nicer atmosphere without big groups of straight people squabbling over the bill.