Gastronaut: We Like to Watch

How important is an open kitchen in this age when we all want to see the sausage being made?

gastronaut-september-kagan-mcleodWhen Serpico first opened on South Street, one of the main draws was the big, open kitchen and the man himself — Peter Serpico, late of the famous Momofuku empire, standing right there making dinner for you. The most popular seats in the house were the ones snugged right up against the counter behind which Serpico did his work.

Zahav has never wanted for trade, but when Michael Solomonov started running his Kitchen Counter dinners, people went bonkers. Fork’s cooks work right out in the open, filling the dining room with excitement that goes far beyond the drama of plates being walked across the floor. Petruce et al., Vernick, Cheu — they all let you sit within poking distance of the cooks. At Volvér, the kitchen isn’t just open to view; it’s integral to the layout of the dining room. Customers are told (repeatedly) to go up to the pass and watch the chefs working. To ask questions.

These are some of the biggest, most important restaurants in Philly right now, places that feel alive and vital, that spin diners into the dance of pots and plates and pans and make dinner into not just a meal, but a show. But there’s one important name missing from this list: Avance, the fine-dining spot that took over the Le Bec Fin space last December.

Around the office, we’ve spent a lot of time pondering why Avance has struggled the way it has. We’ve puzzled over restaurants’ radically different fates (Avance vs. Petruce, Avance vs. Fork, Avance vs., it sometimes seems, everyone), and we’ve tried to figure out what, exactly, is the thing — that magical, ineffable thing — that makes the difference. And while there are variances in location, obviously, in rents, menus, prices and the epic weight of history, these can feel minor when you’re inside these dining rooms. The one thing that really seems to matter?

The kitchen. More precisely, the openness of the kitchen. The inclusiveness of the kitchen.

At Avance (after having survived a threat of eviction and nights when the customers eating there numbered less than a dozen), the dining room is essentially a high-ceilinged box. It’s a pretty box, sure — all gray walls and Edison bulbs — but a quiet and almost meditative box. The kitchen (originally Le Bec’s famously closed kitchen) exists in the way that all kitchens once existed — behind a door, on the other side of a wall, cut off completely from the dining room. The only sop to modernity is a small window cut into the back wall, through which — if you’re in exactly the right seat — you can sometimes see the head of a cook pass by.

At this moment in the development of American cuisine, we’re all toddlers. We stumble around from stimulus to stimulus, wanting to put everything in our mouths and, most importantly, to see how everything is done. We watch hours of Food Network and Top Chef. From our voyeuristic perspective, we feel we’ve earned our place at the chef’s counter. To have that denied us, so pointedly, feels somehow … wrong.

We want to watch. That’s just what we do now. And while a window onto the action might be a nice afterthought, it’s not enough. These days, if we can’t see how the sausage is being made, we might just change the channel.

Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.