The Gastronaut: I Love the ’80s

But that doesn't mean I want to eat there.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

I am, for better or for worse, a child of the 1980s.

Born in 1973, I spent my youth in a haze of Transformers (the original ones), Atari and Members Only jackets. I owned an actual pair of parachute pants, though I only wore them to school once, was mocked, and acquired, briefly, the nickname “Parachute.”

More important, I started cooking in the ’80s. I cut my teeth in the industry through the late ’80s and early ’90s (seeing as this was upstate New York during the pre-Food Network American food scene, the ’80s lasted until about 1996), and I can tell you one thing: The food was terrible.

Actually, I should qualify that. The food was terrible compared to what we eat at restaurants now — when judged against the creativity and quality of what’s available today. This was before farm-to-table, before fusion, before molecular gastronomy. It was a time when having cedar-plank salmon, ham steak with pineapple and chocolate lava cake on a menu wasn’t pathetic, but profitable. Salad bars were a killer moneymaker because people would pay a huge markup for iceberg lettuce. And pasta? There were four kinds that I remember from early on: spaghetti, spaghetti with meatballs, linguine with clam sauce, and raviolis out of a can. I didn’t make my own pasta in a restaurant until I was nearly 25.

But today, the cuisine of the 1980s is having a moment. Of course, there’s Kevin Sbraga’s ode to those pre-New American wonder years at Juniper Commons (reviewed here). But Sbraga’s not the only one banking on a revisionist taste for nostalgia cuisine. Jose Garces placed a big bet on diners’ fond memories of bygone days (and snapper soup) when he opened the Olde Bar inside the former Old Original Bookbinder’s. Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney are in the homestretch for their retro diner, Bud & Marilyn’s, which will be serving classic American food in a place named for Turney’s grandparents. And Jeremy Nolen, better known around town for his modern German cuisine, is aiming his time machine for Reading (where he grew up and where his dad was a chef) circa 30 years ago, bringing minute steak, potpies, backyard burgers and pot roast back to Queen Village.

While I totally understand this urge to gaze fondly on our personal culinary past — to turn our backs on the thermal circulators and lemongrass that have gotten us to where we are today — I’m still not entirely sure this is a good idea. I think the danger here is in romanticizing an era in its entirety — in claiming that everything done in the kitchens of our professional forebears was either excellent as it was or easily updateable with a few modern techniques. I mean, think about it in terms of music. Without a doubt, “The Safety Dance” was the greatest musical achievement in the history of man. But not every song on the radio in the ’80s was “The Safety Dance.” A lot of them were “The Humpty Dance” or “The Lady in Red.” And no one needs to go out there now and cover “The Lady in Red,” right?

We need to hold our chefs to the same standards. Sure, I’m as excited as anyone for Sbraga’s throwback peel-’n’-eat shrimp cocktail and Nolen’s minute steak (dry-aged 35 days, natch). But there are nights when I’m still haunted by nightmares of raspberry vinaigrette and cedar-plank salmons in the oven, so let’s just be careful what we bring back, okay?

Originally published in the April, 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine