Do Boston restaurants work too hard to please everyone?
Let's begin with some interesting statistics and comparisons. In Boston, which has an approximate population of 646K, there are about 4150 restaurants, which roughly works out to 1 restaurant per 146 people. In Manhattan, which has an approximate population of 1.6 Million, there are about 24K restaurants, which roughly works out to 1 restaurant per 67 people. And in Tokyo, which has an approximate population of 13.6 Million, there are about 300K restaurants, which roughly works out to 1 restaurant per 45 people.
The culinary scene in Tokyo is renowned throughout the world. "There are a dozen factors that make Japanese food so special—ingredient obsession, technical precision, thousands of years of meticulous refinement—but chief among them is one simple concept: specialization." (Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan's Food Culture by Matt Goulding) Matt gets a bit more down to earth, stating that "...in Japan, the secret to success is choosing one thing and doing it really fucking well." Many Japanese restaurants choose to specialize in one type of food and excel, offering very limited menus. Maybe this is a practice that should be emulated more in the Boston area.
How many Boston restaurants specialize in one type of food, carrying only a very limited menu? Very few. Most have far larger menus, providing numerous choices so they will appeal to a broader audience. Even most Japanese restaurants in the Boston area offer a wealth of choices, from sushi to teriyaki. One exception is Yume Wo Katare which serves only one type of ramen, and it does very well despite this extremely limited menu. Some of the intriguing Pop-Ups that make their appearance also have very limited menus, often concentrating on a specific food. In some respects, Prix Fixe restaurants, such as Tasting Counter and Asta, also can be considered to specialize as the diner has few options available.
Why do so few Boston area restaurants specialize? I think the primary reason has to do with the average restaurant goer who feels entitled that they should be able to get almost anything they want at any restaurant. Rather than enjoying what is offered on the menu, some complain about what isn't there. And that outcry has caused some restaurants to give in to their demands, expanding their menu to include items that might have been outside of their original concept. Look at the popular chain restaurants, from Applebees to TGI Fridays, which have voluminous menus, that seemingly include everything but the kitchen sink. Even many restaurants which have a more restricted menu, still try to cater to the general public by having diversity such as including beef dish, chicken dish, seafood dish, pork dish, and vegetarian dish.
It's a tough position for restaurants. I'm sure some would love to specialize, to have a more limited menu but financially that can be very difficult. Yet with a more limited menu, the quality of what was offered could potentially be increased. Those chefs could excel at what they produce, creating a superb product.It would be great to see a limited menu restaurant like Yume Wo Katare on the corner in every Boston neighborhood. It might even be less expensive to operate such a more specialized restaurant. However, the main problem becomes trying to transform the customer base to be more accepting of such limited menus.
We need to throw our support to these brave restaurants which take the risk to be more specialized. We need to convince our fellow diners that they too should support such restaurants. People have to stop thinking that a restaurant menu must cater to every customer's desires. They must accept a restaurant menu's limitations, and savor what is available. Be adventurous and expand your palate.