The Paradox of American Restaurants

The quality and variety of food in the U.S. has never been better. The business seems to be struggling. What’s really going on?

Restaurants are such a revitalizing force in urban life that a fine meal now carries a sacred profundity. “Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation,” wrote Eugene Wei, a technologist and writer who is currently the head of video at Oculus, in a 2015 essay. “It’s hard to think of any sphere of American life where the selection and quality have improved so much as food,” the economist Tyler Cowen, who moonlights as a food blogger, wrote this year. For the first time in US history, Americans are spending more money dining out than in grocery stores.

What the heck is going on? How can the United States be going through a restaurant renaissance and a restaurant recession at the same time? In the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with almost a dozen restaurateurs and analysts about the state of the industry. Here are four theories.

1. The good news is there are too many great restaurants to choose from. The bad news is … the same thing.

2. The middle class of restaurants is really struggling … unless they specialize in breakfast.

3. Takeout is taking over.

4. It’s ultimately about rich city-dwellers—especially in California.
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