The Pretension Quotient

There are a lot of ways to rate restaurants. The assumption is that most reviewers are there to rate the food, but really they are looking at many other aspects of the place. Therefore, in rating surveys like the Zagat’s, you see multiple numbers written down and averaged and weighted: food, decor, “value” and so on. I was reading a ranty blog entry about a few local places and the thought occured to me to try and define a simple measure to summarize my feelings about a restaurant. Thus, I present to you: the pretension quotient.

Simply put, this quotient is derived by comparing how good the food in a particular place is with how pretentious you perceive a place to be. If you take the ratio of these values, restaurants then naturally fall into four general classes:

Low Pretension, Great Food

Here we have the best ratio of food quality to pretentiousness. These tend to be small places that serve simple regional food that is just too good to pass up. I would eat real barbeque off a picnic table before I’d sit down at most of the fancier tables in Pittsburgh and get served a “flame roasted pork loin with quinoa, baby spinach salad and a cranberry apple demi-glace relish” which ends up being a tasteless piece of white rubber with a red sauce, stale raw spinach with some fake cheese on it and that execrable fad grain that tastes like grass.

Locally, my favorite places hit this sweet spot. La Cucina Flegrea has some of the best Italian food in the city coming out of a place with barely two rooms and a dozen tables, and they let my kid run around near the kitchen while I eat. Similarly, Rose Tea Cafe has simply the best Chinese food in town but is utterly straightforward and lacking in pretense.

High Pretension, Good to Great Food

Of course, we go to fancy places too. The good ones have a quality level is at least as good as their pretentiousness. Locally, Dish and Vivo both aim high and generally hit their targets. Bona Terra is also a nice local place that easily justifies the amount of text they use to describe their food. Casbah is a place whose food exactly matches its pretension level.

Low Pretension, Mediocre Food

Here we have the places that equalize their quality to pretension ratio from the other direction. So they are not great, but they do not try to convince you that they are shooting terribly high. I find these to be tolerable because they basically serve you exactly what they advertise. Locally, a place like Atria and the chain places fall into this part of the matrix. Of course, one prefers to avoid chains if one can help it.

High Pretension, Mediocre to Bad Food

Finally, we get to the places that dominate my bad experiences in restaurants. These are the more up scale stores with big rooms, fancy menus, medium to high prices and completely generic, tasteless, unoriginal food. Here are some things you can do to gain yourself pretension points while not improving your food at all:

Food as Sculpture. Very few people do this well. In general, stacked food is not interesting to look at and is just harder to eat. It’s hard to cut that rubbery pork chop when it’s sitting on top of the cold mashed potatoes.

Weird Tableware. I don’t need forks and knives that weigh eight pounds, or huge plates for small food items, or bowls that are crooked on top. This generally serves no purpose but to distract you from how utterly boring the actual presentation of the food is.

Novel Length Menus. Spare me the biography of every lamb leg you serve, or the trading routes used to obtain the rare olives in your salad. Too often the breathless descriptions of hand picked herbs and organic micro-greens are just an elaborate ruse to make you think the place is not just serving you a plain piece of frozen fish with a white sauce.

Fruity Sauces. You better know what you are doing if you are going to have me put fruit on my meat. Also, you don’t gain my confidence by calling that reduced sauce “saffron jus”.

Snarky Waitrons Dressed in Black. The customer experience is not improved when the pouty waitstaff dressed all in gothic black sneers at me through hip thick rimmed glasses. Also, make sure they can at least pronounce the food.

And, in case you were wondering, local places that I think fall into this class include Davio, where you can spend your whole college fund on pasta in red sauce, and The Church Brew Works which is great when it sticks to beer and pizza, but for some reason needs to convince me that a Grilled Strip Steak served over a roasted garlic orzo cake and topped with a wild mushroom Dunkel sauce is a good idea, when I know it’s just going to be a grilled steak with some stale starch and cold vegetables. I’m sure I could think of a few others, but we’ve avoided them for so long that they escape me.


Here is a handy table to keep with you to figure out how to classify your own favorite (or not so favorite) places based on how I have classified the places described above (and a few others). Send in your suggestions!

Food Not Great Food Good or Great
**Not Pretentious ** Atria, Chiodos Rose Tea, Cucina Flegrea, Chaya, Udipi
Pretentious Davio, Church Brew Works, Cafe Zinho, P.F. Chang’s Vivo, Dish, Casbah