The Restaurateur

If you want to look back on those good old days of the Clinton boom economy, then order a copy of The Restaurateur, Roger Sherman’s documentary about Danny Meyer’s ambitious gamble to build two soaring restaurants on Manhattan’s Madison Square Park back in the heady days of 1998. How your heart will swell with nostalgic yearning as you hear Mr. Meyer lament about how difficult it is to find good restaurant help in those caramelized years before unemployment hit 10 percent.

The Restaurateur consists primarily of footage from the late Nineties featuring Meyer in a coat with embarrassing shoulder pads standing in raw spaces and makeshift offices talking about his anxieties concerning his new venture. Having created the pioneering Union Square Cafe in the mid-Eighties, and following up with The Gramercy Tavern in 1994, Danny Meyer is in awe of what he’s undertaking so close on the heels of his previous success. Is he pushing his luck? Will construction be completed in time? It’s certainly entertaining to see what goes into building a restaurant from the ground up; designing spaces, training waitstaff, thinking you have the right chef and discovering weeks before opening that you don’t.

Eleven Madison Park goes through three chefs over the course of the film; two before opening. We don’t learn much about what happens between 1998 and 2011 other than that the second chef gets kicked upstairs after a crushing two star review from The New York Times. The third brings those validating four stars, but The Restaurateur doesn’t craft any drama or suspense around Meyers’s quest other than to tell you that a new chef came and he was good. Sherman’s film doesn’t concern itself with the years in between; it can’t because the cameras weren’t there. Instead, it devotes many minutes to the life and vision of Floyd Cardoz, chef of the adjacent restaurant Tabla, an upscale Indian dining palace that closed last year. Viewers develop a great familiarity with Cardoz’s polo shirts, suburban deck, and ideas for watermelon—and yet the death of Tabla is barely alluded to. If you didn’t know the restaurant had closed, you’d walk away from the movie none the wiser. Why did it close? It’s the economy, stupid! But The Restaurateur doesn’t want to delve too deeply into the present with all its appetite-spoiling realities.

The Restaurateur would be a better documentary if it spent more time exploring the contrast between then and now. Instead, it dwells on the past and jumps to the present for a few perfunctory glimpses that really don’t tell you anything except that for some reason someone decided to release the film long after it, and the restaurants were conceived. Why that happened is yet another mystery. If it’s jarring for the viewer, it must be mortifying for Meyer, who gets to see how he’s aged. Lucky for him, he’s a man, and has only gotten more distinguished in both looks and outerwear choices, even if this film is stuck on his darker-haired, less-wrinkled thirties. A little more footage from the present would not only have served the story, it would emphasize what gives Eleven Madison Park, at $125 per person for dinner, minimum, what it takes to survive the times. Wouldn’t that be good for business, Danny?

Giulia Melucci is the author of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.