The finance bros have arrived. With their button-down shirts and conversations about investment strategy, they seem different than the arty, laid-back crowd that usually hangs out at the Four Horsemen, the natural wine bar on Grand Street.
The Brooklyn bar’s part-owner, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, has always given the place an extra sheen of coolness, but it seems to be attracting a new demographic these days, at least on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s been felt by longtime regulars, like Williamsburg resident and Eater developer Nozlee Samadzadeh. “My general feeling is that the crowd is more Tinder-date-y, more moneyed, more suit-y, more Manhattan,” she says.
This shift may have happened organically, given how things have been going in Williamsburg over the past few years. But it was almost certainly helped along by Episode 4 of the second season of Master of None, in which Dev, a 30-something New Yorker played by Aziz Ansari, takes a series of online dates to the Four Horsemen. His fans, apparently, followed his example, and they’ve been doing so at restaurants and bars all over town.
The true “Master of None effect” is hard to quantify — most of the places featured were busy long before the show aired — but many report that even if overall visits haven’t increased, more diners are citing the show as their reason for visiting. It helps that Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang are known food lovers, and the places they choose, like Il Buco, PDT, the Smile, and Marlow & Sons, are industry favorites. As a perhaps unexpected byproduct, they’ve curated a restaurant guide for young, hip, food-obsessed New Yorkers; the listicles of places featured on the show that crowd the internet after each season, including Eater’s own Heatmaps, add to the cycle.
“When Master of None and Aziz Ansari show up at a restaurant, it’s a seal of approval,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Blier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Being a place that’s seen on Master of None is probably as much of an endorsement as the four-star fine-food guides. I’m sure every eatery in New York City is drooling to get that benediction.”
It has this in common with another series about 30-something New Yorkers: HBO’s Sex and the City, which also inspired a generation to follow in its characters’ footsteps. That was a different show, and a different time, and Sex and the City’s glitzy Manhattan restaurants and clubs are signifiers of power and exclusivity. Master of None is mostly concerned with the very millennial quest for authenticity and deliciousness.
But both programs deftly use real-world restaurants to expand the world of the show and reveal more about their characters — and in doing so, tell us how we can be more like them ourselves.
There isn’t really anything new in this. Television and movies have been changing the fortunes of restaurants for decades. Fans have made pilgrimages to both Bull & Finch Pub and Tom’s Restaurant, sites of the establishing shots for the Cheers bar and Monk’s Diner on Seinfeld, for years even though those interiors only existed on soundstages. A running gag in The Avengers inspired a brief surge in shawarma-eating in 2012. When I was in college in LA in the early aughts, boys I knew planned nights at the Dresden Room to live out their Swingers fantasies, and tourists still go to Katz’s Deli almost every day to “have what she’s having.”
The case study is Magnolia Bakery, the 600-square-foot cupcake spot that Sex and the City catapulted into international fame. It was already popular when it was featured on the show in 2000, and then the tour buses started arriving. At the show’s peak popularity, five SATC buses a day would disgorge groups of 55 people each on the narrow streets of the West Village, all of them speaking a panoply of languages and hungry for pink-frosted “Carrie cupcakes.”
That popularity helped make Magnolia a global brand, with outposts from Qatar to Mexico City to Tokyo. The bakery’s first international store, in Dubai, was part of the first Bloomingdale’s outside of the U.S., which opened with great fanfare. “The very first people to cross the threshold screamed, ‘Oh my god it’s Magnolia Bakery!’ They were so excited,” says Magnolia’s chief baking officer, Bobbi Lloyd. They were European travelers. It’s impossible to attribute that level of brand recognition to anything but Sex and the City.
Here’s the crazy part: Magnolia is featured on the show for barely more than a minute. In an early Season 3 episode, Carrie and Miranda sit on a bench outside the bakery eating cupcakes and talking about men. It seems absurd that 77 seconds launched a small business into the stratosphere, but Lloyd has a theory.
“Most of the people coming from out of town, they can’t afford a pair of Manolo Blahniks and they can’t get into some crazy Meatpacking bar to buy a cosmopolitan. But they can afford a Magnolia cupcake,” she says. “When that first aired, those cupcakes were under $2. You were living the experience the girls in Sex and the City had, and it was affordable.”
It’s more about the experience than the place, in other words. And in this sense, going to Magnolia isn’t that different from dressing up for Comic-Con or visiting the Kwik-E-Mart at Universal Studios Florida — just another way to get into the world of the show. This is especially true for millennials, who have been found to prioritize their spending on experiences over objects, says Dr. Melissa Phruksachart, an assistant professor of Cinema Studies at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. And they just don’t just want the experience. They want to document it and share it on social media.
“In past generations, purchasable tie-ins like novels, comic books, dolls, soundtracks, and toys were more prevalent ways to connect brands with fans,” she says. Now TV marketing plans often include fictional pop-up restaurants. Luke’s Diner from Gilmore Girls, Los Pollos Hermanos from Breaking Bad, and the Double R Diner from Twin Peaks have all been brought to life in advance of new seasons or spinoffs. Millennial nostalgia has fueled temporary iterations of Central Perk from Friends and the Max from Saved by the Bell.
But Magnolia cupcake madness took place before smartphones, and Snapchat can’t be the only thing inspiring bros to drink orange wine. Could there be something more at play when the lines between the real world and the world of the show are blurred?
The locations that both shows choose feel true to life: Carrie and the girls would have been at the opening of then-hot nightclub Tao; Dev would bond with a chef over a mutual love of Los Tacos No. 1. They’re such believable scenarios that you almost believe they really happened, and if you visit, you can see what it’s like to be Carrie or Dev, even if just for a few hours. For all you know, they could be sitting at the next table. (Because Ansari is a regular at many of the places featured on Master of None and it’s a bit fuzzy where Dev stops and he begins, this could almost literally be true.)
Of course, few people are deluded enough to think that buying Air Jordans will transform them into the world’s best basketball player, or that they’ll turn into Elizabeth Taylor by wearing White Diamonds perfume. Their motivations may be much less complex, says Thompson. He remembers one time, at the height of M*A*S*H’s popularity, when he found himself in Toledo for one night. The only place he went was Tony Packo’s, which is mentioned several times as a favorite restaurant of one of the characters.
“I wasn’t a huge M*A*S*H fan, I wasn’t obsessed with the actor, and I’m not terribly star-struck, but even though I had very few indefinable motivations, maybe the biggest thing is that I’d heard of it,” Thompson says. “A television show had taught me one thing about Toledo. It may be that simple for a lot of people.”
It’s fun to visit a place you saw on TV, regardless of how much you care about the characters. If Friends had been set in a real New York coffeeshop and not a fictional clubhouse, that probably would be overrun, too (as the lines for the Central Perk pop-up demonstrated). But there’s something about Master of None and Sex and the City specifically that does seem to inspire a kind of devoutness in a way other popular shows set in New York do not.
Like Friends, both are aspirational, offering a high-gloss version of NYC life where everyone has huge apartments and endless disposable income. But they also take risks by showing characters and situations that had never been seen on TV before. Dev chafes against the professional and religious expectations of his Indian immigrant parents, while his childhood best friend, a black woman, struggles with coming out as queer. Sex and the City offered one of the first portrayals of flawed women and openly discussed controversial topics like anal sex and masturbation.
In short, both shows found the sweet spot of fantasy and relatability, setting them apart from both the Gossip Girls of the world, which shows a wealthy New York so extreme it might as well be fictional, and programs like Girls and Broad City, which play up New York’s downsides, shitty apartments and sweaty nights and all. And because they’re about people in their 30s, not their 20s, they connect with an audience with more interest in (and money for) visiting higher-end restaurants.
It’s hard to imagine that Master of None will one day have the cultural influence of Sex and the City, which not only ushered in the cupcake craze, but also made sales for Manolo Blahnik shoes and Rabbit vibrators skyrocket — and briefly elevated the cosmopolitan before it succumbed to a backlash from which it’s still recovering. There probably won’t be a Master of None tour bus where everyone gets a taco and wanders around Storm King, the upstate sculpture park that Dev visits near the end of Season 2. (The museum does report an uptick in visitors this year, though they can’t prove correlation.) Ansari has yet to commit to a third season, and for all its popularity, the show still isn’t exactly mainstream.
But for those who watch it — the young people in cities — it has made a mark. Anecdotally, I’ve been part of several conversations that include a variation on the phrase, “Oh, that place was on Master of None,” and as a fan, I’m not immune to its influence. I recently had a drink at Westlight, the swank rooftop bar where Dev takes the dates he likes after the Four Horsemen in the dating episode. There was a line to get in, the 360-degree views of New York were incredible, and the rich-people-watching was superb, but the frisson of excitement I felt when I got out of the elevator was something more than that.
It was in the same feelings family as seeing a celebrity at the restaurant where you’re eating: a validation that you’re in a cool place to be. In this case, I knew already. I’d seen it on TV.