A 3-foot-tall pepper grinder and giant ’roni cups, caviar on everything and cheese pulls designed to be filmed, butter service and the return of big, shared cocktails. The ostentatious, performative elements popping up at restaurants nationwide certainly are a lot of fun. But, of course, we might also ask ourselves: Why have restaurants become venues for these kinds of theatrics? In fact, might all this fun be undergirded by a theoretical framework tied to, say, our existential ennui? Perhaps it’s unfettered capitalism! Or cultural decline! Or maybe it’s just the turning tides of consumer aesthetics! We asked five experts from different disciplines to speculate about why maximalism is hitting so hard right now.
1. Decadence is a countercultural response to generalized anxiety about the decline of society.
— Alice Condé, lecturer in English and creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-deputy director of the Decadence Research Center
Decadence is often thought of as inherently hedonistic, and it certainly has that element to it. People often think: drink, drugs, and debauchery. But I would say there’s also a very intellectual component to it. It’s not simply hedonism for hedonism’s sake. It’s a very philosophical consideration of where we derive pleasure and enjoyment from. There is — and there was in the 19th century — a turning back to Greek and Roman empires, to that luxury of a Roman banquet and feast which was itself associated with a feeling of decline and degeneration.
In the Western tradition, decadence is always associated with these moments of cultural and social transition. At the turn of the 20th century, it particularly reached a fever pitch out of a fear about the decline of empire. And then, around the turn of the millennium, the dawn of Y2K, there was a renewed interest in Decadent Studies, because again, there was cultural fear of mass disruption. What if the planes fall out of the sky? What if everything goes wrong? What if we lose all of this momentum that we’ve built up toward the end of the 20th century?
Decadence is also a response to boredom or “ennui” — world-weariness. In a world where people may be bored by what they’ve already seen and experienced before, they’re looking in new directions for cuisine and decor that might be “shocking” or controversial — some kind of antidote to everyday malaise — as well as being self-indulgent at a time when we may feel we’ve been lacking in ways to indulge, post-pandemic and in a time of financial insecurity. I would argue that we find ourselves in a very decadent moment now and in response to similar fears. We celebrate all of that luxury and excess at these moments precisely because we feel that we’re at a tipping point and we could be facing complete decline.
2. The rise of maximalist restaurants is part of a long post-recessionary cycle of corporate capitalism and rising consumer expectations.
— Alison Pearlman, professor of art history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and author of May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion
In the United States, there is a long-term pattern of maximalism in restaurants appearing after periods of economic recession. The trend is most pronounced beginning in the late 1990s, after the recession of the early 1990s. That’s when the elements that define this current moment converge: the expansion of corporate fine dining groups, and a large-enough public that’s interested in novel, but not overly cerebral, gourmet dining experiences.
This period saw the opening of big, splashy restaurants like New York’s Balthazar in 1997 and a grander, more-futuristic version of Le Cirque called Le Cirque 2000 (which opened in 1997). Consider also the first iteration of the extremely successful Tao, which opened on 58th Street [in NYC] in 2000. Opened in a former movie theater, it was almost as large as a street block, had multiple levels, and a 16-foot gilt Buddha sculpture as the focal point of its soaring interior. One of the common threads here is the attempt to merge nightclub and restaurant genres, boosting the mood for baller spending on liquor sales.
This cycle repeated itself after the 2001 dot-com bust, followed by 9/11. Between the mid-00s and 2008, restaurants like the spectacular Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles and the gigantic Del Posto in New York emerged. We see the same pattern after the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. We got a whole bunch of these places: Beauty and Essex opened in 2010, Tao Downtown in 2013, Vandal in 2016.
The recessionary periods are when you get more pared-down concepts. What’s so interesting about those moments, though, is that the food level stays up and so do the public’s expectations around food. Because that’s happening through more casual places; the audience for gourmet dining only expands for when circumstances cycle upward.
The most recent recession was because of COVID. Now, we’re seeing these big-production places that feature performance elements like tableside service or pouring something onto your dish that you can videotape. Of course, social media is an exacerbating factor; there’s the degree to which consumers are filming things. But you also have a public that’s more aware of restaurants and gourmet dining than ever, and so, harder to surprise. Restaurants have to up the experience to provide novelty.
3. Maximalism is an extension of our evolving patterns of media consumption, an endless scroll of information, images, and ideas that makes us feel there’s no need to choose.
— Machine Dazzle, costume and set designer and performance artist
The intense way we consume knowledge, information, images, ideas, and communicate because of unlimited access via online and social media sources is an indirect — but obvious — factor in contemporary maximalist behavior. We scroll and scroll — more, more, more. It simply becomes us. Never before have we had so much at our fingertips. It’s obsessive, it’s “normal,” it’s who we currently are.
Embracing maximalism is just a great way to have it all. It’s like, How can I do everything that I’ve ever wanted to do in a lifetime? There’s all these bucket lists, and instead of choosing one thing, why not choose everything? Perhaps it’s like experiencing it all, having it all, tasting all the flavors, doing all the things before you die — or while you’re here, watching the earth die before your eyes and maybe somehow wanting everything before it goes away.
4. Consumers are prioritizing spending on maximalist experiences, such as restaurants, where the sense of maximalism might justify spending.
— Freeman Wu, professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University
What is interesting to me is that this wave of maximalism is occurring at the same time when consumer research indicates a trend toward its opposite, toward a preference for minimalism. In a recent paper, Silvia Bellezza, an associate professor of business in marketing at Columbia Business School, makes the argument that though conspicuous consumption — as in, being very flashy, decked out in Louis Vuitton and Gucci — has traditionally been a hallmark of status, the rise of modern mass production has made material abundance lose its value as a status signal. The abundance of possessions that used to be a badge of distinction no longer offers the same prestige, so the wealthy turn toward minimalism, like the Marie Kondo effect, and less conspicuous consumption.
Maybe it’s that while there’s this trend for preferring a more minimalist aesthetic when it comes to your own physical possessions, consumers still prefer opulence and abundance when it comes to experiences, where they’re now spending more money. Consumers seem to associate maximalism with tastiness and with enjoyment. This suggests another theory: With maximalism, you’re seeing all the effort that the restaurant is putting in to curate this experience for you, so it justifies what you’re spending on the experience.
5. Decades of emphasis on simplicity and minimalism have primed us for a resurgence of maximalist Italian cuisine.
— Ian MacAllen, author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American
Italian cuisine is having its own Western culture dominance right now, in the way French cuisine did for hundreds of years. One of the reasons for that — and this Italian maximalism — is the transition of Italian Americans from an ethnic group to part of the white majority.
Early Italian American dishes, like veal Parmesan and lobster fra diavolo, were maximalist dishes for their time. Immigrants were taking the bounty of America — meat and cheese — and turning celebration meals into everyday cuisine. But 100 years ago, people were like, “Oh, those garlic eaters,” and Italian food was a very ethnic food to people of Northern European descent in America. Italian immigrants were laborers, factory workers, and coal miners. The perception was their food was unsophisticated, and the earliest Italian restaurants in America literally operated out of the owners’ homes.
Over time, Italians and Italian food have been accepted by that white majority. As Italian food becomes more integrated into mainstream society, where every corner store and every strip mall in America has a pizzeria, “sophisticated” Italian dining becomes more simplified over time. Beginning in the 1970s and going through the 2010s, restaurants and chefs were interested in “northern Italian” and “authentic Italian.” Both are made-up terms. It’s the Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich era: “I went to a grandmother’s kitchen to learn how to make pasta.” Everything was twee and simple — pasta made with nothing but sage and butter.
The maximalist Italian restaurant now is a reaction to that wave of modern Italian food. I’m not surprised to see us coming back to this period where we’re really embracing the over-the-top interpretation of Italian food. It seems very natural to go back to that after a period of time where you’re looking at the most simple flavors and embracing the rustic, country style. As a lover of red sauce, I’m glad to see some of these places bringing back classic Italian American foods and turning them into something that’s even fancier than they were originally. Places like Don Angie are making those traditional red sauce recipes fancier and more upscale.
Still, restaurants like Bamonte’s and Rao’s are getting fewer and fewer, and as you concentrate that into fewer restaurants, the ones that remain can charge more money. They’re more profitable and more likely to survive, but also when something becomes scarce, it becomes desirable.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein