For Alison Pearlman, an art historian and associate professor in the art department, restaurants present a complicated yet rewarding object to study.
Pearlman’s book, “Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America,” looks at the role of restaurants as conveyors of class values and interests and discusses how gourmet restaurants have transformed since the mid-1970s to appear more casual.
Pearlman said this interest in restaurants started at a young age when her family would bring her to such eateries as Hippopotamus Hamburger on Van Ness Street in San Francisco.
“From my child’s points of view, they were magical places,” Pearlman said.
“I saw the purple-clad happy abstraction of a hippopotamus that greeted me at the entrance of Hippopotamus Hamburger, one of my favorite places, and saw the job I first wanted when I grew up. As an adult, I learned that the magic I found then was the product of real labor. The hippo was probably hot in his costume and making minimum wage.”
But this improved understanding didn’t make the restaurants unappealing to Pearlman, especially when she gained an appreciation for interpreting culture.
“The visible spectrum of restaurants is vast. It also plays a decisive role in the consumer experience, the marketing and the ultimate social significance of this ubiquitous cultural institution,” Pearlman says.
For the past seven years, Pearlman has studied this visible culture of restaurants to better grasp the meaning of their designs, especially menus, websites, dress codes, composition of food on plates and even plates themselves.
“Smart Casual” examines changes in the restaurant experience, especially a newfound openness to exhibition kitchens, tweaking of foods to make them appear more common and a relaxation of dress codes.
This resulted, in part, from influential new consumers with different lifestyle demands as well as the changes to how restaurants are ranked and chefs recognized. Pearlman stresses that standards have been changing shape but not diminishing.
Published by the University of Chicago, “Smart Casual” also provides a recent history of the restaurant experience, starting from when maitre d’s played the most important role in restaurants around the 1950s to the increased interest in culinary excellence and the foodie culture of today.
“Like art-world institutions, restaurants can be sharp definers of social hierarchy. We all know that restaurants can be exclusive: on the basis of financial capital (prices can prohibit); in terms of cultural capital (insufficient education in menus and manners can intimidate); and by social capital (not being well connected may keep one from the prized table or just getting through the door),” Pearlman says.
“Paradoxically, restaurants can also offer refuge from class constraints elsewhere in society. For socializing, the restaurant provides an alternative setting to the home. This can be equalizing. In the restaurant, all diners have servants. Other people worry about decorating the place and keeping it clean. There, as opposed to at home, we can be our most appealing social selves without fear of being upstaged by humbling truths about our circumstances.”