“Why are there so few good restaurants?”
I think that may not be the right question to be asking.
It depends on what the restaurant’s purpose is, and on what demand it is meeting. Arguably, it can be said that a restaurant is good when its customers determine that it is good, and when it is turning a profit. Who’s to say, otherwise, whether the food, service, and ambience are good? It’s relative. Again, when customers like a place, keep it busy, and enable the owner to turn a profit, it’s a good restaurant.
I was thinking, as someone who prefers not to eat in restaurants unless I’m in a place where I cannot cook, what others want from restaurants. Few people prefer cooking at home, few people know how to cook restaurant quality food, and few people can cook so efficiently that eating at home is easy.
The frequent diners I know have helped a variety of restaurants profit.
You have the restaurants that cater to a business crowd: Service is swift, unobtrusive, and VIP driven. The food is costly, the setting has exclusivity in product and seating.
Then there’s the romantic restaurant of which there are three types:
First or early dating: Cocktail driven, lots of wine, beers from microbreweries and Belgium, appetizers, and often raw fish or unusual ingredients.
Night Out/babysitter places: Quiet, big entrees, familiar service.
Long-term relationships: Comfort food, good wine list, long dessert menus.
Finally, there are fast food establishments. To paraphrase the great Willie Sutton: Get in, get the food, get out. The aim is immediate satisfaction, not creating memories. It’s the working class version of the Here and Now, which I crave.
Missing in the equations of each place are restaurants driven by a need to surprise, raise the bar, and cook food that has its own importance. Not to say that doesn’t happen in the restaurants described, but, believe me, foods isn’t the point at these places. They wouldn’t stay in business if they followed a business plan where food is center stage. I know, ironic, right? But the most important restaurants of the past few decades in the U.S.–Chez Panisse, Zuni, The French Laundry, Daniel, Esca, Le Bernadin, Babbo, etc.–are not good by the standards noted. They are great.