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Op-Ed: Smorgasburg Embodies Everything That’s Wrong With NYC Dining Right Now

The trendy foods are everywhere, but there’s nowhere to sit and enjoy them

Perhaps you’ve heard of Smorgasburg? It’s a Saturday-only pop-up food court on the Brooklyn waterfront where everything’s under $15 but you have to wait in a shadeless mosh pit for sometimes up to an hour for hamburgers with ramen buns and cakes that look like water. Tables and chairs aren’t part of the equation, unless you enter the "bar," which is a sectioned-off corner of the sweltering concrete — controlled by a bouncer — where alcohol is dispensed from a shipping container. A French camera crew is filming a TV segment across the street. Most of the people waiting with you aren’t old enough to rent a car, and some of them are visiting Brooklyn for the first time. Welcome to Brooklyn’s #1 artisanal food attraction!


I’m not the target audience for Smorgasburg — neither the Williamsburg original nor the Prospect Park spinoff — primarily because I like visiting actual restaurants. And as the editor of Eater NY, I spend most of my free time popping in and out of dining establishments of all shapes and sizes across the city. I’ll try any place once, but I tend to gravitate toward restaurants with clearly distinct personalities. I’m thinking specifically about the city’s pizzerias, greasy spoons, steakhouses, noodle parlors, neighborhood cafes, and faded bistros, plus whatever Stephen Starr or Keith McNally just opened. I think a good restaurant is a place that takes you out of your head for a minute, and makes you just a little bit excited about living in this sprawling metropolis.

In my eyes Smorgasburg has no personality. Or rather, it has a personality that doesn’t chart with me, because I find it obnoxious and frustrating in equal measure. In spirit and execution, it’s like a frat party with fancy mozzarella sticks and Nutella pizzas.

Look around the sun-baked tarmac and you will see mostly people in their early 20s clad in sporty attire, roaming around in packs, chuckling, flirting, Instagramming, and scanning the scene for the next thing that might catch their fancy. They share the space with vendors peddling their wares in spartan conditions — no sinks, no A.C., no walk-ins. Surely, these upstart chefs and restaurateurs are doing some fun and/or interesting things with food. But their work is upstaged by the raucous crowds, punishing conditions, and overall chaotic vibe of the fairgrounds.

Aside from being a nuisance, Smorgasburg is emblematic of a huge trend in NYC dining right now that really bums me out. And that’s a cultural shift away from dining and toward acquiring food.

The scene at Smorgasburg last Saturday

Premium delivery services, which offer all of the food with none of the dining room, are more popular than ever right now. Some very succesful restaurateurs, like David Chang, are even launching restaurants that have no physical spaces whatsoever.

In the last six months in particular, we’ve also seen restaurants all across the city changing their menus to include uber-trendy items that millennial foodies fixate on — like grain bowls, poke, and that ultimate snoozer of a dish, avocado toast.

New York City is now rife with food halls — including the one crammed inside the Williamsburg Whole Foods — that offer a wide array of food options that you can eat in punishingly uncomfortable spaces. The trade-off is that you can consume covetable treats from all over the city without having to actually travel to different neighborhoods, or enter places that might make you feel like an outsider. And nowhere is that more true than at Smorgasburg, the Epcot Center version of NYC's independent food scene.

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