Is Fun Dining Dead? Do or Dine's Chefs Ponder the End of Absurdity in NYC Restaurants
Do or Dine co-chefs Justin Warner, left, and George McNeese
Courtesy Do or Dine
When it comes to the New York City restaurant industry right now, "Comfort is king," says Do or Dine (1108 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-684-2290) co-chef Justin Warner. "Two or three years ago, I would have said fun is king. But the highest-rated food in Brooklyn right now is Chuko Ramen. It's comforting."
So what, exactly, does that mean for Do or Dine? The Bedford-Stuyvesant restaurant may very well have been the king of fun when it opened. A certain lawlessness permeates the dining room and the backyard, where Warner says some drinkers perched with a keg of beer back when the place was still BYOB, and the punny menu is littered with dishes like a foie gras doughnut, Nippon nachos made with wonton shells, and "chicken and woffals," a play on chicken and waffles that matches the waffle to chicken liver.
And founders Warner, Perry Gargano, Luke Jackson, and George McNeese (Warner's co-chef) are well-known for their pranks: They ran David Chang's original Momofuku menu for their first anniversary dinner — and pissed off the chef in the process — and once served what they called an "Open Face Sandwich" in homage to the Florida homeless man who attacked a fellow vagrant and ate his face. "It was on the menu for 41 minutes," says McNeese. "Then we took it down and apologized" — to the hordes of aghast diners.
There was also the Underfinger pop-up last year, a collaboration with the bloggers from The Infatuation. The bloggers posted a review of a (fictitious) secret Chinatown restaurant called Underfinger, supposedly helmed by a Danish chef who served seahorse sashimi and a charcuterie glove. Do or Dine got in touch with the writers, who admitted it was a joke, and brought the restaurant to life, serving a $150 prix fixe menu that included both of the aforementioned dishes served on plates made with Legos. "Two people got up and left," says Warner. "It was just not congruous with human existence. But that's how we knew we were doing something right. The other people got it and had the time of their life."
While they've made an indelible mark on this city's dining scene through their antics, the founders of Do or Dine never really wanted a restaurant. They really wanted to open a neighborhood bar, but since the liquor license process moved slowly, they began serving food so as to lure people in for a lax BYOB setup. Besides the keg drinkers, the place initially attracted serious wine collectors; both Warner and McNeese worked front of the house at the Modern, and they kept a collection of paraphernalia that allowed them to properly pour rare and delicate bottles.
Neither of them had ever cooked professionally, but they built a menu of dishes that were meant to shock diners. I remember a caesar salad that was affixed to its serving board with a knife. A foie gras doughnut doesn't sound so radical now, but at the time, it fomented a PETA protest that filled the restaurant's inbox with hate mail. The effect? "We originally sold about six a day," says McNeese. After the protest hit the press, that number spiked to twentysomething.
The thing is, strange and gimmicky as it was, the food was good, and so in the process of making a name for themselves — which built on Warner's then recent win on the show The Next Food Network Star — Do or Dine also became a neighborhood destination for an area that had been starved for good restaurants. "We were a haunt," Warner says. "People were here day in and day out. There were neighborhood regulars who were like, 'Thank God we can get something great in the neighborhood.' And then there were service industry regulars who would come in and slap hands."
Bed-Stuy is changing, though, and so is the food industry — and that means so is Do or Dine. "Now we explain the joke more and more," says Warner. And McNeese says the way he thinks about dishes has evolved: "In the beginning, we'd start with a pun and try to make it edible; now we start with the food." That's part of staying relevant, he says — continuing to keep the menu fresh is pertinent to survival.
Warner says this shift is happening across the industry. "We've seen a tiny implosion in the past couple of years," he says. "People got bludgeoned by foodie-ness and foodism. I think people want to not go to the hip place, and to not stand in lines. People are like, 'Forget that, let's go get Seamless.' After dodging the bristle — that's what I call the broom that sweeps you out of New York and back to the Midwest — all day, do you really want to have an American Apparel–clad hostess tell you it's not happening tonight?"
And the media, McNeese believes, is fueling it: "We'd make more of an impact if we did a Girls-themed menu," he says. "We'd get more hits if we did something du jour. We're a little saturated with the status quo."
Transitioning or no, Do or Dine keeps humming along, and its owners are continuing to make future plans. McNeese would like to launch a hot-sauce label — "I need funding," he offers — and Warner will keep ramping up his television commitments. In the future, Warner would also like to be "the lone nut," he says, and open a place somewhere that serves something simple, like barbecue or pasta, only during the daytime, from opening until it's gone. "I'd love to be a food critic, but, like, in Rapid City, South Dakota," he adds.
Warner also has a cookbook coming out in the fall, which is separate from Do or Dine but follows a similar vein of reasoning. "It's about the laws of cooking and how to break them," he says. "I developed eleven laws, which are foods we make for ourselves. 'These foods follow the law, and here's why they work.' Then there's a segment at the end that says, 'Here's a way you can do it that shatters the law.' So it's about how to make good, approachable food, and then how to make insane food. It's sort of National Geographic versus Jerry Springer — how stimulated do you want to be?"
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.