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Why Restaurants Are Going Retro to Recapture Our Attention

Get ready for more waiters dressed like penguins.

Baked Alaska at Nomad Las Vegas Dylan + Jeni

America may be living through a golden age of food, but for a restaurant to succeed, great food is no longer enough. To pry diners from their Seamless apps, some renowned chefs are recapturing the cuisine, comfort and theatricality of midcentury American restaurants, making tableside preparations, flaming desserts and waiters dressed like penguins in vogue again. It’s the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction after a decade of dining where it became cool to remove the table cloths, turn all the attention of the restaurant toward the chef, and strip down service bare. “I miss that part of dining where you feel coddled,” says chef Michael Symon, who recently opened Sara’s in Las Vegas. “The servers have a bit of that European flair where they know how to fillet a fish and finish a dessert tableside.”

Nostalgic for the days when dinner seemed so much grander than just what was on the plate, Thomas Keller recently opened the Surf Club Restaurant in Surfside, Fla., and TAK Room in New York’s Hudson Yards. “I’ve always loved the restaurants of that period in American history after World War II,” says Keller. “Places like the Stork Club, Brown Derby and Blue Fox. It was about the interaction. It was about the excitement. It was a social occasion.”

For Mario Carbone and Major Food Group, whose remaking of New York’s old Four Seasons space into The Grill in 2017 helped jump-start the reembrace of continental cuisine, it’s also about ceding some control back to the diner. “A customer can say, ‘No, I don’t want horseradish,’” Carbone says. “It takes a little pomp and circumstance away from the chef going, ‘This is who I am and this is how I made it,’ and gives it back to the customer by saying, ‘How would you like it?’ and that resonates with people these days.”

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