Some restaurants try to have a little something for everyone.
They aim for a wide audience by giving the people what they want. It’s the Cheesecake Factory with its exhaustive, globe-trotting, genre-straddling menu, or the new small plates dining that gives a nod to every passing trend. All that variety can please a crowd while stretching a kitchen thin. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the tyranny of tasting menus. The inviolable procession of courses doesn’t presume to appeal widely, and even the most receptive diners will find misses among the hits.
The growing ranks of one-dish restaurants go their own way, expanding on the greatness of a single, much-loved dish.
The most successful single-subject restaurants focus on a dish with mass appeal, often a classic comfort food like macaroni and cheese or meatballs. There might be multiple variations and a few side dishes and embellishments to spice things up, but the main attraction is where it’s at, and it’s probably safe to say that most customers of Potatopia aren’t there for the side salad.
All those eggs are in just one basket.
A one-dish restaurant needs to achieve excellence through its specialization. That single dish better be flawlessly prepared because there’s nothing else for the kitchen to hide behind.
Here are some of the restaurants that are singing just one note, and some of them are even making beautiful music:
There’s luscious coconut pudding, butterscotch pudding, chocolate pudding, and tapioca at New York’s Puddin’. They probably make a pretty good rice pudding too, but wouldn’t you rather go a few blocks further downtown to the rice pudding specialists at the single-dish Rice to Riches?
Meatballs are universally and perennially loved; the kind of homey humble dish that is rarely stylish but always in style. They’re at home in soup, on a sandwich, atop pasta, or stuffed in rice paper, grape leaves, or dumpling wrappers. They’re practically tailor-made for the one-dish concept. That must be why we need a national ranking of the best all-meatball restaurants.
Macaroni and cheese is another dish that never seems to fall out of favor or fashion. Some restaurants try to reinvent it with luxe and modern ingredients, but the best are those that barely tweak the classic recipe. Maybe that’s why so many of the mac and cheese specialists aim for distinction through an establishment’s name, resulting in places like S’Mac, Mac Attack, Elbows, Mac & Cheese 101, Mac Daddy’s, and the nostalgic Homeroom. Close cousin grilled cheese has inspired more than its share of punnily-named one-dish cafés. There’s Ms. Cheezious, C’est Cheese, Meltdown, and the Star Wars-themed grilled cheese truck The Grillenium Falcon.
Southerners and Midwesterners are always shocked to learn that casseroles are much maligned in coastal culinary circles. They’re a mainstay in much of the country where they even have their own nickname of ‘hot dish,’ a generic term that includes everything from tuna-noodle to tamale pie. Wherever the casserole is held in high regard you’re likely to find the all-hot dish establishments like Illinois’ mini chain Johnny Casserole and Georgia’s Casseroles. Minnesotans can choose between the traditional (Hot Dish) and the contemporary (Haute Dish).
There’s a hummusiya or all-hummus restaurant in Philadelphia and a risotteria or all-risotta restaurant in New York. It’s cold cereal only at Cereality, hot cereal straight through to dinner time at Oatmeals, and San Francisco’s The Mill serves nothing but toast, where its rarefied all-toast format became an instant parable and parody of the city’s latest crop of shallow, callow tech millionaires with their overheated consumerism.
One-hit wonders? One-trick ponies?
Some of the one-dish restaurants will certainly die off, but a strong concept that’s well executed can live on. And the next wave is already on the horizon: look for two-dish restaurants like Tom + Chee (tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches), BubbleDogs (hot dogs and champagne), and Burger & Lobster, whose name needs no explanation but it could use a rationale.