By Tom Frank
The patrons of foodlife, the popular multiethnic buffet restaurant in Water Tower Place, have no need for the hierarchy implied by capital letters. They are a distinctive bunch, to be sure--the restaurant's name always stands out from the crowd in insouciant italic type--but they are down to earth and democratic and in their world no one stands higher than anyone else. It's not just the logo that tells this tale, it's also the profusion of virtuous slogans hanging everywhere you look. Foodlifers are stewards of the panet, feelers of fine, caring emotions, sympathizers with the downtrodden, enemies of racism, and recyclers of every imaginable little thing. And though the weather in Chicago has warmed considerably since I first began eating amongst them back in January, they Foodlifers show no signs of shedding their fur coats or losing the telltale orange of their tanning-salon complexions.
Technically, Foodlife is a glorified version of the familiar shopping-mall food court, scaled up in price and pretense to match the affluent surroundings of Watertower Place. It offers all the usual food court fare, at predictably inflated prices that no doubt put it safely outside the budgets of the mall's various employees: hamburgers, pizza, burritos, stirfry, pasta. I have personally consumed the mysterious rice 'n' meat "wraps," the fake barbecue, and the chicken burrito; others of my acquaintance have grazed among the multi-grain, stir-fry, and puffy pizza options. To dispense with the subjective part quickly: however varied its appearance, the food at Foodlife is consistently lifeless and bland. The vegetarian offerings tasted, as one friend put it, like "a bagful of lawnmower clippings." As for the ribs, I am always suspicious of establishments that offer barbecued ribs as a curious ethnic novelty when the real thing is available, without irony or pretense, only a few miles away, and sure enough these were predictably disappointing. Nonetheless, Foodlife's barbecue seemed extremely popular on each of my visits, especially among the squads of European tourists who seem to gravitate to the place and for whom Foodlife's authenticity act may be very convincing.
But it's not the food that draws those long lines of diners to Foodlife, it's the life. Or, more precisely, the vision of life that the restaurant's designers have carefully assembled and about which they want you to make absolutely no mistake. Other Lettuce restaurants are, as a 1992 Business Week article puts it, "hip"; but Foodlife is all-out revolutionary, a veritable bombastatorium decorated with uplifting slogans and enlarged propaganda images like some Stalin-era edifice. The restaurant even has an official "credo," not some tired declaration of the virtues of the blue-plate special, but a fighting manifesto for our times, printed everywhere in humble and democratic lower case, of course: "be kind; eat true; it's now."
No doubt many imagine that patronizing Foodlife--and dining amidst the strident environmentalism, multiculturalism, and live-and-let-live spirit expressed in lower-case typography on every available surface--is a real progressive act of some kind; no doubt many conservatives shun the place as a den of political correctness. But what is most interesting about Foodlife is the total absence of conflict between its "credo" and the ideological requirements of global capitalism. What makes Foodlife such an effective upscale food court is the way it reinforces the thrilling fantasies of dissent so dear to the hearts of today's international business elite.
"be kind" Surely there's nothing wrong with being kind as a general principle, but Foodlife seems to have the German meaning of the word in mind: be a child. Foodlife's 'kindness' is a peculiar cross of environmentalism and New Age raised-consciousness bullshit, adding up to little more than total consumer passivity. Diners sit amongst peaceful concrete trees and plastic leaves, listening to soothing worldbeat music; renderings of globes appear throughout, as do references to FoodlifeUs massive recycling program and the healthiness of the establishment's victuals. Even the paper napkins are conspicuously brown, so you know theyUre recycled. And everywhere are the slogans, many of which are so irritating it's hard to look up from your plate: "simplicity, patience, compassion"; "stay balanced"; "laugh at yourself"; "everything you need for a happy life is within yourself"; "everyone is unique"; "eat green"; "do you know where you are on your journey?" The world is in crisis, but for Water Tower's progressives all that is required is a little of the kind of soul-searching that they write lite rock ballads about, that we consume green products rather than brown. As the caption of one photograph declares, "I have learned to be content in whatever state I am in." Words we fervently hope other people--especially those in states with anti-union laws--continue to live by.
"eat true" Foodlife is an upscale food court in an upscale mall populated by distinctly upscale shoppers. Its patrons hail almost exclusively from one social class--the one on top. But everywhere one looks at Foodlife, one encounters images of another social class--the one on the very, very bottom. Peasants are everywhere, on every table, printed on every cup, staring from walls on all sides. They are wise peasants, too, docile adherents to the Foodlife credo, engaged in backbreaking labor but still in harmony with the primal rhythms of the earth. Could it be that peasants are so prevalent at Foodlife because Foodlifers, like their aristocratic forebears, like to keep an eye on the poor while they consume their expensive treats? Partially. But the real appeal of the peasantry is its symbolic embodiment of that most cherished object of consumer desire--authenticity. Peasants "eat true," or at least they did once. Today, of course, peasant foods are strictly rich people's foods, the province of gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods and Treasure Island, while real peasants, who earn even less than the wage slaves toiling in Foodlife's kitchens, eat white bread and Twinkies.
"it's now" Obviously it is "now," but according to Foodlife it's always been now; there simply is no past--and no future, either ("the future is not tomorrow...itUs now" reads one slogan). Like American consumerism generally, Foodlife offers a glimpse of life cut loose from the surly bonds of time and place, with all cultures and all civilizations turned into products as accessible as the mellow noodlings of Sting coming over the PA system or a ladle of mashed potato plopped onto a plastic plate. Naturally this is presented as a great liberation: "you can't change the past...but you can LET IT GO," asserts one of the few Foodlife slogans to use capital letters. And just next door is a case in point: the Mity Nice Grill, a 1940s-themed Lettuce Entertain You restaurant which wanders as blithely and as bemusedly through history as Foodlife does through the cultures of the world.
None of Foodlife's pseudo-lefty cheerleading, of course, is very convincing for very long. Despite the racks of environmentalist literature that help to make up its authenticity decor, one doubts that this has been the site of very many conversions to the Sacred Cause of Reform. The real genius of Foodlife is the curious role it plays in Watertower Place as a whole: here, in the very citadel of American consumerism one finds a non-stop gastronomical celebration of just those qualities that consumerism is often accused of having trampled into the dirt of every nation on earth.
Lettuce Entertain You has perfected the high-concept restaurant and made a fortune with the understanding that the dining experience is as much about fantasy as it is about food. At Ed Debevic's (which the company opened but no longer operates), it's 1955 and you're a teenager again, scarfing burgers and milkshakes in the type of diner that sells condoms in the bathroom; at Maggiano's you've stumbled off a New York street into a checkered-tablecloth clam bar where corpulent mafia guys eat spaghetti and meatballs with napkins tucked under their chins. But the Foodlife fantasy is of a different order of magnitude, approaching a full blown ideology. The Foodlife fantasy not only erases the reverses the economic reality upon which Water Tower Place is built. Here after a full day of immersion in the conmsumerist dream, Foodlife reassures shoppers that it's all OK, that they are in fact helping the environment by eating off unbleached paper napkins, and that they're celebrating human diversity by enjoying a Mex-Thai crepe. Here you can set down your bags of shoes and sweaters and cunning electronic toys without a twinge of guilt about the Third World sweatshops where they were made; you can enjoy a cappucino and a wholesome, tasty multigrain muffin and commune with the peasants who picked the coffee beans and the immigrants in the kitchen. Even the relationship between customer and restaurateur is obscured by Foodlife's payment scheme, which banishes the exchange of money to a cashier's booth safely distant from the dining room. When they enter the restaurant patrons are given a plastic card upon which the various food stations track their debt. Until they are ready to leave the fantasy and reenter the reality outside, everyone eats for free.
All here is green, multicultural harmony, a seamless, hypnotic homage to the virtue of the elite, a soothing declaration by the people at the top of the economic food chain that all's right with the world. It's a fantasy that will become increasingly popular as the rich get richer and the poor get madder. You could sum it up in lowercase letters on a banner made from recycled paper: relax. enjoy yourself. don't worry. you're not hurting anyone.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.