Too Much Information

I just spent $8.16 on a hot dog and soda for lunch. Granted, this was a really good—nay I say delicious—hot dog. Nestled in a toasty, buttery, slightly undersized bun, this dog curled slightly upward at the ends, like one of those perfectly drawn wieners in an old-timey ad. It had the same kind of snap I associate with those old-fashioned hot dogs and was topped with a fresh tasting chili sauce, onions and mustard.  My soda on the side was no ordinary fountain mix, but a glass-bottled Foxton’s birch beer.

Sure, the counter clerk could have warned me that the soda was diet (yeech). I could overlook the lapse because I was already overloaded with information, having perused the tabletop Operational Resources card while waiting for my order. I’m a firm believer in knowing where one’s hot dog comes from, if not the full extent of what’s actually in it. So I appreciate the card’s listing of the source. But do I really need to know the provenance of the buns, the dairy products and the dry goods used by this establishment? (Props, though, to their use of King Arthur Flour) Or who supplies their eco-friendly cleaning supplies? It’s nice to know that the interior is made of reclaimed pine and the used cooking oil is recycled into biofuel, but if I really wanted to know who handles the commercial recycling I’d track down the owners. Ditto the person responsible for the signage and branding, the graphic designers, web site designer, and Con Ed Solutions for wind power.

At what point, exactly, did we go from getting a bit of education about where menu items come from (the Berkshire pork or the heirloom tomatoes), to a de rigueur listing of the origin of not just every leaf of lettuce in the salad, but every stick of wood used in the restaurant design—not to mention who is responsible for the whole shebang?

The practice has crept from white-cloth locavore restaurants to take-out places. I noticed it a year or so ago with the opening of the latest new-wave yogurt shop in the neighborhood. A friend and I popped in to see what it was all about. We were bowled over all right, but less by the yogurt than by the overwhelming sense of eco-responsibility the experience entailed, as signage throughout the storefront informed us of the sustainability of materials used in the design, the corn-based utensils and recycled paper containers we were given. Standing in front of the complex trash system, with slots for various categories, my friend confessed. “It’s all making me nervous. Just tell me where to put my trash!”

Her words came back to me as I stood in front of a similar trash disposal system after polishing off my hot dog (and opting to take my glass Foxton’s soda bottle home. This frugal girl is getting her five-cent deposit back on bottles these days—dragging them to the grocery store). I applaud any efforts to sort restaurant trash. But all the signage, credits and sourcing of materials struck me as less of an overeager chef’s education of diners than a wholesale branding effort. Bark, the haute hot dog palace in question here, has less the earmarks of a hip local hangout where they happen to make exceptional hot dogs, than a fully formed restaurant concept that could be spun into a city-wide chainlet or national franchise.

But it’s working for Bark. The restaurant has gotten quite a bit of press attention, with the resulting pilgrimage of foodies from around NYC to this corner of Brooklyn. (The woman behind me in line offered to the counter clerk that she’d spent an hour on the subway just getting there). But sometimes it’s nice to encounter places where owners and chefs are doing the same things, in a quieter manner. Palo Santo, on Union Street, has an interior filled with cast-off wood reclaimed from construction sites and dumpsters; the menu of a wonderful French restaurant nearby simply lists “roast chicken,” yet regulars know it’s not the average mass-produced bird but the product of local farmers.

Yes, my hot dog at Bark was delicious. Was it good value? I usually weigh the extra price paid for sustainable, responsibly sourced meals against the knowledge that I can better control my diet.  But in more and more of the precious places opening in Park Slope, it’s starting to feel less like an informed dining choice than a decision to participate in something faddish. I do know is that my $8 hot dog and soda lunch left me really hungry after a couple of hours, same as the swamp-water dog and Coke gulped down outside the Guggenheim on a hot summer day. Just not as nauseous. I wish I’d gotten the fries.