OPINIONFood

What restaurants can learn from this 'Girl Power' summer

Nancy Kruse and Lisa Jennings talk girl dinners and why it's a good idea to leave your gender stereotypes at the door.
Cherlato Truck
Yes, Cher is launching a gelato truck in Los Angeles. | Photo courtesy of Cherlato.

Nancy:

Wow, Lisa, this has really turned out to be the summer of Girl Power—or perhaps I should say Grrrrrl Power—as Hollywood trade paper Variety gushed that the blockbuster movie hit Barbie has become the highest-grossing domestic release in Warner Bros. decades-long studio history. And it was directed by a woman!

But wait, there’s more. Sure, Barbie provided inspiration for more than 200+ pink-hued menu specials, but Toast reports that Taylor Swift single handedly drove a 25% increase in year-over-year traffic for all Nashville-area restaurants during her three-day concert run in that city.

Meanwhile, Cher recently jumped in bed, in the business sense, with a New Zealand gelato maker. The resulting Cherlato truck, yep, that’s the name, will be cruising the streets of Los Angeles and dishing out flavors like Snap Out of It! My question: do those little tinkling bells play her anthemic “If I Could Turn Back Time”?

Anyway, these demonstrations of female clout bring me to the subject of the “girl dinner.” Do you know about this? The phenomenon started, of course, on TikTok, and by the time the New York Times got wind of it last month, the paper said the trend had had more than 30 million views. 

That’s a lot of looks for what the Times describes as “an aesthetically pleasing Lunchable…an artfully arranged pile of snacks….It’s no preparation, just vibes.” As a certified kitchen klutz, that’s speaking my language, but I wonder what you think?

You know your way around a cooktop, plus you live in a largely male household, no? So, can you feed your menfolk “girl dinners”? Or is that just the wrong vibe?

Lisa:

No, Nancy, it’s true that I live in the land of men, growing up with only brothers and having only sons, and a husband who sadly refused to learn to cook—like, anything. His culinary skill does not extend beyond a microwave reheat and, despite his doctorate, he only recently learned how to turn on the toaster without setting it to “air fry.”

That husband and my two very tall (and apparently bottomless) sons are regulars for dinner and expect their meat-and-two (plus salad). As a cook, I’m usually happy to provide, but how I do love those nights when I don’t have to cook for them, and then it’s just the dogs and me, a nice glass of wine and my “girl dinner,” which usually involves cheese/bread/olives, in some combination, with the occasional straight-out-of-the-jar addition of an anchovy, roasted red pepper or pickled whatever.

And if that Cherlato truck is outside, you know where I’ll be for dessert.

But, to me, the true attraction of a girl dinner is not only ease of prep but that dinner can be just a little nibble of something good, and this is the “girl” thing I wish restaurants would figure out, and I’m talking to you, Chipotle/Sweetgreen/Cava.

It’s time we stopped offering food only in portions that would serve a family of five in any other country.

Many of us—and not just girls—cannot and should not eat these giant bowls of food in one sitting. And we also should not be relegated to kid’s meal offerings, which are limited. And, no, we don’t want a chocolate milk with that.

I am amused (and inspired!) by the Chipotle value hacks that are all over TikTok, which involve ordering the kid’s quesadilla with sides (most of which are free), giving you the ability to essentially create a whole additional bowl. The price might be right, but it’s still too much food, and you know leftovers get tossed in the trash where it rots, causes climate change and soon we’ll all drown in a flood of melted glaciers.

Why not offer half sizes for adults who don’t want to spend half the day in a food coma (or throw away half of the lunch they paid for)?

And this is not just a fast-casual thing.

It seems the steakhouse segment is going gangbusters, post-pandemic, and we’re hearing more brands trying to shake off the very male-focused stereotype of scotch, wood paneling and cigars, accompanied by giant hunks of bloody cow flesh doused with butter. I had the pleasure of dining at a Steak 48 recently, and I was pleased to see a very diverse clientele (albeit extremely wealthy). But, once again, portions were ginormous, and if you’re going to tell me your brand is female-friendly, then give me options that don’t have to go home later in a box (only to be overly air-fried by my husband the next day).

As a woman, Nancy, do you find the modern steakhouse more appealing?

Nancy:

Wait, what? Drowning in a sea of melted glaciers with giant hunks of bloody cow flesh for sustenance? Good grief, Lisa, this is positively apocalyptic. Catastrophic imagery aside, though, you raise some good points; because the larger issue of portion size, whether in a fast-casual operation, a “female-friendly” steakhouse or any points in between, has bedeviled the business for decades.

Do you remember some years back when the officious killjoys at the Center for Science in the Public Interest would issue doom-laden warnings about diners’ favorite dishes? The language was deliberately incendiary: We’re talking “heart attack on a plate” stuff here. Yeah, yeah, they were headline grabbers for sure, but they also laid bare one of CSPI’s biggest shortcomings, which was that these “scientists” were woefully ignorant of the public whose interest they professed to serve. 

As good American consumers, many of us still equate value with size or amount. It’s in our collective DNA, as we drive our really big vehicles from our really big houses in search of really big slabs of, well, bloody cow flesh. And woe be to the restaurateur who fails to meet our out-sized expectations. 

In fact, The Cheesecake Factory, a frequent target of CSPI’s tiresome badgering, did some research on the whole question. To no one’s surprise, they found that their patrons damn well expected portions of the kind that insured they’d be going home with doggie bags. Otherwise, they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth.

So, being among the smartest operators in the business, the brand didn’t monkey with its long-running favorites, but rather added alternatives like the Small Plates and Snacks menu or the Appetizer Salad options, which are mini versions of their massive, and massively popular, entrée salad line. In so doing, they accomplished a couple of things.

First, they gave customers with smaller appetites, budgets or dietary concerns really attractive substitutes. And second, they allowed their corporate chefs to do what they do supremely well: Provide a small-bite introduction of an unfamiliar food or flavor at an accessible price point in a comfortable environment. Current Small Plates offerings, for example, include Street Corn that consists of fire-roasted corn “ribs,” another TikTok phenom, with Parmesan, chile-lime mayo and cilantro.

Girl to girl, however, I must confess that your Chipotle hack made me grin with glee. Back in the day, the brand rivaled CSPI with its sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude and its my-way-or-the-highway approach to customer service. In fact, I considered it the least female-friendly chain on the planet. 

On my very first visit, I was rudely turned down for inquiring if they offered half portions of their gigantic burritos. In fact, it was suggested that I might be happier at Taco Bell. Well, at least they got something right.

Thinking I’d outsmart them at their own game, on a subsequent visit, which was my second and last, I asked for a kid’s meal, which was promptly denied since I wasn’t accompanied by a kid. Despite all the changes in management and practices of the past decade, I still cannot force myself to walk through their front door.

I’ve been digressing all over the place, and I’d like to bring us back to where we started. The New York Times stoutly maintains that you don’t have to be a girl to enjoy a girl’s dinner, which is really a gussied-up snack that uses what’s already in the fridge. Do you agree? 

And while you ponder, please keep an ear open for the tinkle of gelato-truck bells. Alarmed by your state of mind, I’ve ordered up a house call from the Cherlato van. Stat!

Lisa:

Oh, I totally agree that you don’t have to be a girl to enjoy a girl dinner.

In fact, though I celebrate the success of female-owned businesses and “girl power” marketing themes, perhaps we don’t need to label dining choices with any gender.

I’m thinking of decisions that of like Nusret Gökçe of “Salt Bae” fame, who opened the ill-fated Salt Bae Burger concept in New York. One menu offering was the Ladies Burger, a veggie burger on a pink bun, which was “free for ladies.” For non-ladies, it was reportedly priced around $14.95. There’s talk of that concept being revived, and let’s hope they rethink. 

There’s a tiny wine bar in my neighborhood that does it right.

Buvette in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles during Happy Hour offers “Adult Lunchables,” which are single servings of nice cheese, charcuterie, crackers, nuts and fruit for $6, to enjoy with your glass of wine. This is also true at sister restaurant Vintage Wine + Eats in nearby Studio City, except the lunchables are served in a cone.

And if there are two things this girl loves, it is food served in a cone and food served on a stick.

Buvette and Vintage Wine + Eats are owned by sommelier Rebecca Rose Phillips, who will also help you find the right wine pairing for a Whopper, Panda Express’s Orange Chicken, or a Big Mac.

You’re welcome.

Maybe when the Barbie fever passes, we’ll stop assigning gender stereotypes and accept that pink, pearls and portion control are for everyone—“ladies” or not.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my ears open for the sound of “If I Could Churn Back Time.”

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