Saying goodbye to Publico and fancy Loop food (for now)
Occasionally, I like to spend a large chunk of a night, as well as a significant sum of money, consuming food at the kind of eatery where there technically isn’t a dress code, but walking in without a collar on your shirt will almost certainly garner you one or two disapproving looks. I did so the other night at Publico, which is closing Dec. 22, and which is what I consider the last such restaurant on the Delmar Loop.
Despite how ridiculous it is to spend money that a college student without a steady income really has no business spending on expensive food like this, I do it because it’s a guilty pleasure. I love sitting at a table with friends, eating food that you can talk about and savoring it. Every once in awhile, when I want to really treat myself, this is how I do it.
Obviously, these establishments are inherently ridiculous. No food should justifiably cost as many times the price of its ingredients as many of the dishes at fancy restaurants do. In order to eat at these restaurants, one needs significant disposable income, and the subset of people who therefore end up patronizing these eateries are generally well-off.
The diversity behind the scenes in top restaurants is, if anything, worse. For example, there are 135 restaurants in the world that have achieved the prestigious three-star Michelin guide rating. Fifteen establishments in the United States have all three stars, but only one has a female head chef, and that restaurant—Atelier Crenn in San Francisco—only gained its three-star rating four days ago.
In short, fancy food tends to be made by a very small subgroup of the population—white men—for a very small subgroup of the population—rich people. And that’s really a shame.
The thing about expensive restaurants is—and this is why I continue to eat at them whenever I can—their exclusivity usually comes hand in hand with creativity and artistry. The kind of food you get at Publico—the combinations of flavors in the octupus appetizer with vera cruz and paprika—isn’t really like anything you’ve tasted before. That’s not to say it tastes better than, for example, Mission Taco, but it is more experimental, and that’s fun.
At their best, these restaurants can also provide a chance to explore the tastes of other cultures. Sometimes, of course, the dishes served purport to show the “authentic” tastes of another culture while in actuality bastardizing them and creating an image of a culture which simply does not exist. When done right, though, a well-prepared dish can create a snapshot of another culture, available without traveling.
While Publico does both of the above well—the food is both unique and interesting, and it has been critically renowned because of it—I nonetheless have my reservations about the restaurant. It has many of the hallmarks that critics often disparage these kinds of restaurants for. The portions are tiny, but almost needlessly expensive. Plating seems to be given just as much, if not more attention than actual taste. The food looks beautiful, of course, but I do wonder how much more I am paying for a nice looking plate than I would be had the same food been more hastily arranged. A miniscule shared appetizer and two plates of two small tacos each cost me $50, which even for gratuitously expensive restaurants felt particularly gratuitous.
Despite this, I went to Publico to say goodbye to the last restaurant of its kind on the Loop. Despite its problems, it provided Washington University students who were willing to spend more on a meal a truly different experience, and that should be valued. I can only hope for another such restaurant to open nearby in future. Maybe the Loop Trolley can help with that, although I’m not holding out too much hope.