Helvetica for your Sans-Serif Slowfood Brunch at Slowclub in San Francisco. (photo via flickr.com/thenickster)

Locavores. Slowfood. Raw Food. Whole Food. Green food. Sustainable agriculture. Permaculture. Probiotic. Craft Beer. Grass fed. Fair Trade. Grain fed. Shade grown. Free Range. Cageless. Macrobiotic. What does all this look like translated into restaurants?

These are words that hungry Americans everywhere have taken up as a cause. They are the battle cries of a pervasive back-to-the-land preoccupation with food basics, words that give voice to a collective desire to return smaller-scale sanity to food production in the age of monocultures, GMOs, agribusinesses, and food so machined that it tastes as bland as fluorescent lighting.

Chicago’s The Coffee Studio with minimal menu & décor and, of course, baristas all must wear black. (photo by flickr.com/44191775@N00).

The principles of the adjectival food-movement are things like sun+plant=food; so eliminate the use of noxious chemical pesticides. Or, animal + field = happy animal –> happy animal = happy meat = better burger; so let the cows frolic freely in the California sun. In short, they are difficult to taste.

So how exactly do we navigate what’s out there and land in places that adhere to these principles?

Spotting the Difference Through Design

The changes in the way we (yes, I count myself among the ranks of these urban arugula consumers) talk about food reflect a desire to change the way we go about producing and consuming it. And it seems that a change in aesthetics, at times more conscious than others, has accompanied this change in language to make telling the difference between the cageless and the caged egg a little easier, when all there is to distinguish between the two is a menu and some tables and chairs at a restaurant.

I lack the staunch, voracious commitment of people who only eat food produced by alternatives to the big food system. I’m also a little too much of a glutton and a product of our weird global food system to restrict myself to the seasonal and the humane. But I’ve noticed over the past few years when I find myself in one of these contemporary temples to the morally righteous meal that many seem to hit the same design notes.

The best burger you will have in your life, from Father’s Office in Santa Monica. (photo by Sklathill, flickr.com/70857039@N00).

Broadly, the designs reach for a mixture of spartan rusticity and urbane minimalism, often with an acknowledging nod or two to their urban setting with a hint of nostalgia and an element that suggests repurpose or decay. When not written by hand in chalk, the ideal menu font is usually Helvetica.

Concrete floors with simple, wood-topped tables and big, exposed earthquake braces at Slowclub in San Francisco face off with a public transit depot like a polemic about how to live better: eat slowfood and take the bus.

Great Lake, a local & seasonal pizzeria in Chicago, barely offers a place to sit and makes no effort to match chairs or placemats. The sloppy/precise approach to hospitality gives off the impression that they don’t have time to care about anything but the pizza, least of all the hungry patron. And, of course, they’re far too busy for a website.

Shuttered blinds, a frequent line, abundant wood décor and draughts make Father’s Office along Montana Avenue in Santa Monica perpetually crowded while their one-burger, one-way approach is as pointed a dismissal of the burger-eater as Great Lake. For a taste of the eco-chic, hungry New Yorker’s could stop by any of the locations in the expanding Westville restaurant empire, pay hommage to the gastr0-fication of the pub at The Clerkenwell.

A certain kind of coffee shop, too, falls in line with this approach to design. The Coffee Studio in Chicago, Coffee Bar or Ritual in San Francisco, or Chinatown Coffee Co. in Washington DC. New York local are Ground Support in SoHo and the vaguely East German Cafe Ost in, appropriately, the vaguely East Village.

The pervasive use of minimalism in the presentation and delivery of food at places like these emphasizes quality of ingredients, and if there were one person to identify as the patron saint of all of this, it would probably be Mark Bittman, self-styled as a culinary minimalist and the food guru for the Grey Lady (incidentally, you can’t google your way to Mies van der Rohe as ‘the minimalist’ without tripping over Bittman). The prevalence of bad manners as a serving technique, though — perhaps to suggest that, like your greens when you were little, the bad stuff is good for you — I could do without.

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Homepage photo via flickr.com/jarkel

Ian Epstein

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The...