The coda of this fascinating look at the cutthroat restaurant business in the Big Apple lets us know that four out of every five begun will go out of business within the first five years. These are not the most encouraging figures in the world, but they also support the old axiom, “If you can make it here…”
“Eat This” (a wonderful title for a documentary) follows two average joes in their quest to open the next big thing. McCormick and Phelps are two motorcycle enthusiasts who have found the perfect space for a cafe, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, smack dab in the middle of the Orthodox Jews and the Puerto Ricans: Division Avenue. The space is small but the possibilities are wide open; both men share a vision of the cafes of the forties in gay Paree, where the people gathered nightly to eat, drink, and be artistic.
We watch as the two start to put their dream to work. Neither one has any restaurant experience. Money is a constant problem, as various loans are sought to continue the work. There is a lot of bickering between them as things get tight. The presence of the camera acts as a mediator at times like this, forcing them to discuss rather than shout, especially in a terse conversation about money with their main designer and builder, Greg Fox. You can tell that they are trying not to look like pricks on camera.
As a counterpoint to the creation of the cafe, the filmmakers have landed interviews with some of the most successful restaurateurs in New York. Maccioni, an old Italian with a wicked sense of humor and proprietor of the world famous Le Cirque, tells of Sinatra and Onassis fighting over “their” table. We also see him giving a lifetime achievement award to Nieporent, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of the dining world, a man who has had more successful restaurants than anyone else in the city. They interview him on his way to get the award, a big, friendly faced man in his fifties, wearing a rumpled tuxedo and talking of his “vision” back in the early eighties. Here was a man who re-envisioned dining in New York.
Other faces drift by…McNally, who gave up the idea of running a bistro in Paris to open his first restaurant in NY, now running many more (a partial list includes Odeon, Lucky Strike, and Balthazar), Reichl, the editor in chief of “Gourmet Magazine”, Zagat, the creator of the indispensable Zagats Restaurant Guide, who has some of the best advice to give (“You can’t just be someone who likes to cook and think that’s it: you need to be a businessman, a designer, an accountant, and a PR agent”).
Filmmakers Rossi and Novak have done a wonderful job of making all of this entertaining, not just for those interested in the business, but to us ordinary joes as well. By the end of the film, you will be rooting for McCormick and Phelps to make it.