Foodie Friday, and this week I want to talk – very quietly – about secrets. You might be familiar with the fact that some restaurants have secret menus. They range from the unofficial like Starbucks (you pretty much have to describe to the barista exactly what you mean by a Red Candy Apple Frappucino) to the official but hidden menus at In-N-Out Burger which puts the hidden menu on its website. McDonald’s, Chipotle, and pretty much every other chain has off-menu items, as do many top restaurants.
What I find strange isn’t that some customers are “in” while others are left wondering what that was the other table was eating. No, what I think is really odd are those establishments that are themselves hidden. These are restaurants – and many of them are very good – that go out of their way to hide. No sign, and often an unmarked door so you can’t be sure of the address. In fact, The Times just reviewed one of these places (so much for keeping THAT secret) and pointed out the restaurant is in a basement. It is closed four nights out of seven. Its sole offering is a $100 tasting menu that is not posted in advance. Substitutions are not allowed. Not exactly a prescription for embracing the customer and yet the place got two stars (that’s damn good here in NY, folks) and you know it will be mobbed.
There are hidden places in other cities as well so it’s not just a NY phenomenon. But it got me wondering why a business would do this. I get the whole “the first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight club” mentality. I know many people like to be in on the secret and know something that someone else doesn’t. But given that Yelp, Urbanspoon, and other review sites are out there, the odds of keeping the menu and the business itself secret are pretty slim. I mean there are even websites dedicated to outing these places. Why bother trying?
Maybe it’s the sense of belonging to something even if they’re not really “secret.” Maybe it’s an incredibly clever form of marketing. In a time when it seems as if every business is trying to get louder, these are standing out by making no noise at all. Interesting, right?