Viewing the stodgy charms of yesteryear…through a lens from to-day.

I’ve been wising up over the last few years to an escalating resurgence of the Victorian aesthetic throughout the Western world. Whether it asserts itself most powerfully in facial hair, comfort food, or a neo-Puritanism among our great social-media arbiters of taste, the Victorian revival seems most entrenched in the hippest, most urbane quarters. Take this storefront in Brooklyn, for example.IMG_4262

The pic is as dingy as one can expect on an overcast spring day, but a closer examination reveals just how carefully this restaurant has cultivated the message through various decals on glass.

IMG_4266

IMG_4265

It’s rare that a contemporary ad campaign would encourage verbosity, but here’s a place that seems to savor it. So many words on these windows—just wordy in general. And a vaguely archaic means of getting the message across. Choice meats? Natural wines? Sea Food (as two words)? American & French & Italian Specialties? How, in this era of extreme niche ethnic market capitalization, is it a wise decision for a single restaurant to take a stab at three cuisines simultaneously?

The answer, as I see it: restaurants are less about the food and more about gestalt. These places reveal a newfound sensitivity to combination of the three elements that the popular Zagat survey has long scrutinized: food, décor, and service, in equal measure. Sure, the quality of what appears on our plates is still important, but a restaurant with great food but an uninspired appearance is far less likely to succeed than one that goes that extra mile to build an entire culture once we step through the entrance. And a truly inspired look doesn’t have to be expensive or upscale—in fact, a downbeat, underinvested aesthetic may be just as effective of an allurement, in the right location. In the case of this restaurant (which I have deliberately left unnamed) I think it is truly attempting a throwback to the classic dining halls of a century ago. I’m surprised they didn’t include antiquated spelling of words like “To-Morrow”. Even the sans-serif, all caps font used for those decals looks like something out of a Victorian trade card. And this sort of place—rebelling against rebellion by guising its anachronistic nature as fashionable defiance—would at this point most likely prosper exclusively in hipster enclaves. And while some neighborhoods in Brooklyn are more hipster than others, ironically anti-hip gestures are a safe bet throughout the entire borough.

 

modern restaurant with Victorian lettering

My observations on this topic will remain fairly brief at this point, because I’m not yet confident enough to postulate that this is an emergent trend likely to sweep the country. Give me six months’ time, and a chance to visit the less style-conscious hinterlands to see if it’s playing out elsewhere. Or maybe we should just wait to see if we start witnessing storefronts that cater exclusively to beard grooming. Or derby hats. Or walking sticks. Or pantaloons and elliptical hoops skirts for the ladies. Then again, since this is Brooklyn, maybe the men will be wearing those too…along with their well-manicured, fastidiously groomed facial hair. At this point, a “beard salon” seems like a far more promising retail outlet than a Radio Shack, Payless Shoes or Wet Seal.

9 thoughts on “Viewing the stodgy charms of yesteryear…through a lens from to-day.

  1. Alexandra

    I feel it was only a matter of time before the Steampunk genre would undergo a type of palate cleansing or gentrification, where the edge of the subculture became simultaneously titular and mainstream

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You could be onto something Alexandra. I didn’t poke my head into this restaurant enough to see if it had adopted a fully Steampunk aesthetic, but maybe that’s the “palate cleansing” you talked about. I went to a hotel once not so long ago that had the Steampunk look down to a tee. It was smart, but it was obviously it would look painfully dated in seven years. A more muted approach–Victorianism across its full chronological breadth–is probably easier to push to the mainstream, because its retro-chic will stay fresh longer. I should have at least checked to confirm that all the servers (male and female) were wearing tuxedos…shame on me.

      Reply
  2. Stephen Padre

    One slice of that this Anglophile could really get behind is Victorian tea rooms. I love eating and baking scones and having high tea. I’d go for high tea more often if it weren’t so expensive. I’ve loved living in places outside the US where they break for tea in the afternoons. I think the point you’re making is that, in one sense, it’s all quite silly. I’ll give you that. But it’s fun – fun to visit a sort of fantasy world.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Agreed! It would be nanty narking if we could transform the blandness of the Starbucks/Peet’s coffeeshop of yester-day into something more plebeian here in the States. High Tea shops are so rare here that they’re a bit of a luxury when we find them to-day, and that means they become a bit of an elitist novelty. Maybe we should coöperate more with our chuckaboos across the pond so they can help us import the best features of high tea–of course, we need a culture that doesn’t get poked up about asking to leave the job a few hours early! (You might already know these cryptic words I’ve used–I didn’t. But here’s my source: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53529/56-delightful-victorian-slang-terms-you-should-be-using)

      Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      And, in all seriousness, I think our appreciation of tea is just not yet as evolved as coffee. The idea of a carefully cultivated cuppa java didn’t really hit the mainstream until 10 years ago, or even 5 depending on standards. The fact that businesses both national (Teavana) and local (Capitol Teas) still struggle to keep a half dozen locations open in a metro shows we aren’t yet really ready to sustain tea as a social space at the same level as booze or Joe. Maybe we’ll get there…. At any rate, you’ve alluded to a blog topic I hope to write about at some point–once I get my ducks in a row.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yeah, now that the mid-century modern (Eisenhower/Kennedy era) look has run its course, we’re due for something a wee bit older…

      Reply
      1. Brian M

        Run its course?

        Bosh!

        I’m still buying LOTTO tickets so I can build my dream Case Study House! Always behind the times. (Don’t really care for Victorian interiors. Although I can appreciate the exteriors w/r/t streetscape)

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Good point Brian…I guess I’m premature in anticipating MCM’s demise!

          Usually when something enjoys a renaissance, it never again truly falls out of favor the way it did the first time around, at least when it comes to the particularly durable (and most likely appreciable) items: homes, furniture, etc, as opposed to clothes, appliances, etc.

          Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.