On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe are joined by VinePair’s managing editor Oset Babür-Winter to discuss the rise of kitsch establishments. Why are these types of bars and restaurants trending lately, and who are they for?
Plus, your hosts engage in conversation about Geballe’s recent article connecting the flaws and strengths of baseball with wine — and its striking parallels when it comes to connecting with audiences. Tune in to learn more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” It’s not the old “VinePair Podcast,” because Joanna’s out on vacation, because we actually have a guest host this week. I’m going to butcher her f*cking last name because I just got freaked out about it. It’s Oset Babür-Winter. I hate messing up people’s names, Oset. Did I do it well?
Oset Babür-Winter: You did it well; it’s better than not trying at all.
A: I know. She’s the managing editor of VinePair, and we’re very lucky to have her. Welcome. You’ve been with VinePair now for how many months?
O: It’s been about a month and a half, getting into two.
A: Yeah, she’s still getting used to it. Basically just me.
Z: Yeah, there’s a learning curve there.
A: Oset doesn’t know that I f*ck with people shamelessly, and she’s getting used to it now. I feel like she’s just getting used to it.
Z: The good news for you on this podcast is that I’m Adam’s favorite to f*ck with.
A: It’s usually Zach that we go after.
O: I am here to be as helpful as I can be.
A: What we usually do to start with these podcasts is ask people what they’ve been drinking this week. But I don’t want to do that yet, because I do want to talk really quickly about Zach’s piece that he published today when we’re recording, about baseball and wine. Zach, I thought it was actually pretty good.
Z: Oh, thank you. That means a lot, coming from you.
A: You don’t need to sound surprised. What I’m saying is, the connection is really smart. And you know how much I hate baseball.
Z: That’s true, and how much you love wine.
A: It was a smart connection.
Z: It’s probably a weird connection. But, thank you.
A: It’s a worthy read. Did you edit it, Oset?
O: I did in fact edit it.
A: I figured. It was much better than usual.
O: I am not much of a baseball fan, either, but my brother-in-law and future sister-in-law work for the Red Sox. They both do. It’s a real Red Sox family. So I’ve been to Fenway a couple of times and I have no idea what’s going on, but I actually really enjoy being at Fenway.
A: Zach, do you want to lay out your thesis? I thought it was a good one.
Z: Thank you. The basic crux of what first prompted me was actually some stuff we’ve talked about on the podcast in the last couple of months, which was this ongoing consternation in wine about struggles attracting millennial drinkers in particular and to some extent, Gen-Z drinkers as well. Thinking about how, for the last little while, I’ve been hearing a lot of the same things about baseball and that baseball has really struggled to connect to younger consumers. If it was just, “Hey, here are two things that I like that both struggle with younger people,” I don’t know that there would have been much to say there, other than there’s lots of things that are probably struggling to attract younger people. What made the connection to me was that, as the piece plays out, baseball and wine share a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses. Weirdly, they seem to be intent on leaning into what I would say are the weaknesses at the expense of the strengths. In particular, both show this real obsession with the past. I have an affinity for both old wine and older baseball, to some extent. I think that when you view either category through that lens, through the lens of “the best is in the past,” you really alienate people who, for whatever reason, can’t access that. In the case of baseball, it’s because they don’t have a f*cking time machine. And in the case of wine, they don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on 50-year-old bottles or they don’t happen to have friends or family who have collections that go back that far. You kind of convince people that if they want to participate in either of these categories, that they’re kind of getting a pale imitation of the best of it. Baseball is guilty of this in a very particular way that I lay out in the piece of continuing to tout players who, in some cases, have been dead for nearly a decade as the greatest of all time. In a way that is, quite honestly, pretty ridiculous when you think about everything that has changed in sports of all kinds since the 1920s and ’30s when Babe Ruth played. That kind of got me going on this whole topic.
A: It’s interesting, I hadn’t really realized that there were these conversations until recently. I saw a few, like, op-eds people had written: We should nationalize baseball; we should try to save baseball. Because my brother’s a massive baseball fan and he’s a Braves fan, and they won the World Series last year, I was like, “Oh, maybe baseball is in a good spot.” I didn’t know, maybe I’m the only one that doesn’t like it. But it’s good to see that I’m not in the minority. I’m on trend.
O: I thought it was interesting, Zach, that you had that bit about how the players that are being highlighted in a lot of these franchises and teams in general are people that have been retired or are from a separate generation. This is really interesting because it echoes the wines that a lot of people harken back to. It’s an interesting parallel because it emphasizes, “Are the glory days over?”
A: I thought that was really good, too.
Z: I want to mention this last piece, because I didn’t quite get to fully articulate this in the piece due to space limits, but I think there’s a way that both wine and baseball can use their history as a selling point and as a strength. To connect what’s going on presently to the past is actually very powerful. To be fair, football and basketball and other sports have the ability to say, “Mike Trout is the modern day Willie Mays,” to use an example that’s been given many times. Or “Shohei Ohtani is the modern day Babe Ruth.”
A: Who are those people?
Z: We don’t have time for me to explain baseball.
O: Yeah, I can’t tell you, either.
Z: The eight of you who care about baseball who are listening to this will know what I’m saying. But the point is that baseball and wine can similarly say it has this incredible history. We certainly talk about its history, or we feel the weight of its history in many different ways throughout wine. But when you consistently demand that people know about the past to appreciate the present and the future, it’s just a big burden to lay at people’s feet, for the most part. And inevitably, you give off the air that you are denigrating the present and future to prop up the past. That, I think, is the part that is really unfortunate. In both cases, in baseball’s case and in wine’s case, this is unquestionably the best time in history for either. The quality of players in Major League Baseball has never been higher, and the quality of wine widely available on the market has never been higher. We should be celebrating those things, not using the past as a cudgel against the present and the future.
A: Very valid point. And with that, Oset, what did you drink this week?
O: Oh wow, I play first. This week, I leaned more on the non-alcoholic space.
A: I don’t think we’ve had anyone say their drink was a non-alcoholic drink if it wasn’t Dry January.
O: Yeah, I like a non-alcoholic cocktail.
A: Making her podcast debut with a non-alcoholic drink.
O: Can I say two separate things?
A: Yeah, of course.
O: I have a bottle of Figlia in my fridge that I’ve been making my way through. It’s a non-alcoholic aperitif, and it’s cardamom and rose-forward. Which, as a Middle Eastern gal, I really enjoy. I just do a shot of it with some tonic and a lemon. It’s really, really lovely, and I enjoy it a lot. I was sent a bottle some time ago and have been making my way through it and really enjoy having it as a spritz while I’m cooking.
A: Oh, that’s cool. That’s smart.
O: If I just got home from work and I’m actually taking a night off from drinking, but I still want to have something that feels special, I’ll do that. Or, I’ll do a Casamara Club. Those are the two non-alcoholic things that I do a lot at home. Have you had the Casamara Club sodas?
A: I have not.
O: They’re very good. They’re amaro leisure sodas. So they’re nonalcoholic, but they’re made with the same botanicals that end up in amaro. There’s a couple of different flavors. They’re out of Detroit. They are phenomenal. And then Katie and I went to Chez Zou, which is the new cocktail bar on top of Zou Zou’s near Hudson Yards. I had a pickle spritz, which was wonderful. It was very pickle juice-forward. It was just Champagne, pickle juice, and vermouth. It was delightful, I really enjoyed it. But I also love those Trader Joe’s pickle-flavored chips and stuff.
A: Oh, I love pickle flavors.
O: Yeah, I just like pickle everything. So that was the other thing that I had this week that I really enjoyed.
A: I’ve never been to Zou Zou’s.
O: It’s fairly new, and Chez Zou opened very recently. But yeah, it was really fun. It’s a really fun tiki vibe, but we’re not saying tiki anymore.
A: We had a conversation about that yesterday, but we’ll get to that in a second. Zach, what about you?
Z: I recently became an uncle.
A: Oh, congrats.
Z: Thank you. I will say, it is mildly less dramatic now that I have two kids. If I had become an uncle before I had kids of my own, it would have felt more like a change in status. Instead, it’s like, “Oh yeah, it’s cool. I have a niece now.” But I had a bottle of Champagne with my sister and brother-in-law. It was a bottle of Laurent-Perrier, which is one of my favorite big producers there in Champagne. That was lovely, and of course just a great opportunity to celebrate. The other thing that I had recently that I really enjoyed, was finishing out Washington Wine Month at the end of March. I had the opportunity to host an event at my friend Aaron’s restaurant, Surrell, which I’ve done some events at in the past. He and I put together this little tasting of some wines from the Yakima Valley, and in particular the 2017 Cabernet Franc from Andrew Will, which is a really beautiful wine and was a crowd favorite. That was super fun. You know, drinking wine like I always do. How about you, Adam?
A: I had this cool opportunity to go and guest lecture at Yale yesterday to a bunch of seniors taking a seminar on booze, which was cool. It was a lot of fun. It was really interesting to hear a lot of the questions. One of the topics they’re tackling at Yale right now — Oset — is, is tiki problematic? Can you still say tiki? What would you say, instead?
O: Are we appropriating tiki as a concept? But I feel like there have been books to that end and people are reclaiming it.
A: It’s interesting to see these 21-year-olds who just started drinking, trying to discuss this. The professional who leads it is actually a philosophy professor, Professor Jessica Spector. It was interesting to hear them talk about it without ever having been to one of these places.
O: They don’t have the historical and cultural context, because this all predates their drinking age.
A: It was super interesting. That was really fun. And we talked about cocktails and culture and how cocktails fit into how you’re culturally defined. What does that cocktail say about you? What are you projecting by having that specific order? What is the person maybe judging you for?
O: And is every bar with palm trees and leaves and the tropical vibe a tiki bar? Are they harkening back to the tiki bar?
A: Are they tropical? Or are they what Sunken Harbor Club calls itself, which is post-tiki? Is it still tiki?
O: The simulation is broken.
A: The other professor in the class is John Clark-Ginnetti, who has been on the “Cocktail College” podcast. He also owns 116 Crown in New Haven, which is considered to be the best cocktail bar in Connecticut. It’s a very good cocktail bar. So we went back to the bar after class because he wanted to let me have a cocktail or two before I headed back down to the city. I had his Martini, which is what he came on the “Cocktail College” podcast to talk about, which is really cool. I also had a Champagne cocktail because he happened to be teaching a class to MBAs that night, and he always gives them that cocktail as the first drink. He does his classes inside the bar because it’s one of the original cocktails to show what a cocktail is. This idea of bitters, sugars, and usually wine or Cognac or things like that.
O: I love a Champagne cocktail. One of my old colleagues, Kat Kinsman, was very big on the French 75.
A: They’re good. So that was fun. One of the subjects that came out of class that I thought would be fun for us to talk about and especially given your background having been at Food & Wine before here, is this idea of kitsch that’s been growing in the bar and restaurant space, both in terms of design and drinks. In this idea of kitsch, what we talked about in class is that it’s this model that a lot of bars and restaurants are moving into very quickly. It gets very quick press, you’re guaranteed to get social media, and then you get someone who takes a picture of that kitschy drink or that kitschy space. But then the question is, does a place like that have staying power? Or is it just a place that you only go to when you have someone else who’s never been there before? But once you’ve been, do you go back? Is the product that good? I feel like there are places that do kitsch really well, and I think we’d be insulting them by calling it kitsch. It’s the white lab coats, or maybe places that echo Florence, Venice, what have you. But there’s other places that do kitsch to an extreme that’s actually not only bad in terms of the execution of a control center, but also offensive to cultures — tiki being one of those that people are wrestling with. I’m curious to start with you, Oset. What do you think about this? Is this a trend? Did you see this at Food & Wine prior? What do you make of this whole movement?
O: I do think that a lot of this — and I know you and I chatted about this a little bit — has to do with post-pandemic wanting going out to feel like such an experience. We all ate food out of cardboard boxes for two years. I found myself posting photos of my food again, where I feel like I’d stopped doing that for a while. Now, you want to show people that you’re going out and doing things and seeing stuff that isn’t just your coffee table. I feel like part of that is an excitement to just be exposed to things that are visually attractive and fun at a primal, human level. But I also think Instagram is a huge part of this, and I feel like it’s something that has only intensified over the past year in terms of restaurant openings. And that’s a way to pull people in because that’s what restaurants are relying on increasingly, people posting photos and people tagging and whatnot. Some places do a good job, and that’s when it feels less like kitsch and maybe more like branding or a sense of place. Or places where, maybe the owners are actually from there and are referencing their own culture and have brought in pieces from it. I’ll give an example. I’m from Boston and there is a bakery called Tatte there and the owner, Tzurit Or, is Israeli. All of the spaces have a lot of beautiful antiques from Tel Aviv. And in my mind, that’s not kitsch because she’s referencing her own background and her own country. So she’s decorating with those things, and it feels appropriate. A lot of the question comes to, who’s the person who’s owning the business and decorating the space? But also how many consumers are really thinking about that exactly? Who really cares at the end of the day? Who’s paying attention other than journalists, and you and I?
A: Zach, what do you think?
Z: I think there’s two interesting things going on to add on to what Oset was saying. I definitely think there’s something to the idea that, in this exact moment, people are definitely keen to feel transported by what they’re eating and drinking. Being in a space that allows for that makes the whole mental jump a lot easier than trying to transport yourself just with a drink or just with an item that you pulled out of said cardboard box in your living room. So that’s part of it. I’m not an expert on this, but I also think that part of it is that we are in this period of time where the dominant aesthetic right now is very much this weird hodgepodge of longing to go back in time. We’re in this strong retro phase for a lot of ’90s stuff in particular, but even going back further than that. And a lot of these bars and restaurants are, in one way or another, centered around that idea of going back in time. We kind of came out of this long phase of pushing things forward in food and drink. It’s not that there are no frontiers to explore; anytime you feel like that’s the case, you’re proven horribly wrong that there are suddenly all these other things that are out there to try. But we do feel like we’ve reached this weird end of an expansion of what people are eating and drinking, and now it’s more about trying to get people to come for the experience. I mean, that’s always been true, I guess I should be clear on that. That experience needs to have, for lack of a better word, a very simple hook. Sometimes, when you talk about tiki or tropical, we’ve talked about speakeasies on the podcast, a ’50s-themed diner, there’s almost a way in which that’s an expectation setting for people that makes them comfortable, or at least clear on what they’re going for. We’re on this page where people are going back out. Over the last however many months, a lot of people didn’t dine out, didn’t go out to bars very much or at all. So giving people a clear set of expectations and a clear understanding of what they can expect to get may be particularly valuable in this moment.
A: Yeah, that makes sense. The thing that I think is really interesting is the point that Oset was making, when it feels authentic and when it doesn’t. Because I also do think that Americans have this obsession with authenticity. I want the authentic pad Thai. Maybe just have the pad Thai that this place makes. You’re insulting them by asking for the authentic pad Thai. But then we’re also very quick to just jump into an experience without questioning who’s behind it. I don’t want to call anyone out, but Oset showed me this restaurant.
O: Oh, we can talk about it.
A: Oh, let’s talk about it.
O: This place is modeled after a supper club in Wisconsin. We won’t name names, but it’s modeled after that, and that existed in the 1930s.
A: I think the ’50s. And it’s in Bushwick now.
O: Yes, and it parodies Middle Eastern culture. So it’s really easy to put these pieces together.
A: The people who own it are not Middle Eastern, as far as we can tell.
O: And I’ve been, as a first generation Turkish American. There are fezes everywhere and belly dancer references and a lot of sultan iconography.
A: They literally have a room called The Sultan.
O: I was confused. I was like, “Am I missing something?” At the end of the day, as a Turkish person, I’m just not into this. This is kitsch that doesn’t work for me. I do find this kind of off- putting, I guess is the right word. This is not so different, to me, than wearing a sombrero for Halloween and things like that. We’re just not doing that.
A: The problem for most consumers is, they might not even do the research to realize who’s behind this. Oh, maybe this is what this is supposed to be and this is authentic because I have a weird view of what the world looks like. That’s where it’s problematic. But the other issue is, they’re going to go, because these photos are dope as sh*t on Instagram.
O: Correct. It photographs well, but frankly, a lot of people probably don’t think that hard about it. They’re just like, “This is fun. Like, it’s an experience. This is great.” Some people will think about it more because they have a personal connection to it.
A: I think the same could be said for cocktails, right? You find these cocktails as well that are very ostentatious in their presentation, but they’re disgusting in their actual consumption. They’re not made well.
O: They’re in a weird vessel; they have a bunch of things on fire.
A: They have a rubber ducky floating on top of them.
O: Pizzazz without the substance.
A: And I do think we’re seeing more and more and more of this. The more releases that we get, the more times I hear about things opening, I feel like it’s just a lot of this. And I wonder if it’s just because people think it’s easier.
O: In a world where things are either ugly, delicious, or have a lot of pizzazz, but also aren’t very good, I just want something that’s neutral and good. I want neutrally enjoyable drinks.
A: Yeah, I don’t even need a garnish. Do you know what I’m saying? Just make it good.
O: Yeah, toss the garnish and just make it great.
Z: I’m going to ask you guys a question that comes to this point, I think. I’ve had this sense for a while that there is a business case to be made for the kind of place you’re describing. Maybe not borderline offensive, but just in terms of being kitschy or otherwise kind of garish in a way that’s going to bring people in.
O: To be clear, this place has been open for years. I’m not actively offended. It’s been years.
A: We’re just letting you know, not cool, bro.
O: Yeah, I didn’t love it when it opened four years ago. Anyway, carry on.
Z: But in any case, the point I’m trying to make is, is it possible that there is actually a viable strategy here that makes sense? You may not be a restaurant or a bar that relies on a bunch of regulars. You know that people are going to come in. Maybe they’re all going to come in once for the famous drink or to take their pictures with the goofy decor or whatever. But you know that certainly in a city like New York, there are enough people who will come through the door once every night to make it all work. New York, in particular, has many of these kinds of places. There’s the place of the frozen hot chocolate. I think it was called Serendipity. Maybe it no longer exists.
O: Do you mean Max Brenner? Oh no, you’re right.
Z: I don’t know. It was a thing. It was in a movie. It doesn’t matter. I think about this in a way that the restaurant industry has on the kind of the opposite end of the scale. You think about your very high-end, special-occasion restaurants. Those places largely succeed because they know they’re only going to get people to come through once a year, for an anniversary or birthday or some other big life event. Obviously, they have a much higher check average than one of these bars or restaurants. But we know there’s enough of a population mass that will see the very occasional utility in coming here and you can kind of make it work. In some ways, it might be easier to make it work if your theme is something so ridiculous. The honest truth is that as much as I totally share your desire for neutral good, neutral good restaurants and bars fail all the f*cking time because it’s really hard to keep people interested.
O: I’m interested.
A: That is true to a point. The reason that the neutral bars fail a lot, too, is because the product is pretty neutral and mediocre. If you just have a really well-done bar with high-quality drinks and good wine, people will come.
O: The neighborhood restaurant. The concept of the dependable neighborhood restaurant.
A: Like Walter’s. You could say Walter’s is kind of neutral, right?
O: I agree. To me, I think of Evelina and Walter’s. Those are my neighborhood restaurants.
A: There’s nothing kitsch about them.
A: They’re very neutral. I’m sure there are places like that in Seattle. I’m supposed to come at some point, but it’s been Covid. Do you know what I think is probably the ultimate neutral restaurant? People are going to come at me like crazy, but I really do think it’s the ultimate restaurant in New York City: Union Square Cafe.
O: I love Union Square Cafe.
A: But you know what I’m saying?
O: It is.
A: It’s just a f*cking solid restaurant. There’s nothing that they’re doing that’s trying to be over the top. It’s great wine list, great cocktails, and a beautiful space.
O: It’s comfort food in a restaurant format. I mean, the Milanese at Union Square Cafe is delightful. The wine list is dependable. Everyone is knowledgeable. The service is great. It’s just great.
A: Those are restaurants that have real staying power.
Z: But the flip side to that is, that’s all well and good, but telling someone that you’re going to open the next Union Square Cafe is like, “OK, great, cool.”
A: I’m going to.
Z: But Danny Meyer’s restaurants are remarkable outliers, even for New York City. This is all a really good point. I worked for restaurants companies that had their version of Union Square Cafe that had great neighborhood restaurants, things like that. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail. The restaurant industry and the bar industry is very, very challenging. As we’ve spent the last two years on the podcast talking about, it can be buffeted by these massive global circumstances that it has no control over and is particularly vulnerable to, in the case of a pandemic. My point is more that I can understand the business case and the logic behind it. Well sure, we could open a place that does everything pretty well. But we might be the kind of place that, when we close in two and a half years, 35 people are so torn up about it. But that’s not a business. The 200 people in your neighborhood who really go there once a month is not a business. That’s just the reality of this industry, and it sucks in some ways that it’s much easier these days to get attention with something garish, flashy, ridiculous, over-the-top, gimmicky. But you can at least make an argument that that’s a business model that makes a certain kind of sense. Not to say you can’t do it. Obviously, great restaurants open all the time and they can be extremely matter of fact, and that’s awesome. I don’t mean to say I prefer the other stuff. I just understand in this current landscape that we’ve described, why any kind of entrepreneur, any kind of restaurateur, at least have to think about at the top. How do you get people to come in and take pictures?
A: No, I think that’s true. I think that is the answer to this conversation. The reason we’re seeing more of them is because it works. It’s what people are asking for. And this is the question that I asked the class yesterday, but about a different topic, which is the Espresso Martini. One of the women in the class said to me, the reason she’s ordering Espresso Martinis is because they’re showing up on cocktail lists. She sees them more, so she orders them. Then we talk to bartenders, and you ask them why they’re making Espresso Martinis and they say it’s because people are ordering them more. Again, this is a chicken and the egg question. Are we seeing more kitsch restaurants because people take pictures of them more and we think there’s demand for them, or their demand from because that’s what’s out there in the market right now, and it feels like this is that cultural moment? Who knows? I don’t know who decided that we’re going to do this all of a sudden or who started this cultural movement. But it definitely is something that, if you do a restaurant like this, you will get press. Are we guilty of it? Who knows? Probably. You will get press and you will get people in the door. You’ll have influencers who post on Instagram because it feels like they’ve gone somewhere that’s different from Union Square Cafe, to be fair. It’s like a wanderlust-type feeling, right, and you’re going to get a lot of likes on your photos.
Z: Well, your picture of a well-made, ungarnished Manhattan is not going to get you a whole lot on social media. But your picture of something that has the aforementioned rubber duck floating it certainly is going to get traction. And that’s true on both sides of that equation, for the bar and for the person who’s posting the picture.
A: For people who are really depressed by this conversation, I can tell you, the really smart women and men I spoke with yesterday informed me that Instagram is cheugy and that their generation does not do this. I don’t believe them. I said, “Yes, you do, you just do it on TikTok.” But that’s what they tried to claim, that they’re not in it for the kitsch. So who knows? Only time will tell.
O: It’s just so humbling in so many ways. I mean, I recently found out the youths are still on Snapchat.
A: The youth are on Snapchat?
O: I know, the youths in the office told me.
A: Yeah, I’m not on Snapchat.
O: I haven’t been on Snapchat since college.
A: I thought that it was over.
O: It exists. All the youth are using it.
Z: Don’t worry, guys, I’ll cut this whole part of the conversation out so that no one has to know just how old we are.
A: No, I like it. All right, Oset, thank you for being an amazing guest host. We’re going to see you on Friday, too. You’re coming back for the Friday episode.
A: Joanna’s out on vacation for a little while. I hope she’s having a good time in New Orleans. But I will talk to you guys on Friday.
O: Sounds good.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
The article VinePair Podcast: The Plague of Kitsch Bars appeared first on VinePair.