Can a restaurant keep its charm in a mall?

From our February 2019 newsletter:

There’s a well-known pizza restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, called Roberta’s. Opened in an old warehouse in 2008 by two friends who bought equipment from a shuttered pizzeria in Italy, it has “a D.I.Y. feel, like a Bushwick loft, The ceilings are high, with beams exposed, and the floor is poured concrete”. And evidently very good pizzas. (It’s also also home to the many excellent food and/or drink-related podcasts recorded by Heritage Radio Network, which is housed in an old shipping container in Roberta’s backyard.) It is, in short, the perfect – authentic! – embodiment of the “Global Brooklyn” trend that seems to be sweeping the world with bare brick walls and naked filament lightbulbs, and the “hipster” crowds that such spaces draw.

Roberta’s opened a second location in the second half of 2018, in a place which could hardly be further from their original space and everything it represents: a mall in Los Angeles. A writer for Eater describes the “uncanny” experience of eating there, both because it’s so far from the original “spirit” of Roberta’s, but also because it actually fits in with what is essentially a collection of boutique brands (Roberta’s also has a line of frozen supermarket pizza by now).

She concludes with the observation that “in the ’90s and ’00s, the main sin of brands was to offer generic, shitty versions of pleasurable things, or so we thought. Starbucks, Bath & Body Works, and Pizza Hut were just not very good, therefore, Blue Bottle, Aesop, and Roberta’s to the rescue. I bought this argument, but here I am, back at the mall and kind of mad about it. It turns out our brand-saturated, unequal food culture won’t be fixed by wood ovens and heritage grains; expansion is facilitated, or even necessitated, by the industry’s brutal economics, which reduce food to a commodity even after we’ve spent a decade building it into an art”. 

So it’s perhaps less a question of whether a unique restaurant can retain its charm by self-replicating in a space that’s basically antithetical to where it began, and more of an indication of how little charm it takes to be a successful brand these days. After all, you can now eat Heston Blumenthal’s “perfect” fish and chips before you catch your next flight from Heathrow airport – quite a far cry from the bucolic surroundings of The Fat Duck