Our National French Fry Decline
Please sir, can I have some more?
I met up with some friends for dinner last Friday after an especially long day being force-fed fresh mozzarella and various cured meats in the Bronx. I honestly wasn’t feeling a night out after nearly a dozen hours of work when you factor in travel, but the plans were mercifully a few blocks from my apartment at the new No. 7 location on Vanderbilt. I’m a longtime fan of the restaurant and the fact that they moved so close to me fills me with joy. But I’ll be honest and admit I wasn’t feeling dinner with friends after working all day. I was out of it, barely able to string together a sentence. I was pretty much about to fall asleep right there at the table, and then, friends, I was saved by the French fries. It was dark. I was ravenous. I didn’t get to snap a photo, so I borrowed this one from the restaurant’s Instagram. I hope they don’t mind, but I also got it with this veggie burger that’s in the picture and I must say, it’s an A+ veggie burger as well.
So here’s the deal with the No. 7 fries and why they’re so perfect. Just look at them for a second. Do they remind you of something? To me, I felt like I was eating really great McDonald’s fries.
You’re likely saying, “But Jason, McDonald’s fries are the height of fries because McDonald’s has crazy scientific methods that make things taste the way they do,” and yeah. That’s the point. McDonald’s French fries are really excellent. But I don’t really eat at McDonald’s. I have eaten a lot of McDonald’s and, yes, I once worked at a McDonald’s when I was a teenager. I don’t believe that McDonald’s is necessary or this bulwark against people ordering food to Instagram it or “pretend that you are chic, or rich, urbane or pious.” I think McDonald’s is bad. I think it’s bad for people and it’s terrible for the environment, and it’s really awful for our bodies.
Of course, concerning that last one, you know the things that wreak havoc on your health tend to be the most delicious. I mean, fried anything is good, and the little golden sticks of potatoes truly rank at the top of the best things that you dunk into a deep fryer. The No. 7 version reminds me of the ones you’d get at McDonald’s, except better. They have soul. An order of fries from McDonald’s, while delicious, has this uniform thing that the company wants to make sure you get whether you’re in Manhattan, Miami, or Davenport. I probably should be a better journalist and find out whether the ones from No. 7 are hand-cut or not, but if I had to guess (and I will update this once I find out), I’d say that part of the reason the fries are so good is that somebody somewhere else cuts them, puts them into a bag, loads them onto a truck, and then No. 7 gets the bag and fries them, seasons them, chant some magic words, load a healthy amount onto a plate and then send them out to the diner. Again, maybe they have some genius in the kitchen cutting those fries perfectly to look like the ones you’d get at a fast food place, but I don’t know. I sort of don’t want to. I like thinking there’s some sorcery involved.
Fries have been on my mind a lot lately because they’re delicious, but also I’ve been thinking about what they represent. E. Alex Jung had a great piece this past January on how fries and a martini are the “New York Happy Meal,” and I couldn’t agree more. I never really thought about how many times I’ve sat down around 5 in a mostly empty place and thought that those two things would go great together (I also usually add a bottle of sparkling water because I’m a fancy man) and that it won’t really ruin my appetite if I have a dinner a little later.
But there’s something larger at play. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. And before I get to it, I should start by saying I know it’s been a hard time for restaurants over the last few years, so I don’t mind paying a little extra if it helps maybe make up some tiny bit of ground places lost over the last few years. Yet I can’t help but shake the feeling that if I go somewhere and they’re skimping on the fries, then that’s not a place I should really visit anymore.
A few months back, I accepted an invitation to eat at Petite Patate. I was curious about the spot since it took over for the French-Japanese fusion restaurant, Mason Yaki, but was still owned by Greg Baxtrom of Olmsted and a few other popular places. I liked Mason Yaki and usually had a good time there even though somebody would always mention the prices didn’t really match up with what you received. But whatever. That’s another story. My first visit to Mason Yaki was fine. I really liked the appetizers.
I returned with some friends a few weeks later. Six of us. It was a rainy night and we sat in the back. I won’t do a blow-by-blow account of the evening, but since I worked in the industry for a long time, I can usually tell when something is off in a restaurant pretty quickly. The first thing I do is wonder if it’s me or the people I’m with. If it is, I try to remedy that in any way I can; I’ll tell people to tone it down, apologize to the servers, whatever it takes. But this particular night, I was with some very friendly people, and right off the bat, we all got the feeling that we weren’t wanted for reasons we couldn’t understand. Right from the start, bad vibes. The food was a mess. At the end of the meal, a few of us ordered Fernet and the server walked over with a glass of it, then dumped the Fernet in our used wine glasses. It was…odd. There was a lot more in the middle of that, but as I said, I’m not here to break this all down or talk trash. The biggest issue of all to me was the fries. That’s what I’m here to kvetch about. They gave us this teeny brass cup with the white wax paper sticking out and I’d say for six people, we each got about five fries. The cup did not runneth over. In fact, when we each had our five French fries and there were no more fries poking out above the rim of the little brass cup, one of my friends reached in for what they imagined would be more fries. It’s universal logic that if you serve French fries in anything, you fill that thing with fries, right?
“Uhhhh,” my friend said with a horrified smile as she pulled out a piece of balled-up wax paper. We all looked at it, astonished. They…padded their fries? And it wasn’t exactly like it was a plentiful order of fries, mind you. It was actually a pretty small order. But no problem, I said. Let’s order more fries!
Three orders of fries later, and also a few drinks, I decided I needed to know what the deal was with the wax paper. It wasn’t just a one-time thing. Every order of fries came with basically the exact same amount and that greasy little ball of paper at the bottom. So I decided to ask. I’m a curious person, and I’ve just always felt like fries are something you should give customers a lot of. I get that you might want to keep costs low or maybe there’s some deeper philosophy at play in the mind of the chef that he doesn’t want people to fill up. I also know that times are changing. Delis charge for pickles sometimes and the free breadbasket is becoming a thing of the past. I don’t like these things, but I also try to understand. Do I agree? Not really. I mean, I get if you have your own baker in the back and you’re not getting rolls delivered to you, then sure, I understand how that makes sense for your business. If the bread is good and plentiful, then I need my carbs. I’ll maybe grumble about it, but I shut up quickly when I get bread. But the thing with fries is that I don’t think they’ve got some dedicated French fry maker in the back. That’s not a thing as far as I know. Fries can be great, and I’ve met some very well-known chefs who take great pride in their version. But skimping on them seems really off to me. So I asked the server. I didn’t do it in front of the people I was dining with. I was getting up to use the bathroom, and asked, “Hey, what’s the deal with the fries? I’ve never seen that wax paper trick.”
The server shrugged. “That’s just the way it is,” they said before walking away.
That answer and all the words I’ve typed about French fries add up to something. It makes me wonder if this is the way it is, and if so, does it have to be? I think too often we let ourselves just accept that answer, whether it’s a paltry order of fries or the way we’re treated like cattle when we get on an airplane to fly anywhere. Bad service or poor quality is “just the way it is.” But I don’t think that’s true. Especially not with fries. I’d like for a few things to remain just the way they are, and French fries feel like an easy win in that category.
I recently picked up a copy of Billy Wilder’s dispatches from when he was a journalist living in Berlin during the Weimar era. I’m obsessed with Wilder and I’ve been going deeper than reading his screenplays or watching The Apartment or Sunset Boulevard for the millionth time, and highly suggest picking up a copy if you’re a fan. And one of the articles really stood out to me in a way old essays or articles sometimes do. I almost felt like I did the first time I read Walter Benjamin on collecting books a long time ago when I read this thing by Wilder. The article is from 1927, nearly a century ago. It’s called “Why Don’t Matches Smell That Way Anymore.” It’s a proto-good SEO headline, and it’s actually what the piece is about. Wilder missed the way a match being struck smelled in the old days because in 1927 “They use new materials. During the war they ran out of man materials, which were replaced by different, cheaper ones. Now people are staying with them. That is progress. A world has disappeared and will never, ever come back.”
I read that a few days ago and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since. Everything feels that way these days. Things are more expensive, there are supply chain issues, and things will go missing or extinct because of the climate disaster we’ve failed to stop. The decline is very real and it’s a hard pill to swallow. I suppose my disappointment in not having more fries that one night was because I’d like to hold onto the belief that a few things will be there, my order of that one thing will always be plentiful. But, alas, I’m supposed to go ahead and accept “That’s just the way it is.”