Broadway shows offer student rush tickets an hour before the curtain goes up. You show your student ID, pay $15 and sometimes you get seats all the way in the back but other times you get seats all the way in the front. The concept behind this, surely, is to draw younger audiences to the theater–to make theater accessible to those who could never afford a $100 ticket.
Sure, the hotter shows–the Julia Roberts vehicles, “Spamalot,” “Jersey Boys”–aren’t so generous to students. Try getting there an hour early for a $15 ticket and they’ll laugh in your face. Actually, you won’t even get near the box office: a line of cancellation hungry groupies are already lined up outside. These people are willing to pay full price for same-day rejected seats. Some hot shows, like “Ave. Q,” “Wicked” and “Rent” do a lottery a few hours before the show starts. People put their names into a hat and 20 tickets are sold for $20. You’d think your odds would be good but when you see the masses gathered for one of these lotteries, you’re suddenly trapped in a Shirley Jackson short story. [Funny enough, my friend Dana and I once won a lottery for “Rent.” This was after our freshman year of college, “Rent” was new and hot and we found ourselves in the very front row center, electric guitars wailing over us, big smiles on our faces knowing we only paid $20 for our seats while those around us paid five times as much.]
Why am I telling you all this?
Because I think the highest end restaurants–the Daniels, the Jean-Georges, the Per Ses–should offer a day for students to come experience this type of food. When I say “this type of food” I mean food cooked at the highest quality prepared with the finest ingredients and presented in beautiful surroundings. Like a play by Tennessee Williams or a musical by Stephen Sondheim, these restaurants aren’t soulless corporate monsters–they’re not draining wallets so they can go swimming in dollar bills–they’re about something, they represent something, they strive for excellence and earn their accolades accordingly. And like all other bastions of higher culture, they ought to reach out to a younger audience: not so much to make regular customers out of them, but to expose them to what’s possible when a highly trained professional chef morphs something simple into something beautiful. It’s the same transformation that happens when Picasso applies mounds of oily paint on to a blank white canvas, or when actors and directors enliven words printed flatly on a page. Museums offer student discounts, Broadway shows offer student discounts, why don’t restaurants?
I think the simple answer is: they don’t have to. Theater, as we all know, is a dying form. Museums are eager to attract a younger crowd. But restaurants will succeed regardless of how young and eager their patrons are. It’s a sad fact that if a restauranteur had a choice between a wealthy big-spender client who could give two shits about the food, who is only there to soak in the scene versus an eager young person with little money, cheap clothes and a genuine interest in food they’d go with the wealthy client every time. This is where the question of whether food is art comes to a head: if food is art, shouldn’t everyone have access to it? Shouldn’t we encourage our children to experience the finest that New York kitchens have to offer?
I propose–perhaps naively–that New York’s finest restaurants make a day for students with a valid student ID to experience their cuisine at a discount rate. A $20 meal, maybe a lunch, served with as much flair as they’d normally serve a regular customer. This would be different from New York Restaurant Week which caters to an older crowd, mostly tourists, who come for a discount meal during a notoriously slow week for restaurants. Whereas Restaurant Week is a way for restaurants to lure in otherwise reluctant diners, this Student Dining Day (as I would call it) would showcase fine cuisine to eager young people, preferably college aged, who have an interest in food. Chefs could make a special effort to edify these young diners by exposing them to all the riches fine dining has to offer. I bet the chefs would enjoy it just as much as the students–an audience of people who actually care about what they’re eating. What could be better?
Chances are, though, this is merely a pipe dream. I guess I’m a romantic idealist at heart. But imagine the young college student who, seeing this Student Dining Day, decides to give fine dining a shot and suddenly finds themselves transfixed and transformed by the experience. What if they become the next Daniel Boulud, the next Eric Ripert, the next Jean-Georges? Well they’ll have ME to thank. I’ll put that in my pipe dream and smoke it.