Is Imitation Always the Sincerest Form of Flattery?
Last week on Ed Levine Eats, I wrote about the problems I had with a blogger writing about lobster rolls and not crediting New York City restaurant Pearl Oyster Bar chef and owner Rebecca Charles as the woman who introduced the lobster roll to, and popularized it with, many New Yorkers. Unfortunately that's just the claw of the problem. In fact, there's something else going on with Pearl and its imitators that is relevant to every creative person and craftsperson in the food world and beyond.
In 1997, Rebecca Charles opened Pearl Oyster Bar and starting serving her lobster roll, shoestring fries, chowder, raw clams and oysters, fried clams, salt and pepper shrimp, and blueberry pie to a New York hungry for authentic, honest seafood cooked by a really talented chef.
In 2002, after a series of ugly and unpleasant personal and business interactions, former co-chef and minority partner Mary Redding left Pearl and opened Mary's Fish Camp a few blocks from Pearl with an almost identical menu and overall concept. There's nothing illegal about doing that, but that doesn't make it right. Cooks, sous-chefs, and chefs de cuisine leave their jobs to open their own restaurants. It's a time-honored tradition that's not dissimilar to what happens in many other businesses I have been involved in or reported on. But most of these kitchen or restaurant professionals don't then turn around and open a restaurant with an identical concept and menu—within spitting distance of their former workplace.
But it happened, and Pearl and Mary's have both prospered—with good reason. Pearl remains a superb restaurant, and Mary's has attracted its own following. I've eaten at both (don't tell Rebecca), and you can't go wrong at either.
Fast-forward to this spring, and we are all reading about Ed McFarland, another of the Pearl alumni leaving the restaurant and opening Ed's Lobster Bar within a mile of his former employer. Again, Ed's menu is almost an exact replica of Pearl.
What's going on here? When Andrew Carmellini left Café Boulud to open A Voce, he was smart enough and respectful enough not to open a clone of Café Boulud. When Marco Canora left Craft to open Hearth, he had the good sense to differentiate the latter from the former, even though Canora had played a significant role in the seminal development of the Craft concept and menu. Sure, there were similar elements, and perhaps a dish or two overlapped (I frankly don't remember), but no one would confuse Craft with Hearth.
Now I understand that a Maine lobster shack menu and concept is not anything that can be copyrighted or patented. There are probably a hundred of them in Maine, and they've been around a long time, at least in Maine. But Pearl Oyster Bar is a New York City lobster shack opened by a highly trained chef who took that style of food and made it her own, armed with cooking technique and some original ideas.
Pearl became its own unique animal, something that is in fact quite different from the lobster shacks of Maine. The Pearl situation seems very different from, say, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of Peter Luger knock-offs (with better wine lists) opening all over New York City. A New York City steakhouse is a steakhouse is a steakhouse. After all, even before several Luger's employees went out on their own, there was no shortage of classic New York City steakhouses to compete with the Williamsburg-based steak mothership (Ben Benson's, The Palm, and Old Homestead, to name three). Such was not the case with Pearl, of which there was really only one when it opened.
So wouldn't it behoove the Ed McFarlands of the world to bring some original thinking to Ed's? It seems to me that by doing so, they would be showing Rebecca Charles some respect. At the very least, these clones show a paucity of imagination.
But maybe I'm being too harsh in my assessment here. I don't know. What do other serious eaters think? I urge all of you to go to Menupages and compare the menus of the three.
Photograph from iStockPhoto.com