We live in a world in which someone else sets the price of things; our only choice in consumption is to buy or not to buy. Nevertheless, it is nonetheless true that when something you buy to eat costs $12, it should come with a side. I’m talking sandwiches, burgers, and even the occasional breakfast tartine. I’m just stating the facts.
I go to a French bistro around the corner for a cortado every day. Yesterday morning, I asked if they served avocado toast.
“We do an avocado tartine,” they replied.
“I’ll take that and an almond milk cortado,” I said.
“$18.26,” they said.
This is a lot for breakfast. I paid it, and then double-checked the menu. The tartine was $13.
This has been happening to me more lately ever since I moved to Venice, and at the risk of sounding transparently, pathologically like a slack-jawed yokel in the Big City who doesn’t understand how things work—trust me when I say that I am, in fact, a slack-jawed yokel in the Big City who doesn’t understand how things work. I am straight-up not used to having to ask what things cost, not because money is no object, but because it is such an object, relatively speaking, that I mostly go places where either the price is clear and obvious, or where winging it and agreeing to an extra thing would not break the bank. This tartine would not break the bank, but it caused a mini existential class crisis—is it OK that I paid that much? Will I do it again?
For example, I used to wait tables at an O’Charleys—a Southern chain restaurant whose most popular item was the chicken tenders and fries—where going nuts was ordering a filet mignon and a bottle of Dom. Avoid that and you couldn’t go wrong. That’s my kind of place.
But here, where the median rent is $2,450, I’ve had to learn—not without a bit of embarrassment—that things are simply More Expensive, and Often Irrationally So. I still wouldn’t go ordering steaks and champagne, but I’ve found myself accidentally on the wrong side of a $200 cut and color at a salon.
So as I waited for the tartine to go, I thought, this tartine will come with a side of greens, a small herd of berries, a garnish of some kind. Or else it will be the greatest tartine in existence. Any of these criteria must be met so that I don’t feel so bad about this $13 tartine.
Well, here it is:
That’s all tartine, friend, and nothing but tartine. This is not an abnormal LA situation: Breakfast toast at some of the fancier places on Abbot Kinney—like Gjelina’s wildly popular takeaway spot—costs $4 or $5 a slice. And, in this tartine’s $13 defense, it is twice the bread real estate of one piece of toast. There is also quite a bit of avocado, quite a bit of tomato, Parmesan, some pepper flakes, a nice slab of bread. Not to mention a lot of chopping went into this experience. And it was really tasty, after all. Maybe $13 makes sense. What do I know?
That’s one conclusion that Ester Bloom at The Billfold draws when she asks when it became acceptable for a $12 sandwich to no longer automatically include a side, like some chips, or at least a pickle. It could be the that the ingredients are indeed higher quality, Bloom notes, and therefore more costly to the restaurant. It could be that rent is so damn high, thereby justifying the kitchen cutting corners. It could be that folks don’t eat sides anyway, and restaurants have learned to cut out what they’ve seen go to waste.
Either way though, it changes the consumer’s sandwich experience for the worse when something humbly built for convenience, yes, but typically associated with a side, becomes less of the thing it was and for more money. A sandwich alone can be truly great (although it’s got to be a really good sandwich). But if sides are an essential part of the sandwich experience, a sandwich alone is, at best, not fully claiming its sandwichness.
Once upon a time, by which I mean not that long ago, a sandwich, virtually by definition, came accompanied by sides, however humble. Potato salad! Cole slaw! Chips and a pickle! Something, anyway. Those sides really tied the plate together, as Walter Sobchak might say. They added an extra je ne sais quoi, not to mention a semblance of variety, to lunch.
With a sandwich, one bite follows the next in a similar, even potentially monotonous fashion. If you can force yourself to slow down and savor each mouthful, sure, you can enjoy a slightly different experience moment to moment. But there’s no real contrast built in, not the way there would be if you alternated bites of sandwich with, say, bites of pickle.
Perhaps most importantly, though, if I spend $12 and all I get is one item, however delicious, without any bonuses or extras, I feel a bit … stiffed.
Me too. But it’s not just sandwiches. Burgers—at least in Los Angeles, I’ve noticed—often arrive alone and unadorned on the plate save for maybe a spear holding the enterprise together. They run you easily $12 to $15 at the average place. Likewise, the damn aforementioned tartine.
A friend in Nashville told me she noticed that a pretty fancy newish restaurant, Rolf & Daughters, serves a pastured chicken in lemon and garlic confit totally solo—all the sides are extra. And, while I can make a whole case for the unbundling of say, breakfast—and one day intend to—and while we could even simply lament that shit has gotten more expensive all around and salaries have not kept pace and shit is fucked up and bullshit, I think lunch should absolutely be bundled. If it is on a plate, it needs a side.
Bloom asked around and the best response came from this Joshua Michtom person who is obviously some kind of genius sandwich thinker:
“The flip-side, of course, is that traditions change. I am sure that if my great-grandfather were living, he would insist that a sandwich should come with two sides, a shoeshine, and an exegesis on the relative merits of the Washington Senators’ pitching staff. Some traditions may become impractical, too, especially in places like Manhattan, where everything costs a goddamn fortune. The question is, are sides with a sandwich being eschewed because (a) they are actually no longer traditional even in proper delis; (b) they are prohibitively costly, in light of high overhead, unless you charge an extraordinary price for the sandwich; or (c) you are dealing with another coordinated push by Big Sandwich to squeeze more lucre from the today’s already overburdened lunch-eaters.
“I think we can rule out (a). Sides with a sandwich at a deli are normal. (b) will depend largely on location. (c), which is, not accidentally, the first letter of capitalism, is always a safe bet. So, to answer your question, if you are dealing with a traditional deli, your anger is righteous and justified. Otherwise, assess local conditions and act accordingly.”
— Joshua Michtom, Hartford
Gawker mostly agreed with Bloom, posting a long chat about sandwiches without sides and how egregious it is to go sideless.
“Most regular places give a side—chips, fries,” wrote Hamilton Nolan. And they do. Potato salad. Pickle. Chips. Something, for the love of god, something. You may debate what that side ought to be and what is lazy or creative about the various possibilities therein, but the fact remains that sides are better than no sides. A world without sides is a sad world to inhabit.
But in the Gawker chat, Sam Biddle diverged with the repeated attitude that sit-down restaurants and chips don’t go together, eventually asking, “What kind of redneck wants chips at a restaurant?”
At first I mildly bristled at this idea—is not the sandwich as unrefined by definition as the redneck who wants chips with it? Is it not the sandwich that is out of place in the restaurant, rather than the consumer of it who wants it how it ought to be served? Is this what we have come to accept in the so-called elevating of all types of peasant food? That by divorcing the sandwich so thoroughly from its origins, its normal mode of delivery is unavailable to the very people who need its low-key, affordable pleasures the most?
But then, I realized: he makes a good point. After all, times have changed, and rednecks are not forward thinkers. They protest every innovation, every march forward. They sulk in the back of the classroom of progress. So yes, Sam Biddle, I will tell you what kind of redneck wants chips at a restaurant: The same kind who wants variety, wonderment, a little something extra for nothing, and yes, for things to stay exactly as they once were, at least on the sandwich front. Forever.
Image via Ernesto Andrade/Flickr