Every 30 minutes, the Twitter account Random Restaurant (@_restaurant_bot) posts a randomly selected restaurant’s name, address and four images scraped from the location’s Google listing. Some of the more elegant photos, with balanced colours, clean lines and smooth-looking, if not necessarily appealing, food, seem to be taken by representatives of the restaurant in question, but the majority are taken by diners or passers-by who have decided to upload them. These photos rarely follow any aesthetic criteria, but that does not diminish their fascination. I could spend hours wandering a gallery in which these pictures were displayed, taking slow time with them, imagining the worlds they imply, and the intersecting lives they capture.
Looking at the account now, the most recent ten posts are from Gambia, Kazakhstan, the Northern Mariana Islands, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Trinidad and Tobago, Zambia, Hungary again, and Estonia. Glancing through these listings evokes the feeling of walking through a disordered neighbourhood, the locus of a culinary space-time collapse, where dining establishments from across the world have been uprooted from their original settings and packed together on a chaotic international main street.
The Trinidad and Tobago café, named, as an adolescent-targeted deodorant might be, Flamez, appears to contain an enticing buffet offering mounds of colourful rice; the Mexican Cantina in Vegas looks to be truly horrific, serving food that extravagantly embraces its status as slop, ingredients that one would expect to be served solid liquidating and overlapping, sloshing unappealingly towards the edges of plates; in Puerto Rico we see a Domino’s that could plausibly exist anywhere on earth, represented by a photo of an unremarkable pizza topped with jalapeños and salami, two photos of traffic near the American chain and one image of what looks to be a dilapidated power station but could also just be the back of the restaurant.
The images from Kazakhstan, none of food, are the most spectacular, a restaurant called ‘Vertikal’ providing a large event space with catering, and the photos come from what seem to be fortieth and fifth birthday parties that are blue- and pink-themed, respectively—the fifth birthday includes a small stage on which boys and girls inspect a small child who wears a giant, golden, head-encasing mask resembling that worn by DJ Deadmau5 and a matching glittering dress with horizontal gold and black stripes. Is this the child turning five wearing some celebratory costume, another child attempting to steal the spotlight, or is it the entertainment? Impossible to say.
There are many accounts that operate with this kind of logic, an algorithmic mechanism let loose by a creator and minimally managed. One tweets random locations with accompanying street-view images from Google Maps, others post random images from TV series such as The Simpsons, The Sopranos or Twin Peaks, some cycle through snatches of lyrics from particular songwriters. But none, as far as I can tell, evokes the blend of pathos, comedy, tragedy, triumph and beauty achieved by Random Restaurant.
This has to do, I think, with its capacity to conduct the kind of survey of the human condition that might be undertaken by a befuddled alien species attempting to understand our ways, applying no familiar standards of value to what it chooses to present. The account’s sense of authorlessness means that anything it shows that is especially peculiar, surprising or funny is made more so by the fact that it is appearing without apparent human intervention: a photo of a great-looking Costa Rican pizza will be followed by a man in Chad who seems not to be in a restaurant but simply comparing his notably spherical head to a large apple still hanging from its presumably restaurant-proximate tree; portraits of two garishly dressed men in Benin, relaxing in a dim room, seated around a table of empty beer bottles, after which might appear a concerningly pickle-heavy catering spread provided by a venue in Denmark named the Superbowl & Golfcenter, Slagelse.
Because this material is arranged by an algorithm (or, at the very least, arranged with a negligible personal touch that gives the appearance of randomness), following Random Restaurant, or scrolling through its timeline, is comparable to taking a flâneur-like journey through whimsically chosen streets, and happening across, for example, a Danish Superbowl & Golfcenter. On an internet that craves ever-narrowing curation, an algorithm that does not adapt to a user’s interest, along with the seeming absence of the human element, constitutes a minor act of resistance.
On Twitter, this pattern is particularly relieving, as it negates the platform’s tendency to find gratification in attending to matters that invite exuberantly delivered judgement, interminable patterns of opinion. Where Twitter usually organises itself antagonistically around the immediate fodder of the media cycle, Random Restaurant carries on like a robot programmed to do one thing only, regardless of whatever is happening around it, a serene, dependable island in a rushing, ever-turbulent river of smugly knowing consensus and bad-faith conflict.
This consistency is guided by its strict limitations, as if it were adhering to some unbendable poetic form. Because Random Restaurant reduces whatever data exists about each restaurant to four images, a name and an address, its subjects are only glimpsed. I therefore find myself imagining each implied, contained universe of gustatory and social sensations, emotional and financial investment, employment and exploitation, first dates, breakups, birthdays, reunions and ordinary nights out of the house. When the images are unpeopled, I envisage them populated. I wonder about the out-of-shot photographers, and the intersecting ambitions of those who own the venues, those who manage them, those whose labour keeps them running, and those who choose to eat in them.
Who, in the plastically swanky tourist café with ample outdoor seating in Monaco, took a portrait-style photo of their lonely, untouched, overbaked bread roll and then proceeded to upload it to the internet? Those teens behind the counter of the Subway in Aruba: what are the politics of their shift schedules and lunchroom use? What discussion led to the naming of a culinary establishment in Macenta, Guinea, which contains a bright-red, faux-crocodile- skin chair ornamented with metal studs, Restaurant Paracétamol? The account prompts questions about how we live, or how we wish to live. While these questions may seem somewhat trivial, the last two years have brought home the preciousness of spaces where we can come together to eat and drink.
All the good things I have to say about the power of Random Restaurant are inseparable from the conditions under which it emerged. This is because it re-creates, or at least simulates, something precious that the COVID-19 pandemic has limited, a sense of aimless wandering. The account was activated in October 2020, just as America and Britain were beginning to enter their second waves of the pandemic, which turned out, as predicted, to be worse than the first waves. In an era of both official and self-imposed restriction, this Twitter account re-creates the thrilling sense of unrestricted disarray that travel can entail. By presenting a meagre simulacrum of tourism and dining in a time where both have been severely reduced and become somewhat dangerous, the account now has more than 24,000 followers, and the number will have increased by the time of publication.
Rebecca Solnit writes that ‘walking is meandering’, and among the foremost pleasures of meandering, particularly in an era of neoliberal pressures, is that doing so refuses productivity. Random Restaurant meanders on a global scale. It is, in part, an elegy for pre-2020 dining, a reminder that no restaurant in the world is the same as it was two years ago (many no longer exist), and each venue that it highlights has, in some way, needed to contend with and suffer for the pandemic.
I write this during Sydney’s long 2021 lockdown, so dining out is presently impossible. This is, thankfully, a minor inconvenience for me, both compared to the alternative of contracting COVID, or the further alternative of having my employment affected by the prohibition of dining, but the absence has clarified the ritual’s centrality to individual and collective lives, and the unsurprising inadequacy of remote socialising.
Even before COVID, when travelling the world, or navigating your neighbourhood, you could not, of course, enter any house that took your interest. You could, however, affordability permitting, enter a wide range of restaurants and bars. So, when you remember a city, you remember its streets, where you slept, the shops or museums or galleries or cinemas you spent time in, and you remember the places where you ate and drank.
At the beginning of 2019, to celebrate completing my PhD, I booked a last-minute, two-week solo trip to Japan. It was my first proper holiday in six years, and I arrived in Tokyo with a handful of recommendations from friends but without any concrete plans. My strategy, each day, was to buy a pastry from the bakery next to my hotel, point myself in a direction I had not yet walked, and then walk that way for several hours. As I went, I would modify my route to take in architecture, museums, galleries and food.
The strongest memories of that trip are associated with meals: the man at the Shinjuku bar who told me he had visited Germany fifty times; the waiter at a sleekly modern Tempura restaurant in Kyoto who showed me a video on an iPad to demonstrate that I should pour the boiling water she had brought to my table into the remaining dipping sauce, in order to create a tasty soup; surrendering to laziness one evening and dining in at a Shake Shack and then a Starbucks in the middle of Tokyo; the small, dark, menuless, family-run sushi restaurant recommended by a friend, where the chef smoked and his wife appeared to be assertively conducting some kind of real estate deal with a pair of besuited young men, and I was served the best sushi I have ever eaten.
Going to restaurants and bars carves out time and purpose (the decision to go, our journeys to and from), and consequently memory. I love to cook, but my memories of restaurants have outlines sharper than those of the meals I’ve prepared, even the more extravagant ones. Chefs often talk about the connection between food and memory, and the possibility of invoking the impression of meals from childhood, trying to re-create the nourishment and care associated with family cooking.
Being fed is a peculiarly intimate experience, nearer in its physicality to sex than most of our daily activities (a person producing something that we take into our body), yet we are willing, eager even, to delegate the operation to strangers. In his renowned, affectionately caustic exposé of the restaurant industry, Anthony Bourdain wrote, ‘If you are one of those people who cringe at the thought of strangers fondling your food, you shouldn’t go out to eat.’ While some restaurants expose their production line in an open kitchen, and others obscure the process of creation, as if the food were being machine-constructed, the enjoyment of dining does depend somewhat on knowing our food is an achievement of personal craft, something made for us.
One of the promises of a restaurant is that its patrons might, for the duration of their visit, be cared for as they would be by someone who loves them. At a minimum, a restaurant provides food and shelter, but especially good restaurants leave us feeling that we have shared in the values of those who have fed us. I do not mean to say, of course, that we dine out with the hope of having all our wishes realised. The staff of many great restaurants treat their diners curtly, or as the amateurs they are—one of the best meals I’ve eaten was at a pizza place in Brooklyn where patrons are given the apparent freedom to customise their toppings and yet the server, rightly, enthusiastically rejected and rearranged our order.
We organise our cities and social lives around dining out because it is among the few remaining ways to access a sense of community, hospitality offered neither by friends nor family, but by strangers among strangers. If you have eaten at an otherwise empty restaurant—acutely discomforting for having become a private dining room—you will know what I mean. A restaurant is almost always better packed. We rely on the conversations of others to obscure our own, food brought to neighbours’ tables might guide our selections, but above all, eating among strangers reacquaints us with the comforting fact that we resemble people whom we do not know. Just as we see movies at the cinema in part to sense the hush, shock and pleasure of an audience in a dark room, the buzz of peers who have come to be fed and socialise is central to any restaurant’s charm.
Of course, there are many bad restaurants, more than there are good ones, and there is no faster way of learning this than examin- ing the offerings thrown up by Random Restaurant, where straightforwardly enticing-looking meals are moderately rare gems. But there is no image of beige gruel or slimy corn or dense and geometric ham that could be so unseemly as to extinguish entirely my urge, on seeing any listing, to visit the establishment it represents and witness another manifestation of the unceasing human endeavour to feed and be fed.
I am perpetually fascinated by, in awe of, the degree to which societies have shaped themselves, their movements, their cities, their journeys, around rooms where one can sit and eat. It is like the wonder I experience when witnessing a plane, an enormous hunk of manufactured material, improbably flying above me, an artefact made all the more astonishing by its frequency. Living in Sydney, I am often overwhelmed by how many restaurants the city sustains, and how regularly people decide that they must add another venue to the pile. What admirable, foolish optimism such a project surely necessitates.
To apprehend Random Restaurant’s output is to expand my view, to take in not just the restaurants of the cities I have lived in and visited, but those existing on an inconceivable global scale. This means experiencing, let’s say, the awe-dinary, the impression that comes with being confronted by the impossible number of people who spend their lives preparing and serving meals in buildings that are both astounding in their diversity and yet fundamentally recognisable in their restaurantness.
This year, for my birthday, which took place during lockdown, my partner and I ordered dinner from a local wine bar. The food required final preparation (mostly involving warming sauces in pans) and we made the mistake of preparing and con- suming all the meals simultaneously. The consequent meal was a strange blend of disordered flavours, bright and welcome due to our long absence from anything resembling fine dining, but anarchic without the stabilising force of a restaurant to house it. Dinner was worthwhile, however, as a gentle reminder of the potency of dining out, of the fact that we spend time and money in restaurants not only for food but also for context, that they might provide us with a frame for the quiet ritual of entering wanting and leaving sated, a cure for various hungers.
• • •
The term ‘emotional labour’ is overused, but when coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in The Managed Heart, it referred to the kind of work done in a variety of consumer- facing occupations—the book’s focus was on debt collectors and flight attendants, and it encapsulated an obligation of hospitality workers—where the expectation is that an employee’s emotions become an instrument of their employer, necessarily taking the place of and repressing the employee’s authentic emotions. It is worth considering how this concept might be applied during a time when the emotional and physical comfort of the relatively wealthy, commonly safely employed at home, are contingent on a class of service workers who are expected to go about their work unquestioningly, cheerily delivering food and distributing takeaway meals, grateful to be employed as they risk their health and their prospect of secure employment waivers. The inequality of emotional demands (which I’m sure will continue as we transition to ‘living with COVID’) undermines the clichéd ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric strategically espoused by politicians to redirect attention away from their failures spotlighted by the pandemic.
The etymological proximity of hospitality and hospital seems notable in this era, where the primary threat has become not necessarily disease, but the unavailability of care due to an overwhelmed health system, along with the rapid impoverishment of places where it is possible to feel and be safe. Writing this essay, my mind has repeatedly returned to anxieties about the impoverishment of public space, and the neoliberal drive to let the market mediate formations of intimacy and community. While restaurants are not, of course, a symptom of capitalism as such, their present role in structuring urban space follows a capitalist function, whereby if we wish to spend time with a friend, or mark a special occasion with family beyond the boundaries of our home, doing so will almost certainly cost money.
Consequently, a vibrant neighbourhood is usually one built around eating and drinking. Outside work hours, if someone is going to meet friends, this usually means that they are going to a restaurant or bar. It’s atypical to catch up with someone without offering food or drink as the notional purpose of the catch-up (‘Let’s catch up for coffee’). This provides a way of bracketing our socialising, providing neat beginnings and endings, and depressurising the interaction by limiting our emotional exposure (It is far more congenial to say ‘Let’s get dinner’ than ‘Let’s talk’, which, for all its plainness, reads as a threat.) This convention is among the reasons that the crisis of hospitality caused by the pandemic has also caused a crisis of place.
For example, COVID revealed that the putative centrality of the Central Business District—founded on the assumption that the kind of business done by grey-suited management consultants and bankers is the locus around which the rest of us must be arranged—is entirely superfluous. The penetration and speed of the internet have made it unnecessary for us to flock as one to overcrowded clusters of glass and steel and to be bound (for better and worse) by standardised hours of work measured by time spent in the office. In 2019, we remained more or less committed to the seemingly unshakable picture of proper business being epitomised by the frantically overcrowded and anonymising company beehive portrayed in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment (the open-plan, hot-desk office is nothing more than a variation on that theme). That era should be done with.
And yet, in September 2020 Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged public servants to return to their offices in order to prop up ‘CBD economies’ by indulging in activities such as buying lunch. Rather than acknowledging that an economy vulnerable to being upended by a pause in constant consumption and perpetual growth might need some significant retooling, Morrison asked that we return to our former lives. And he did so not because returning would make us more efficient, or allow us to live fuller lives, but simply to fulfill our collective destinies as homo economicus, living in service to the economy. I’m not suggesting that nothing be done to help CBD café staff who serve lunch to office workers, but there are more hopeful ways of ensuring they receive a living wage than artificially preserving a rotten economic system that has overseen widening inequality and constant crisis.
The diminishing of the hospitality industry (as with the arts and tertiary education and other battered sectors) clarified that governments are unwilling to adequately support and protect those who happen to be disproportionately affected by catastrophes. When markets fail, they see no other option but to sustain the dominance of market logic. (Asked about JobKeeper by Katharine Murphy for her Quarterly Essay, Morrison described the program as a means of delegating welfare distribution to businesses, saying, ‘We effectively privatised the social security system into corporate payrolls.’) In Wendy Brown’s critique of neoliberalism, Undoing the Demos, she writes that ‘the economy’, a noun with a definite article, a noun naming an objective domain, rather than a process or prac- tice, came into being only in the 1940s and 1950s. Prior to this time, ‘economy’ (without the article) referred to seeking a desired end with the least possible expenditure of means, closer to our notion of efficiency or thriftiness today.
A consequence of this shift in language, thinking and governance is that financial markets are understood not simply to play a part in our lives, but also to underpin citizens’ potential to flourish.
There seems to be little hope of an imminent transformation of public space and the same can be said of the internet, where we were already spending quite a lot of time before becoming communally housebound. Work, travel, gift-giving, dating, finding a place to eat or drink, ordering in, staying across the news, watching movies and TV; in a few short decades—in my lifetime—the internet transformed from a place I would check in and out of to a place where we all always are.
Our occupation of the internet (or its occupation of us) has never felt like a choice, but only ever an inevitability. The price of opting out is far higher, far more complex, than the price of opting in. And this transformation has shaped both how most of us move through the world and, consequently, our opinions and commitments. As with the world beyond it, participating in an online space mostly means interacting on the market’s terms, depending on a handful of unthinkably powerful corporations to curate what we consume.
The dream of the internet has, in this time, mutated from aspiring towards the democratisation of information, a flattening of inequality, to an engine driving monopolisation and division. The word itself, ‘internet’, is no longer especially useful because it does not do much delineating work. The internet as opposed to what? Outside? It exists there too.
Because of the internet’s ubiquity, I do not stumble across restaurants. Before walking through the door, I’ve seen their star rating on Google, maybe checked some websites I trust for their verdicts, seen the menu and maybe their Instagram. I live this way with considerable regret, revelling in neoliberalism’s punishing vision: optimise or die. Right now, though, instead of looking for somewhere to eat, I am scrolling through the timeline of Random Restaurant. Barbecue in Suriname. Pizza in Slovenia (there’s a lot of pizza everywhere, it turns out). A food boutique(?) in Cape Verde. Pastries in Turkmenistan. Seafood curry in Hong Kong. Dumplings in Bhutan. I see a world where I can try it all.
Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney.