This documentary by Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack has a clever title and an interesting subject–the New York restaurant culture, which it treats by juxtaposing interviews with owners and chefs who have made it big with the story of two dreamers from Minnesota who put themselves deeply in debt transforming an old Brooklyn building into a place they hope will have similar success. Unfortunately, the treatment is so meandering and flaccid that what might have been a spicy study of service capitalism instead proves a decidedly bland dish.
The spotlight in “Eat This New York” falls on Billy Phelps and John McCormick, twentysomething transplants from the Midwest who put themselves into hock to open a cafe called Moto in what they hope will become a new “in” restaurant area in the Big Apple. The picture follows them through the thirteen months over which they agonize over every detail of the space and struggle to raise the funds needed to keep their project alive. As the guys’ story unfolds, the film also introduces us to some of the most successful restaurateurs in the city, who reminisce about their pasts and whom we watch presiding over their staffs while tuning out sumptuous-looking meals. And interspersed is commentary about the dining experience in New York–a form of social interaction and entertainment that, we’re told, has marked the metropolis from its beginnings in a way unique among American cities.
There’s a good deal of intriguing material in the result, but it’s sporadic and scattershot. The major problem is that Phelps and McCormick don’t make a very charismatic duo; despite an occasional bright moment (such as when one of them relates how his therapist made an investment in their venture) they don’t exhibit much energy or elicit much empathy. In fact, the segments of the film centering on them tend to come alive only when some colorful secondary characters–an amusingly hippie-like (and very talkative) sign painter, or a suspicious neighbor in phony western attire–pop up to enliven things. The material dealing with the wider scene is okay, in a very conventional talking heads and slice of restaurant life way, but it’s never truly compelling. The outcome is that “Eat This New York” seems more an agreeable ramble than an enlightening or insightful portrait.
The film also ends far too abruptly. Moto’s finally opens, and we see what’s presumably it’s opening night, but that’s it. Not even the customary written notes are posted at the close to tell us whether it’s become a success or is even still open. And in this case, we really don’t hope for a sequel to inform us of its fate.
As cable-TV filler–a kind of palate-cleanser between features–“Eat This New York” will serve perfectly well. But as the main course in a theatre, it’s neither sufficiently delicious nor nutritious to make the grade.