Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Visual recipe for pour over coffee

Bluebottle coffee.

And ours, not quite so visual:


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Recent Reading, Restaurant Edition

How dynamic is the New York City restaurant market? This article reports on 18 new and changing restaurants—on one street. The writer is not even making the case that this is strange. Because it's true. I joke—but it's not really a joke—that every time I come back from Ann Arbor there's a new restaurant in my neighborhood.

Why are restaurants so loud? One theory: because a quiet restaurant says, "I'm a failure."

Annoyed at the mannerisms of today's typical restaurant menus? This guy is too. Five failures and fixes for the modern menu.

Monday, October 28, 2013

My Velvet Undergrounds

I've run two websites in my life. The one I have now,, and the one I ran in high school. 

Well, the first one wasn't really a website because, at the time, the internet as we know it didn't exist. Technically I was running a Bulletin Board Service, known to us nerds as a BBS. But it was essentially a website, in the most low-fi sense of the word. It was a homemade operation, hosted on a Commodore 64 with two 512K disc drives all of which amounted to a lake of memory more shallow than you'd find in a toaster today. My friend and I ran it out of his parents' basement. It was a dial-up only world then, which means we had to buy our own phone line. We went 50/50 on the monthly payment, my half came from an after-school job at Rent-a-Flick video. We hooked the one phone line into one modem, which meant one person could log into the website at a time. 

What could one person do on a website as slim as a newsletter? A lot, it turns out. We had comment boards for music, art, literature, poetry, and, of course, hacked games. It was the pre-porn internet, everything was strange and innocent and sometimes even artsy. Hundreds visited every week. It's the place where I discovered that the only way to learn how to write is to write—constantly. I had a paper or two due every month in school but on my website I wrote something public every day. There were no graphics running interference. A 300 baud modem is so slow that all it can manage is text. When you downloaded a post the feed arrived at such a pathetic pace you could pretty much read the words as they printed themselves across the green screen.

We called the website the Velvet Underground. I owned a cassette copy of 1967's Velvet Underground and Nico with the Warhol banana cover art. I didn't yet know how deeply Lou Reed's band was woven into what I loved, but I liked them a lot and, frankly, it was a great name so we stuck with it. The next year I chose my major, art history, in part based on my love for Warhol and his connection to this music. A few years later I moved abroad to teach English and chose to live in Czechoslovakia, the home of the Velvet Revolution, named in part because Vaclav Havel smuggled Velvet Underground records into communist Prague. I listened to the Velvet Underground during all of those times and have ever since. There are early life music crushes that I return to with embarrassment, just like I do most of my early writing. The Velvet Underground is never one of them.

In America's popular music memory, the late 1960s is remembered fondly, usually a hazy late afternoon bloom of West Coast psychedelia. In my opinion that musical genre will fade to a comic footnote of history. But in one hundred years people will still listen to the Velvet Underground and they will still sound relevant, they will never grow old.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Recent Reading

"There are 80 million power drills in America that are used an average of 13 minutes. Does everyone really need their own drill?” The story of how AirBnB got started and why this kind of thing may mark the beginning of a whole new kind of economy.

AirBnB shares rooms, Lyft shares cars. What if I want to share a chicken?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Catalog design: Keep text and images close to each other

From time to time I'll describe some of the principles I use to design our catalogs.

Leonardo da Vinci had it right by me. Mix text and images wherever you can, embedding each within the other, so the text and images are close to each other. That way you don't have to search for the text that explains your image. You also don't have to move your eyes back and forth as far between the two—losing your place and tiring your eyes—in order to understand what you're seeing and reading.

This is how the principle looks applied to one of our bread pages, which have remained essentially unchanged for many years.

Compare this to a typical catalog that uses a block of text with numbers or letters to connect the images and copy. Reading while looking away to refer to the picture is a pain, which is probably one reason why most people rarely read catalogs these days.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Drank Bar Journal No. 19: How to order a drink in film noir

Every bar customer should watch at least one work of film noir to learn how to properly order a drink. In these movies there is no poring over menus, no drinks with obscure artisan bitters, no hemming, no hawing, not even a pause. The drink requests are never wrong, never questionable. Ordering is done quickly, with a tilt of the head, and is always appropriate to the place. Nothing fancy when you're in a dive. Nothing boring when you're at the club.

Like in The Lady Vanishes, when Margaret Lockwood comes in from the cold to a smart hotel, she requests, "A small chicken and a magnum of champagne." Because that is what you do in smart hotels.

Film noir also shows us how to treat regulars. When you say "whiskey," film noir bartenders know which one and how you like it poured. Better yet, your drink is poured before you ask, a stunning act of kindness.

The same lesson is true for those taking drink orders. Bartenders can perpetually learn new tricks from film noir, where there's usually at least four legit cocktail references per film. Probably the best drink order scene I've ever come across is in the late noir classic Chinatown where Fay Dunaway walks in to the bar, sees Jack Nicholson, then sits down silently across from him in a red leather booth. He's already got a drink. The waiter arrives immediately in a white jacket. He asks Nicholson for the order. Dunaway never takes her eyes off Nicholson and says, "Tom Collins, lime, not lemon." Nicholson looks up briefly and repeats the order to the waiter. The waiter says very well and turns to get the drink.

You know from the scene that Fay drinks her version of Tom Collins all the time. She's made it hers but it's not too complex; she doesn't need to recite a prescription. Everyone should have a drink like that. Ready to go when we walk in to a place we've never been. If a customer doesn't arrive with one, bartenders, go ahead, give them one. It's a nice courtesy. And, if you ask me, there is absolutely no harm in it always being a champagne cocktail.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013