This season, the US version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares featured Davide, a restaurant in Boston’s North End. For those unfamiliar with the show, the formula for Kitchen Nightmares is this:

Phase 1: The Damnation

Gordon enters the restaurant, always expecting amazing things, and is shocked to find that everything served is “not fit for a dog’s dinner”. Then an embarrassing skeleton in the closet, or vast personal ineptitude in service/prep is revealed to be the root of all the establishment’s evils. The greater the depths of humiliation, the more dramatic the change can be. Cut to customers doing spit takes with the risotto here.

Phase 2: The Clash of the Titans

In an epic explosion of vitriol, Gordon battles the antagonist (or protagonist who just doesn’t know it yet) in question. Inevitably, someone ends up walking out during service (often Gordon). This is the FCCs least favorite part of the show, and the bleeps flow like wine.

Phase 3: The Pathos

The show then cuts to what is usually a wife crying about how their shared dreams of owning a restaurant/B&B/full-service truck stop in the halcyon days of their youth have been replaced by financial and emotional ruin. It is here revealed that, underneath it all, the person causing all the problems is a really teddy bear who just needs a big hug. The TV audience sheds a single collective tear.

Phase 4: The Redemption

Ramsay’s team works through the night to renovate the restaurant and create a new menu. The next morning, the staff and owners cry for joy–all except the one bad egg who will most likely be let go by the end of the show. Everyone realizes that anything is indeed possible, and fight through the final service, to the rave reviews from customers, critics, and the local vicar (UK version only). The ugly duckling has been gavaged into a swan by the long and loving arm of Gordo.

This is a efficient and often highly engaging paradigm of storytelling, and Davide’s show held true to form. As the show portrays it: Davide used to be a premier restaurant in the North End in the 80s, which lead Anthony (the maitre d’ at the time) and and his brother Frank to purchase the establishment in the late 90s. Anthony managed the front of the house, while Frank was the chef. Gordon arrives excited for the in-house made pasta, but is dismayed to be presented with dishes involving pre-bought ravioli, bitter and burnt garlic, and eggplant that had been prepared frozen for three weeks prior to serving.

It is then revealed that while Davide thrived for some time, substance abuse issues and embezzlement from the company coffers sent Anthony in and out of the hands of the law, taking the success of the restaurant with him. Anthony eventually returned to Davide, but a rift between the brothers had been formed, and Frank had lost his will to cook. After an intervention-style reading of letters to express support and/or contrition, Gordon proceeds to revamp the menu, heal old wounds, and send the two brothers off into the sunset, awaiting the dawn of a new tomorrow.

Several months before filming, I got word that Kitchen Nightmares was coming Davide, contacted the producers, and booked a table. I was genuinely excited for Davide. I had previously dined there twice in 2007, and the experiences had been identical: a superb meal where I was the only person in the restaurant. I especially enjoyed their extensive collection of high-end grappas. While the banquettes were not overflowing with patrons, there was sense of excitement and optimism, as Daisuke Matsuzaka had just signed with the Red Sox and had frequented Davide. They even had printed a menu in Japanese. (Link to my 2007 review)

On a chill December evening four years later, we arrived at the Fairmont Battery Wharf–a hotel situated a few blocks up from Davide. There, we were placed in the lobby, which had been rendered a make-shift holding pen for the throng of expectant diners. All guests had to wait in line to get their picture taken with identifying numbers and to sign waivers. Because I was “media”, I was required to sign extensive contracts and forms, giving the FOX Broadcasting Company the right to my kidneys should I write about my experience before the air date. After waiting over an hour past our reservation time for a table, all the media, including the ladies from Boston magazine, were ushered to a place about a block away from Davide’s entrance, where a camera on a giant crane filmed our hypothermic entrances.

In contrast to the cozy atmosphere I had experienced in my prior visit, Davide was blindingly bright, with a dozen additional production lights duct taped to the ceiling. Swarming around the restaurant were two teams of camera and boom mic operators, weaving in and out of the tables, focusing in on the ordering, eating, and reactions. The atmosphere was frantic. It took about 20 minutes before a waiter noticed us, said hi, and then promptly ran off to make someone’s table-side caesar salad. A short time later, a young lady with a secret service style ear piece came up to us, and introduced herself as our “Restaurant Coordinator” for the evening. If we had any comments about the food, we needed to flag her down, so we could get a camera crew and a waiter over to hear our complaints. Everyone in the production staff was wired into the same audio feed, so when we waved at the coordinator to get our reactions on our appetizers, we were instantly surrounded by the film crew.

It would not be right to fault Davide for the disappointing and excruciating two and a half hours service that followed, because the evening was a fantasy from start to finish. The two large parties of women (one being from Boston magazine) were being plied with food and drink to as to get nice reaction shots of the new menu, while the rest of customers waited for literally hours and commiserated in famished frustration. The poor table of girls behind us waited for two hours without getting any food. When the food did arrive, it ranged from decent to inedible, save for the surprisingly delicious minestrone soup filled with particularly fresh-feeling diced vegetables. And it was far from cheap.

But this all has zero bearing on the quality of Davide as a restaurant. The reality is that they were given an entirely new menu the morning of service, and had to even bring in extra help in the kitchen. On top of that, rather than temporally spacing diners at reasonable intervals, as would be done with reservations, a never-ending stream of starving and unhappy people flowed ravenously from the hotel into the restaurant. On Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, one of his UK shows, they disclose that they are stress-testing the establishment to see what they’re capable of. On Kitchen Nightmares, however, they make it appear as if it’s just a regular fully booked evening, when in actuality they are serving double the maximum number of covers.

In the end, despite everything, I felt great sympathy for Davide.

As a business decision for a failing restaurant, I have mixed feelings about Kitchen Nightmares, for it often barters public recognition for public humiliation. In order to extol (perhaps inaccurately) the restaurant’s amazing turn-around post-Ramsay, the show must lay out (perhaps unfairly) how poor of a restaurant it is pre-Ramsay. So it is a true gamble on how the public will balance the good with the bad. Furthermore, publicity for reality shows is ephemeral, so the window for a fortune reversal is fleeting. A 2009 article in the Herald Scotland reported that about 50% of the restaurants failed after Kitchen Nightmares–some involving lawsuits against Gordon Ramsay and the show. But, perhaps 100% would have failed without him, and maybe risking embarrassment that might hamper future ventures is a small price to pay when you are in crushing debt?

Overall, Davide came off as well as could have been expected. Anthony and his wife Deborah are exquisitely charming hosts, and if the food is as solid as it was the past, and if the publicity holds, they may have a fighting chance. But above everything else, it is the specter of Hanover Street that looms forever-threatening over Davide’s future. Locals and tourists alike must blind themselves to the formidable gauntlet of restaurants, cafes, and pastry shops on Hanover, leaving the main thoroughfare and arriving at the end Commercial Street, where Davide is situated below ground. Fortunately, the Fairmont Batter Wharf brings with it a new population of customers just across the way, which may bring the boost in custom they so direly need.

Let’s hope for the best.

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