Restaurants, like poker players, have certain tells, minute signifiers that betray a whole constellation of facts. Take for instance, the illuminating case of the Edison light bulb, those clear glass bulbs wherein once can see a thicker than normal filament burning brightly. Since 2003, Edison bulbs have been popping up in New York restaurants like a nasty incandescent rash. Who started the trend? Why? And most importantly, what does it mean for you?
The first major documented case of Edison bulbs in restaurant design was Public in Nolita. That restaurant is owned and operated by Avroko, a design firm that, we soon shall see, is almost singularly responsible for the re-introduction of the species. Christina O'Neal, a principal at Avroko, said, "The building, it is said, used to be an old Edison laboratory—and also Edison bulbs are cheap." And the bulbs, invoking ye olde timey New York, proved popular with diners searching for understated hipness. Soon Avroko was installing Edison light bulbs in all their restaurants.
Those restaurants included E.U., Stanton Social, and Midtown's Quality Meats. And soon the trend was picked up by other restaurants: Goblin Market, Cafe Condessa, and the deceased Sascha. Edison light bulbs have been spotted in Williamsburg's Dumont and in Park Slope's Flatbush Farm. They have spread like wildfire or maybe like electricity.
So what do vintage light bulbs tell you about what you're going to be eating? In its ideal form, the Edison light-bulbed restaurant is a new American restaurant that focuses on locally-sourced high-quality ingredients. The decor will most likely be tenement-chic: tin ceilings, wrought iron, wood.
As for the food, the light bulbs nostalgically evoke the early 20th century, an era when 60% of Americans were living in rural areas, when women were much more likely to be found in the kitchen preparing meals and when almost all food was bought from small farmers. Fittingly then, Edison-illuminated menus tend towards upscale but self-consciously down-homey Americana.
Goblin Market's free-range chicken, dubbed Yard Bird, or the locally-butchered steaks at Quality Meats are working this looking-back, looking-forward aesthetic. Less successful are the restaurants that strive too ardently for this effortless look. Flatbush Farms, for instance, overwhelms with old-timey menus and lighting while skimping on the effort to actually make good food. Stanton Social might be good but is too often filled with douchebags.
That said, in a bind, you'd be wise to choose an Edison lightbulb restaurant over it's regular ol' 100-watt neighbor. Statistically, despite the small sample size, a higher percentage of restaurants with Edison bulb lights are worthwhile, which means you're more likely to have a good old time.