The text came in: “We’ll come by to pick you up in an hour. It’s a nicer place so dress semi-formal.” As a Tulane student, I rarely go to fancier restaurants, so it took me ten minutes of frantically going through my closet to pick out an outfit. I go to the bathroom to take a shower, do my hair, brush my teeth, and spray on cologne. I put on the ironed blue button down, a nice pair of trousers, and my work boots – the outfit that took me a whopping ten minutes to choose. Soon enough, as my stomach started to growl, I was in the car with 3 of my friends headed toward Restaurant Avo.
As the hip hop blasted through the speakers our bodies were rocked up and down from the countless number of potholes scattered throughout the New Orleans roads. One-way streets and the lack of left turns forced the car ride to be longer than it should have been. As we turned onto Magazine Street about 15 minutes into the ride, I could see the low hanging but brightly lit sign “Avo” hanging off a one story tall wooden building. Without the big sign I would have thought the restaurant was a small house with a blue door.
“Hi, table for four please.” The host led us to our table and the waitresses, wearing a midnight blue dress, welcomed us with her high-pitched, work voice. She immediately poured glasses of water, brought a basket of bread, and left the table.
Light classical music played in the background on surround sound speakers, there was no spot in the building I could not hear the music. I got a whiff of flowers, but the smell quickly evaded my senses. After a short period, I was no longer able to pick out any specific scents in the restaurant. The bread, all hand cut, drew my hands into warmth with its freshly baked existence. There were two types of bread served, Focaccia and Coppia Ferrarese. These are two of the more famous and popularly baked breads across Italy. I dipped it in oil and vinaigrette and took a bite. The soft inside contrasted with the crunchy crust and I felt the bread melt in my mouth. If their bread could do this, I thought, what would the rest of my meal taste like?
The dining area spanned two rooms and consisted of about 12-16 tables. Most of them were small round tables that sat two to three people. The dining area was decorated with indoor plants, which gave the rooms a Pinterest-like atmosphere. The tables, chairs, fans, light overhangs, and ceiling pillars were all painted matte black. This, along with the angled black and white tiles, gave the rooms a modern but elegant look to fits a New Orleans-style mold.
Other than the soft music, I rarely noticed the voices of the other patrons. The tables were spaced about 7 feet apart, so it was hard to notice the chatter of the other customers. The lighting was dim due to the three or four large light overhangs accompanied by the 12 smaller ceiling lights. The kitchen was quiet and tucked away off to the side of the smaller of the two dining room.
The menu had 4-5 options in each category: appetizer, pasta, main, and side. There was a mixture of seafood with different pastas and the main entrées included steak, pork chops, and other chef specialty dishes. Avo’s wines mainly came from Italian regions and included options such as Nebbiolo, Falanghina, and Sangiovese.
I asked myself, why would Avo go through all the trouble of creating such an upscale atmosphere? In society, material goods are judged to be either of higher or lower class. This concept is discussed in an article by the Association for Consumer Research. Additionally, they state that, “material goods are viewed as symbols of identity whose meanings are socially constituted.” They mean that society gives meaning to an object. This object then determines whether their identity is that of either high class or low class. By making the dining rooms look a certain way through expensive tables, matching tiles, and a modern look, Avo can use material goods that society has deemed “sophisticated” to create an upscale dining experience. Therefore, the atmosphere of Avo fabricates a feeling of nobility or upper class. Society believes that the upper class eats in small portions and drinks imported Italian wine. Ultimately, being upscale and sophisticated allows the restaurant to increase their price of food (rigatoni alla vodka: $30) and drink (half bottle of Barbera D’asti: $44) which increases their revenue.
As I focused back in on dinner, I realized that the room suddenly filled with the smell of ripe tomatoes. I could hear sizzling and popping similar to the sound of putting bacon on a hot pan. My stomach, growling, knew what was to come before my eyes did. “Please set the appetizers in the middle and our entrées to the sides,” we hungrily directed the waiter. The group decided to share a plate of charred octopus. Although I am not a very picky eater, the idea of putting octopus tentacles in my mouth gave me goosebumps.
Avo had roasted mushrooms, fried eggplant, and other dishes that could be considered odd when compared to common Italian American cuisine. The waiter would regularly come by to check in on us and politely ask how we liked the food. “The octopus is easily my favorite dish,” I sarcastically joked. So why does everyone dress formally and eat mysterious dishes such as octopus, especially when people might resist the unknown and take measures to always feel comfortable? An article published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders states that there are evolutionary benefits to having an inherent fear of the unknown because the unknown can be dangerous (Carleton). Evolutionarily, as long as the unknown is approached with caution natural fears are normal. The article goes on to argue that complete avoidance of the unknown should not be the default reaction. Just as there are evolutionary benefits to being cautious there are also benefits to taking risks (i.e., seeking shelter, more food, less competition). In essence, my experience at Avo pushed me to try a new dish and interact extremely well-mannered toward the staff, but the soft music, pleasant smells, and good company outweighed these negatives.
Full bellied and ready to go home, we finished our last bites and left. The ultra-polite servers, clean tables, interesting menu options, and scented bathroom soaps were all part of the dining experience at Avo. For a couple hours, as college students, we got to pretend we were of upper class, sophisticated young men all for the price of $182.74. Nonetheless, I left Avo satiated but very ready to change into my pajamas and slip into a warm bed.