It’s Time to Take Suburban Food More Seriously

In MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs, we’re going outside city limits to celebrate what suburban dining is like today and explore how it’s changing.

May 18 2021, 10:00am

MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs is an exploration of eating in the American suburbs today. What makes suburban dining great, and as the suburbs shift, how are suburban dining scenes changing? Read more here.

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in a working-class town that’s primarily known for having a decent mall, and the destruction of which by stoned teenagers is the focus of a 2013 song by the emo band Pet Symmetry. Willow Grove, Pennsylvania and its adjoining towns—Hatboro, Horsham, Abington—mark the midway point between the outskirts of North Philadelphia and affluent suburbs full of cookie-cutter Toll Brothers housing developments.

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The area where I grew up is dominated by the usual establishments. In or around the mall, which is the center of local life, it's been home, at various points, to TGI Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, the Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden, Panera, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Aside from these establishments, fast food chains, and the regionally beloved Wawas and Rita’s Water Ices, you can find mom-and-pop-owned strip-mall pizza shops, hoagie joints, and a handful of 24-hour diners that are your only place to go when it’s midnight and you’re 17. 

Arriving in the area in the late 1990s as immigrants from the Philippines, my parents were disappointed in the limited options; the only Asian food nearby was Americanized Chinese buffets—nothing like the variety we knew in Manila. As a teenager, I saw all of these things as markers of the sadness of suburbia; I couldn't wait for the day when I'd leave them behind for cities, where the options would be endless. But since leaving in 2010, I’ve been surprised every time I return to my hometown; there are changes afoot in the Philadelphia suburbs, signs that the area is diversifying. 

Part of that shift comes down to development: In the past decade, I've noticed ghost towns of commercial space give way to condos with rents nearing city prices, and high-end housing options—plus shopping centers meant to serve them—take over empty fields. But even before that, I saw the culture evolve through the restaurants that were opening, and staying open. A vegan restaurant took the space of the former restaurant space that had seemed cursed because nothing lasted more than a year or two there; that place, LUHV Vegan Bistro, has now been open for five years and has even added a branch in the city. There are two pho restaurants, often busy with office workers on lunch breaks. There’s a farm-to-table tavern and at least two breweries. The old-school Italian restaurant has been replaced with a gastropub that serves poutine and seitan cheesesteaks, and it sits across the street from the bakery that Eric Trump visited on the 2020 campaign trail (and was, for this reason, featured in Vogue). These are not the same suburbs I grew up in. 

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These observations of my hometown are anecdotal, but these changes have made me wonder about suburban American dining scenes more broadly. Through the stories in MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs, we’re going outside city limits and celebrating what suburban dining is like today. What cultural shifts and community institutions do we ignore when food coverage that’s led by urban media workers sees cities as the only places worth paying attention to? As a result of this mindset, food media has a tendency to frame suburban areas as lesser than—an endless succession of Olive Gardens, California Pizza Kitchens, and Taco Bells that writers tend to only treat as important when they're mining their own childhood memories. The picture of suburban dining is simple, stereotypical, and often, stuck in a sense of a nostalgic past. But the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year have upended the idea that America’s big cities are the be all and end all.

With American attitudes toward in-person work changing, approximately 3.57 million people left New York City between January and December 2020. (To balance the scales, about 3.5 million people also moved into the city in the same period). Those who left took extended—and even ongoing—visits to their families’ homes in sprawling suburbs, or moved out of expensive hubs like San Francisco for good, often in search of more space and a lower cost of living. Over the past year, the suburbs around New York City have seen a sharp increase in demand for homes: As of July 2020, Fairfield County, Connecticut and Westchester County, New York saw 73 percent and 112 percent rises in home sales respectively, compared to the previous year. 

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As a result of these shifts, struggling restaurants in suburban New Jersey found themselves suddenly thriving, the New York Times reported in February. In the absence of large events, food trucks across the country relocated to suburban markets. Without people commuting into offices in cities, restaurant workers from high-end urban establishments—including the Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago—set up suburban pickup points for their food. Food chains like Cava and Chipotle saw suburbs as their primary growth areas, with Shake Shack announcing earlier this year that its suburban locations were doing better than its urban ones. 

Though the pandemic catalyzed some changes in suburban dining, it didn’t start them. In 2015, Food Fanatics, the trade publication from the large food distributor US Foods, hailed the suburbs—once “type-cast as the place where innovative restaurants go to die”—as a “land of opportunity,” due to their lower rent and operating costs and decreased competition in niches that might already be saturated in cities. In 2017, Open Table called the suburbs “one of the most strategic spots to open a restaurant,” full of diners looking for neighborhood spots at which they can quickly become regulars. 

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These evolving dining options are coinciding with the steady transformation of the American suburbs. Poverty is growing faster in suburbs than in cities, though a 2019 CityLab report made clear that that’s partially due to more people living in the suburbs in general. Immigrants are increasingly living in the suburbs, with 51 percent of all immigrants in America living in these areas as of 2010. In tandem, suburban populations are becoming more ethnically diverse, with racial minorities representing at least 35 percent of the suburban population in 36 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, according to a 2015 Brookings Institution study.

There is also the unavoidable question of development, and in 2017, The Counter explored the case study of Fishers, Indiana, an affluent Indianapolis suburb that was primed for growth with its highly ranked schools, low crime rate, and low corporate tax rate—save for its lack of non-chain dining options. Without enticing restaurants for workers, the companies that Fishers was trying to woo were reluctant to bring their offices into the town, and the town had the challenge of building a brand new food scene. Fishers created a $45-million development called The Yard as a restaurant incubator, which it would use as a selling point for corporate campuses—a reminder that the suburbs aren't just  “bedroom communities”; they’re business areas, too. 

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Earlier this year, VICE’s Shayla Love interviewed architects and urban designers June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones. Their book, Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges, discusses how underused suburban structures—like parking lots and dying malls—can be retrofitted to better serve suburbia’s current populations. The desires of younger millennials, zoomers, and boomers are converging on “an interest in more walkable, mixed-use, compact urban places out in the burbs,” Dunham-Jones said. This is in line with another prediction from earlier this year: With the pandemic and the ubiquity of online shopping accelerating a long-in-the-making “mall apocalypse,” we’re due for a “suburban dining renaissance,” Restaurant Finance Monitor claimed, as mall developers shift their focus to creating new town centers that don’t revolve around shopping alone. 

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With MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs, we want to paint a picture of what eating in the American suburbs looks like today. We’ve left our usage of the term “suburbs” flexible because, as CityLab’s David Montgomery wrote last year: Though America might be a land of suburbs, there isn’t total agreement on what a “suburb” is. According to a 2017 survey by the Department Housing and Urban Development, 52 percent of American households deemed their neighborhoods as “suburban”—including people who technically lived in cities. As a person who grew up in them, I’d say it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” kind of things. 

This collection of stories asks the question: How can we reframe suburban food culture as something worth celebrating? From the West Coast, writer Thuc Doan Nguyen makes the case that an abundance of East and Southeast Asian restaurants makes the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra worth the drive. While I knocked it as a teenager, I sometimes long for the suburban food I grew up on—like Taco Bell washed down with Arizona iced tea and eaten outside in a mall parking garage. That's why we asked Westchester, New York-based food editor Adriana Velez to get her 17-year-old son Jasper to make a food diary for us; we wanted to get a peek at what a teenager with newfound independence is gobbling up—de-breaded dino nuggets and all. Writer MM Carrigan gives us a snapshot of Toucan Taco, a 1970s Tex-Mex restaurant in Laurel, Maryland that has improbably survived the test of time—without changing one bit. New Jersey writer Elisabeth Sherman shows us the beauty of suburban restaurants that stay timeless despite revolving trends. 

No town stays the same forever though, and in the face of development and shifting populations, how are eating options changing in the suburbs? From North Carolina, writer and editor Emilie Friedlander digs into the history of The Fresh Market, a grocery store that’s diffused specialty food culture into suburban areas and small cities nationwide. St. Louis writer Adam Rothbarth profiles chef Wayne Sieve, whose if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach to the Italian restaurant Noto has seen great success in St. Peters, Missouri—a 30-mile drive from the city center. And LUHV Bistro, that vegan restaurant in my hometown? I talked to them about what their success says about who lives in the area.

Despite my discontent with my hometown as a teen, I feel a tinge of sadness when I return home and find that the neon-colored strip club with a busty mermaid painted on the building’s side has been knocked down in favor of a nondescript chain liquor store; then, when I see the dark, old Chinese restaurants still standing in the half-empty strip malls, I feel a sense of relief. For people who grew up in the suburbs and left, it’s easy to see these places through the lens of what we know. But we have to accept that just like everywhere, they’re changing too, and that’s not always a bad thing.

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.

Tagged:

Development, suburbs, Suburbia, Restaurants, MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs

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