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‘The Restaurant’ is a tasty guilty pleasure

I’m no fan of the “reality TV” genre, but count me among viewers who can’t get enough of “The Restaurant.”I scarfed up the first two episodes of this NBC “unscripted drama” when the preview tape arrived, and it only left me hungrier to see the escalating food fight between superstar restaurateur Rocco DiSpirito and his fed-up investor, Jeffrey Chodorow.In fact, I got so caught up i
/ Source: The Associated Press

I’m no fan of the “reality TV” genre, but count me among viewers who can’t get enough of “The Restaurant.”

I scarfed up the first two episodes of this NBC “unscripted drama” when the preview tape arrived, and it only left me hungrier to see the escalating food fight between superstar restaurateur Rocco DiSpirito and his fed-up investor, Jeffrey Chodorow.

In fact, I got so caught up in the second hour (airing Monday at 10 p.m. ET) that at its fade-out I wanted to jump in a cab and head straight to Rocco’s, the war zone for these partners.

My impulse certainly wasn’t to eat there. I just wanted to satisfy myself that now, months after the six-episode series wrapped production in December, the embattled restaurant it chronicles hasn’t been reduced to smoking rubble.

I did visit Rocco’s a couple of times last week, and found it still in business. This, despite the lawsuit filed in February by Chodorow accusing Rocco of mismanagement, and Rocco countersuing Chodorow earlier this month for allegedly cooking the books for the restaurant — which, according to Chodorow, has cost him more than $500,000.

At Rocco’s I found that, true to the series, the food still wasn’t very good. The service was uneven. The atmosphere seemed tacky and synthetic. This was all a far cry from Rocco’s professed desire “to honor my heritage” with an Italian restaurant that “meant the world to me.”

And while his Mama worked the room as greeter, Rocco remained MIA. This is another one of Chodorow’s complaints: that Rocco stays too busy with other projects (His cookbook! His pots and pans! His guest appearance on “Days of Our Lives”!) to spend much time here slinging hash.

On one of my visits, my waiter (not an identifiable “star” from the show, just a waiter) explained Rocco’s absence by noting he was still in Los Angeles, where he had been a judge on the Miss USA telecast the night before.

When I returned a couple of days later, I recognized the bartender as chipmunk-cheeked Matt, a featured character who starts work on this week’s episode, spending much of his time flirting with the ladies. I waited for service as Matt chatted up the ladies several stools away.

In sum, I found the restaurant to be much as you would expect when stripped of cameras and production crew, along with the drama that makes “The Restaurant” so entertaining.

Reality vs. ‘reality’

As I nursed the drink I finally got, I marveled at the disconnect between the real world and what passes for real on reality TV. And I felt those pangs of discomfort I get from what “reality” shows ask me to do: Accept whatever white lies might be planted in the narrative as poetic license.

Scripted dramas and comedies are bald-faced lies. That’s their charm.

I can relax with that, knowing no matter how “fact-based” a piece of fiction may be, its first priority is lying, and the more captivatingly the better.

An unscripted-but-staged program offers itself to the viewer as truth. But it’s stage-managed truth. So it raises nagging questions of how faithfully it’s playing back the things that happened — and what role it took in making those things happen.

Viewers can watch the climactic confrontation between Rocco and Chodorow on Monday’s episode: “If I don’t hear from Rocco by 6 o’clock tomorrow,” growls Chodorow, “I’m finding a new chef.” Fade to black!

It’s a great scene, conveniently unfolding at a sidewalk table right outside the restaurant, which allows for cinematic cross-cuts of staffers’ startled reactions inside.

And it befits the craft of Mark Burnett, also the producer of “Survivor” and the just-concluded smash, “The Apprentice.” He cites the second season of “The Restaurant” as “my best creative work, ever” and “my proudest achievement.”

I would agree. But having viewed “The Restaurant” and dined at Rocco’s (including last June, when cameras invaded to shoot the first season), I’m still trying to decide: Is this a made-for-TV restaurant? Or is it made-about-a-restaurant TV? Where does “real” end and TV begin? Those are questions whose answer defies logic, like those Escher drawings that mock the eye.

Even Rocco concedes that life in an Escher-like landscape can be dizzying.

“I can’t tell you whether things have been overdramatized or not,” he said recently. “I don’t know what the truth is, myself. I was there, and I don’t know what’s real and what’s not real.”

Only this much is sure: Thanks to TV, Rocco and his restaurant are all about food while, somehow, food is beside the point.