I mean, what was I expecting?
No one goes to a restaurant predicated on the owner’s virality anticipating an impressive culinary experience. But what’s really surprising about #SaltBae, the new restaurant from Turkish chef and human meme Nusret Gökçe, is that the food doesn’t even taste bad. For food to be unpleasant, it has to taste like anything. Anything at all. But going to #SaltBae is not really about the food, even though finishing a meal there constitutes some kind of personal victory over your own body and instincts and mouth. This isn’t even Gökçe’s first American restaurant. He also owns the Nusr-Et chain, which is expensive and apparently terrible. His newest culinary experience, located near New York’s Union Square, recently opened after being under construction for around a year. (There are plans to expand to Miami next.) And the reviews are, like the food, not great. “OK, I understand that this is a restaurant based on a meme, which should be enough to stay away,” said one Yelp reviewer, “but the experience I just had far surpassed how bad I ever imagined it could be.”
The Saltbae Baklava Shake ($24.95), which is served in a glass covered with tasteless pistachio shards, doesn’t even have the audacity to taste like vanilla, which I suppose it is intended to be, though I only suspect this because it was made into a frothy white substance with the texture of thick water. The triangle of baklava placed on top of additional mounds of whipped cream is stale but salty, which is great because at least salty is a flavor.
The Wet Burger ($9.95), named thusly because it is very wet, is the size of a McDonald’s kids meal hamburger; the patty smells strongly of cumin but curiously tastes like absolutely nothing. If you squeeze it, it oozes greasy tears. The signature Saltbae Burger ($22.50) is served in a black bun, and though its name suggests a stunty, high blood pressure–inducing meal, it doesn’t taste like anything. The Veggie Burger — which, in an ill-conceived marketing stunt, was previously listed as free for ladies but is now complimentary for all patrons — tastes like peas and eggs. The bun is pink, which I guess is meant to make it more appealing for me, a woman, but I suppose now others are allowed to eat it too.
The truffle fries (HOW CAN YOU RUIN TRUFFLE FRIES???) are aggressively fragrant but taste like blanched potatoes. Each table comes with a large metal box filled with flaky salt and a wooden spoon, a blessing since you’ll need to cover all your food in it in order to experience anything close to flavor. The garlic mayo, which cost an extra $1.50, actually tasted like garlic. I was so overwhelmed I almost wept: hark, a flavor.
Attempting to eat my meal, it became clear that #SaltBae is the opposite of a Guy Fieri restaurant. This is no flavortown.
But like I was saying, it’s not really about the food, nor should it be. You go to #SaltBae so you can Instagram your dining experience, or run into the restaurant’s namesake and beg him for a selfie, or tell your friends, “I went to #SaltBae and all I got was indigestion.”
It’s like the Museum of Ice Cream all over again — less about the experience itself than about your ability to show people you had the experience. This despite the fact that the restaurant itself isn’t that impressive. #SaltBae would be a good setting for a TikTok video since the back half was completely empty at lunchtime on a Friday afternoon. The space itself looks like a half-finished Starbucks Reserve, but with less charm and some of the most ergonomically unpleasant booth seating I’ve ever experienced. Plus: It’s just lousy with bros in pea coats. Did I mention you get a set of black gloves to eat all your food with? You do. I don’t know why. I don’t want to know why.
But why begrudge Gökçe for capitalizing off the incredibly stupid way he sprinkles salt on meat? What’s the point of going viral if you’re not able to turn it into something — a business, a profit margin, a brand?
But why begrudge Gökçe for capitalizing off the incredibly stupid way he sprinkles salt on meat?
Should viral stars not be able to profit off their virality — even if in this case the product in question might kill me? Lil Nas X made a song about riding a horse and turned it into a career. Kalen Allen’s online recipe reviews landed him a job doing the same thing on Ellen. That stupid Walmart yodeling kid is 13 and already signed to Atlantic. The old saying is that when you die, you can’t take your money with you, but you can’t take your viral fame either. Might as well open a restaurant while you have it. Or sell some ugly T-shirts. “Make” an eyeshadow palette shaped like a pizza. Do your best — or, more accurately, your worst — while you can.
So the tiny Turkish man with comically dark glasses wants 20 bucks for a burger that tastes like chewing on your own tongue? Fine. He’s earned it. Shut up and give him your money. Put on those black gloves that come with every burger as if you’re handling something radioactive and worry about potential diarrhea later. (I did get diarrhea later.)
This is how the world works now, and turning your nose up at the poor quality of the latest money grab from viral stars won’t stop it from being the new norm. The burgers are bad, but that’s not really the point.
Go to #SaltBae and have a terrible meal. Try to have a conversation while they blast a decade-old Jonas Brothers song so loud that you can’t hear yourself think. Laugh at how stupid it is, how dumb you are for going to a restaurant that’s just an internet stunt come to life. Take photos of yourself in the least sexy bathroom in Manhattan, and I’m including every single bathroom at Penn Station in this assessment. Stand in the middle of the restaurant and gaze upon the ginormous “#SaltBae” sign, and think about how poorly a hashtag-based marketing scheme will age when Twitter finally breaks down after we all get the coronavirus. Ultimately, you just have to accept that the joke’s on you.
But whatever you do, just don’t get the wet burger. Generally speaking, avoid buying food where the main selling point is that it’s “damp.” That’s just good, practical advice. ●