21 January 2010

What the Heck's With The Chocolate Room?

The Chocolate Room, a mini-cafe-chain that sells speciality chocolates and chocolate-related drinks and desserts in Brooklyn, opened on Court Street in Cobble Hill a couple years ago, and I still haven't been able to figure the place out.

The boutique cafe seems to have this bizarrely high-flown idea of itself, as if it's situated on some romantic side street in Saint-Germain and patronized by the chicest and most beautifully behaved of Parisian women. Instead, it sits between the toy store Pizzazz and Cobble Hill Cinemas and is (surprise!) a magnet for stroller moms and their sweets-craving children.

The reality of their true clientele doesn't stop the staff from behaving like Franklin Pangborn's pompous children. The layout of the store is like this: there is chocolate counter and small retail section at the front, then a long corridor past a kitchen that leads to a small dining area filled with sweet, precious little tables.

It's a cafe, so one would assume that casual is the word of the day. Not so. It's the only cafe I know in the area where you have to be seated (even though there is no sign indicating this formality). The natural instinct of everyone who enters is the walk straight to the back and take a seat. But before you can do that, some counter kid halts you in your tracks with a "Can I help you?" or "Would you like to be seated?" or "Would you like a table?" (The attitude is particularly ridiculous given that most of the tables are usually empty.)

These requests are almost always addressed a harried parent and their over-eager progeny. I have a friend who, accompanied by her son, was actually asked by a servant, "Will you be sitting at your usual table?" The kid wants candy; the parent wants espresso. There's no call or desire for etiquette. The superciliousness continues at the table, when menus are grandly proffered, specials recited and orders scrupulously taken. Kids run around, as they are prone to do, and the proud waiters act like its the grossest of impositions.

These event are not anomalies. I've been several times and the experience is always the same. What are the owners thinking? They are next to a movie house that frequently shows kiddie films. They are near a toy store. They are in a neighborhood lousy with offspring. They are going to get kids, and gobs and gobs of them. Miss Vanderbilt or Cholly Knickerbocker will not be paying a call anytime soon, no matter how exquisite the chocolates. Get off your high horse and start catering your service to the true nature of your patronage, not the fantasy customers you have in your head. Either that, or hire a maitre d'.


Ed said...

There is one of these in Park Slope too. Its been there for awhile. I agree this is a strange and probably unworkable business concept. Its not that these things are some blight on the city, its just someone wasn't thinking when they designed the service process.

Anyway the thing to do is to stop at the counter, pick out a few chocolates from the glass case, pay for them, and then leave. Don't even try to sit at the tables. I've sat at the tables and ordered without much hassle, its just not particularly worth it. The chocolates in the glass case are not bad, though too much of this stuff is not good for you.

Carol Gardens said...

The hot chocolate is delicious but even more pricey than Jacques Torres. They seem to be trying to set a record. I feel the same way about the ice cream at Sweet Melissa (which isn't even special.) I wish these places would bring the prices down a bit and be more welcoming. The usual emptiness of Chocolate Room is not a good sign.

Bluejay said...

Just playing devil's advocate: Maybe they just take pride in going against the tide. Perhaps not unlike the restaurants with jacket-and-tie requirements, whose passing I think you were upset by. :-)

In any case, if their practices drive away enough customers, maybe they'll be convinced to loosen up.

Upstate Johnny G said...

I seem to recall there's a shop like this on the UES, maybe on Lex in the 60's. Their concept seems to be to be based on what I call "chocolate snobbery" although they would probably think of their target audience as having exquisite taste and the deep pockets to match. The idea seems to be to feed the need for social status by encouraging people to believe that something as simple as chocolate made with excellent ingredients by proper methods can be "deconstructed" the way wine, scotch and tequila, among other, are by those who claim to be experts. These places probably (and I admit I haven't been in one....but you have, Brooks, so correct me if I'm wrong) make a big fuss over "single origin" chocolate and describe tiny nuances of flavor that customers will imagine they can taste.

I'll bet if you opened a good old-fashioned NYC candy store in that space, with tons of "penny" candy and all the usual bars plus a bunch of cool foreign candy bars, and put some tables in and maybe offer some simple well-made homemade style desserts you'd have lines out the door. But that's just my analysis. Could be totally wrong.

Ed said...

Actually, there was an article in a British newspaper about how crappy the standard cheap American chocolate bars were Ithe article was in connection with the sale of Cadbury's). And it was accurate. Since the US government basically banned real sugar due to high tariffs and its Cuba policies, artificial sweeteners have been the norm.

So there is room for a store selling actual chocolate, not a bunch of chemicals combined to look and sort of taste like chocolate. And yes, the actual chocolate will be expensive since its now fairly rare.

Incidentally, alot of the things we complain about in New York are US wide trends, but in New York everything gets doubled. You don't see old fashioned candy stores these days because candy in the US is mostly crap, you don't see stickball games because of the SUVs, alot of places can't survive because of the high commercial rents, but its been national policy for some time to keep rents high. What has happened in the last ten years is that New York has fallen in step with the rest of the country.