From Hooters to Stacked Burgers, a food critic asks: Can I get something off my chest?

Breasts. So much hangs upon them. Increasingly, this includes the success or failure of restaurants, especially the expanded playing field of what has been termed "breastaurants." Our own Hooters led the pack, prescient back in 1983 about what might expedite the sale of wings and fries. Then Mugs 'N Jugs, Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery, Brick House Tavern & Tap, Twin Peaks, O'Boobigan's and so forth.

According to a recent Business Insider story, about 1 percent of the nation's restaurants have closed since 2009, a year that saw an abysmal 3 percent decline in restaurants' sales figures, the worst in decades. Meanwhile, breastaurants are going strong.

Hooters averages $1 billion in annual sales, and some industry experts say breastaurants are one of the fastest-growing market segments. I recently went to check out a brand-new entry in the rack race, a casual spot in Tampa called Stacked Burgers, opened by "three almost famous ex-jocks," as they describe themselves.

As a prospective restaurant review it seemed worthwhile, although the burgers suffered from a grill not hot enough to get a satisfying dark exterior/pink interior. And the bosoms in question? As an A-cup girl in an increasingly C-cup world, they seemed impressive enough to me.

But one thing at Stacked Burgers drew me up short. It was this: There, in large letters on the wall, were the words "UDDERLY Delicious." As in lactating, sustenance-giving udders. For these particular ex-jocks, this may just be a bust pun that fell a little flat. But at the risk of making mountains out of molehills, it caused me to reflect on the fairly stringent paradigm in which these restaurants operate, which gets at the original preference for form over function.

It's what conservatives failed to understand during the big Breast Milk Baby flap this summer. Yes, the European toy allows little boys and girls to simulate feeding a baby, complete with sucking sounds and a postprandial burp. But this is not, as some misguidedly asserted, "sexualizing" the children who use the toy. Little girls have always modeled the care and nurturing of babies as part of their play, and that includes the meting out of life-giving food, a.k.a. breast milk.

But to conflate the purpose of breasts with the worship more broadly lavished upon them is a breastaurant faux pas. Titillation — a risky word choice, for sure — about lactation is considered perverse, a subclass of pornography worthy of an extra brown wrapper and its own section in the naughty magazine store.

Breastaurants already navigate some queasy-making truths. Hooters, as well as this new Stacked Burgers, grapples inelegantly with the notion that we in fact eat the breasts of chickens (at Stacked Burgers you may order a "chicken chest sandwich," ugh). But on this most of them are clear: Breasts are meant for ogling, not for feeding babies. In fact, in recent years many women have been ejected from restaurants for doing just that.

It's tempting to say turnabout is fair play, but a restaurant concept based on the male anatomy might have a more limited audience. Playgirl's circulation figures were, after all, always something of a disappointment. Is it that women don't fetishize the male anatomy in quite the same way, or that we don't wish to do so while eating cheeseburgers? I wonder if there is something women fetishize that might be conducive to a restaurant concept. Shoes, perhaps? "I'll have the Louboutin lasagna, please. And oh, look at the Jimmy Choo-secake!!!"

But were women to have a hand in the development of a breastaurant concept, it might be more straightforward and honest. It would be udderly inviting to lactating mothers and their progeny. Perhaps it would be decorated with bras through the ages, from the flattening wraps of the ancient Greeks through Jane Russell's signature bullets to the uplifting development of the first Wonderbra. And what would we call it? Welcome to Thanks for the Mammaries, my name is Laura, may I take your order?

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.

From Hooters to Stacked Burgers, a food critic asks: Can I get something off my chest? 09/16/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 18, 2011 1:21pm]

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