Since petroleum prices rose from their relative lows in the 1990s, Ecuador’s
coastal city of Guayaquil has experienced a rapid process of uneven “urban
regeneration” aimed at modernizing the city’s infrastructure, instilling a
new collective identity, fomenting sustainable urban planning, and attracting capital from both the national and transnational bourgeoisie. While most of the projects associated with this bout of urban renewal have centered around the historical downtown, the extent of the projects and the circulation of petroleum rents (finance, imports, banking) throughout the city have led to the expansion of middle-class aspirations mediatized through world-class images and experiences tied to social media, travels to Miami and Lima, and homegrown attempts to project an autochthonous “modernity” rooted in the tropical reality engulfing the city.
With the proliferation of Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor, and other sites
used to generate “images” and “commentary” on food for an ever-expanding consumer base, the management of such “experiences” by
restauranteurs has become an essential element in regenerating
“urban” spaces beyond the larger projects. At the same time, fashions
in the local restaurant industry change rapidly–new chains sprout up and shut down relatively quickly. But the typical trajectory in middle-class (and
poorer) neighborhoods is not to begin with a well-established restaurants in
spaces specifically designed for such activity, but to convert houses, storage
areas, garages, or public space (with carts) into eateries. This trend can be
observed in one of the more dynamic new fronts in the city’s gastronomical
topography near the massive Parque Samanes, between the neighborhoods of Samanes and Guayacanes.
Five years ago, the street in question was lined on either side with two-
and single-story homes, was relatively uncluttered during most hours, though was relatively “desolate” after dark–providing roaming bandits easy
pickings. Between 2014 and 2015, when oil prices nosedived, informal economic ventures began sprouting up in the area. At first, garages were converted into al fresco dining areas and sidewalks were colonized by portable grills. Rice and beans and/or lentils, fried plantains, and small salads were prepared in the houses’ kitchens, plated, and then sent to the grill to be accompanied by paper-thin cuts of chicken, beef and pork. Customers came from the local neighborhoods, looking for fast and cheap dining options–plates at that point cost between $3 and $5 dollars–and slowly but surely these small, informal eateries gained a local following.
After a few months, the lines getting longer, the garages overflowing with
customers onto the sidewalks, the word of mouth attracting people from further away, the first floor of these houses were then converted into dining rooms. At this point, a certain type of moro (rice and lentils) was developed, moro risotto, combining local flavors with parmesan cheese, white wine, and heavy cream. Accompanying sauces–sweet-spicy aji, basil mayos, garlicy mayos, etc.–were also developed, and marinades were perfected. Tables and chairs continued to be made of plastic, covered with plastic picnic tablecloths, but the restaurant now bore names. Menus were still informal matters, either communicated verbally or scribbled on dry-erase boards. However, these enterprises still operated in the most rudimentary of ways, often quite chaotically, quite clearly lacking proper training, established roles. And as their operations grew, so too did the amount of smoke and grease they released into the local atmosphere, incurring a rash of complaints from the neighbors.
The next few years would see the emergence of brands, Facebook pages,
delivery services, and, more importantly, the converting of the houses into
full-blown restaurants. With interior designs now mimicking “authentic” restaurants, with well thought out color schemes, ambiance, menus, more durable furniture, and official “kitchens,” both the food and the restaurants themselves gained cachet on the local food scene. But at the same time, the trappings of “top-class” dining experiences (dishes now ran from $6 to $15 dollars) were constantly belied by the informality which surrounded the entire establishment of this culinary enclave. The neighborhood, even during the day, smelled of grilled meats, the local infrastructure could hardly accommodate the influx of consumers, and single houses could hardly handle the demand of a pay-day weekend. Sometimes the restaurant annexed adjacent houses in order to offer up more dining space, while on other occasions fleeing neighbors sold their houses to the next up-start. And as wind of the profits being made started making the rounds, the local authorities began pressing more on implementing codes and regulating spaces, where municipal revenue and bribes rule the day.
While the street has become “commercialized,” generating economic
activity and serving to develop the local “comida criolla” into a
respectable form of dining by refining and rethinking classic dishes, the
informal means by which new dining options arise in the city, as evidenced by this case study and others like it, quite naturally creates both problems and opportunities for “entrepreneurs” and bureaucrats alike. Even now,
even the more established of the restaurants could wash their greasy grills and kitchens into the street, where the water would combine with the other sewage in piping that can’t even handle toilet paper. Chemicals and smoke from the cooking and cleaning process are willy-nilly released into the local
atmosphere, which has led to several residents formally complaining against the restaurants. Though social media and rankings have helped introduce more sound management techniques, and uniforms are now required in most of the restaurants, informal practices still tend to generate chaos when it comes to parking, buying take-out, and/or dealing with the line of patrons forced to wait for open tables on the sidewalks.
In closing, the Samanes-Guayacanes restaurant scene, informally sprouting
from economic necessity, has generated a vibrant food culture geared towards innovation and hybridization. These sort of restaurants typically appeared only in more upscale or central areas of the city prior to this period. At the same time, the lack of proper planning and infrastructural arrangements has hindered even further development of the sector, though it currently offers employment for informal parking attendants, and the movement has led to a decrease in street crime in that area. Until this moment there hasn’t been a fire or other clear safety hazard which would have put the area into the spotlight, but long-term health consequences from inhaling barbeque smoke for the nearby residents has been an issue. Likewise, knowing the finicky nature of Guayaquil’s restaurant scene, one might question what will become of the area when the heavy hitters either pack it up or move to more adequate installations? Until then, it appears that one of the city’s more dynamic gastronomic frontiers, which grew from the garages of local residents, has reconfigured the middle-class dining experience in the city, slowly but surely building up a “world-class” aesthetic through a criollo modernity and a tropical-mestizo culinary repertoire.