'America's Next Great Restaurant': NBC's next misguided idea

bobby-flay-americas-next-great-restaurant-2.jpgFor those not familiar with the term "fast casual," get ready to be beaten over the head with it. The prize for NBC's "America's Next Great Restaurant" is a three-market chain of restaurants. And if you think that means"fast food," Bobby Flay will come through your TV to set you right.

The pitch here is basic. It's the American dream, on a mass-production scale. A diverse group of would-be restaurateurs (many of them not trained chefs) present their business plan to a panel of food world judges, and they choose who has the most potential.

Where this show differs from other reality competitions, the judges are the ones actually investing. Flay, Curtis Stone, Steve Ells, and Lorena Garcia are all fronting their own money to fund the winners idea -- which will be executed in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis at the end of the season.

In the first episode (airing Mar. 6 at 9 p.m. ET), the panel whittles 21 finalists down to a Top 10. And here's where the "serious" nature of this high stakes competition seems a little dubious.  There are some awesome (and obvious) ideas to be found in the group, for sure, but there are also a lot of absurdly bad ones...

"My restaruant concept name would be 'Soupz,'" says one competitor, "and my inspiration probably comes from Soups." (We won't spoil whether she makes it through or not.)

Of the more coherent ideas, the restaurant names are plagued by unappetizing double entendre. "Saucy Balls," "Lil' Wangs" and "Hard 'n' Soft" could all grow on us over the course of the competition, but right now, we feel like it's just a joke.

NBC is clearly aiming for a network companion to their successful "Top Chef" franchise here, but while the aesthetics and the challenges are decidedly Bravo-esque, the personalities don't ever come close.

And forgive us forgive us for going into overly foodie territory for a moment, but isn't a show that hands out a chain restaurant sort of a step in the wrong direction? Recent years have seen food TV push messages of local, healthy, sustainable and responsible eating. Those things will likely figure into challenges at some point, but they definitely aren't steering the ship.

You can destigmatize it all you want, but "fast casual" is still just phrase invented to get people to feel better about eating fast food. Period. As much as judge, and Chipotle founder, Steve Ells would have you believe otherwise, his restaurant is mentioned in the show's introduction along with KFC. (The "C" does not stand for "casual.")

Still, there is one really compelling reason to tune in to "Restaurant." More than perhaps any reality competition in the past, we'll have a very tangible measure of the winner's success. These restaurants are opening whether people tune in or not. And their high-rent competitive markets won't permit them to test the waters for long if they aren't an immediate success.

So, New Yorkers, Angelenos and Minneapolis...ians, pay extra special attention. Your three cities will be getting the winner's restaurant in just eight weeks. And we'll want to hear if anyone actually goes.
Photo/Video credit: NBC