LONDON: A long weekend in London, including a night at Mãos, less a restaurant than a house party where 16 guests circulate from kitchen to dining room to stairwell in a kind of multi-use commune amid the Huguenot ghosts of Spitalfields.
The building is named the Blue Mountain School, after North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, the arts retreat whose storied alumni number Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg.
I walk past the cockily unmarked door no fewer than three times before locating it. Upstairs, I am cooing at the matt-black austerity of an overhead lamp when I clock that it is Nuno Mendes, the Javier Bardem-ish chef-proprietor, who is serving us.
Honouring the trend of the past decade or two, he offers a tasting menu only. The diner has no say over the dishes or the order in which they arrive.
Your input is limited to registering any intolerances or allergies, lest the still-quivering mollusc they plate within hours of capture (they have an arrangement with a diver) turns your stomach.
Mãos takes the denial of choice further, in fact. There is a single communal dining table. There is one service per day. The wines are left to their judgment.
THE ABSENCE OF CHOICE IS LIFE-IMPROVING
Good. If they went yet further, and did not tell us what we were eating, either verbally or via a paper menu, all the better. In a world of endless choice, expert curation is precious. In a world of cacophonous information, the absence of it is life-improving.
Starred chefs know more than me about food, just as Apple knows more than me about smartphone layout. And there the examples of choice-editing start to dry up.
The question is not why these incursions into our personal sovereignty exist. The question is why there are not more of them.
The tyranny or paradox of choice was an established idea before the Internet, but it has particular force — even moral urgency — now. No one could have known how torrential the flow of information would become.
No one could have guessed that it would change real-world retail, where vendors now feel remiss if they do not maximise your options as a user.
I RATHER MAKE FEWER DECISIONS THAN HAVE TO MAKE DECISIONS
My gym in Washington, where I hone the bionic specimen you see in the byline photo, asked me to choose not just from three types of membership, but then from six different welcome rewards.
I am still receiving emails from a nice woman who clearly cannot believe I don’t want any of them, or, more accurately, that I cannot be bothered to parse the relative merits of a nutrition consultation and “two weeks of unlimited Sweatbox”.
Most newspapers offer a range of subscription models. Most banks offer a range of accounts. Most retail reward schemes require you to read things and do stuff.
Per annum, I probably miss out on an accumulated US$1,000 or more of value through sheer inattention. But I am confident that I come out ahead in all-round utility.
The marginal benefit of each “bargain” is always less than the hassle involved in realising it. I am essentially buying the right to be left alone.
Unless I am uniquely docile, there must be latent demand out there for some pruning of our discretion in daily life. A bit of paternalism, if that is what it is, might answer to a human need in an age that so militates against mental stillness.
SET ME FREE, LEAD ME TO A DECISION
As US president, Barack Obama used to lay out each day’s blue or grey suit the previous night, to eliminate choice. Each decision uses up energy, he explained, which degrades the quality of each subsequent decision.
Perhaps the head of a nuclear state has a tougher diary than a man who watched the Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz fight twice over, but the principle holds in my own life. Choice does not just grate. It drains the inner resources with which we do what is fun or important.
Outside Mãos, having made no decisions for three hours, I brave the coiled entrails of the London street system, or anti-system, with its myriad permutations, so unlike the Cartesian order of Washington or the numbered right angles of New York.
Complexity can be designed out of our lives, as those places show. When it comes to the built environment, as much is lost as is gained.
When it comes to the humdrum consumption that takes place within it, I see no cost, just a kind of emancipation. I want to be led so I can be free.