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Restaurant Review:

Nestled between historic Hamilton and Morris Halls, beneath the exquisite grounds of the Harvard Business School campus, lies a hidden culinary gem. Eschewing signage of any kind, as if to flaunt its secrecy, the spot has become known to insiders as The Tunnel Vending Machines (TTVM).

TTVM has built a reputation on romance, so this critic visited on a recent Friday night with a first date in tow. TTVM did not disappoint.

The restaurant is entered, rather dramatically, via an impossibly long, white tunnel, which is lined with curious pipes and curvatures. The tunnel is dimly lit, curvy, and full of ambient moans and hums. The sexual symbolism was impossible to miss. This critic felt his pulse quicken, and my date had an unreadable expression on her face, which might have been erotic anticipation.

The dining area itself is dominated by a series of upright metal boxes with glass fronts. The aesthetic is minimalist; the food itself is on display through the glass, as though concealing it would be disingenuous, a denial of our essential carnivorous essence. At TTVM, the food is the d‚cor. I found this design choice to be scandalously insouciant. My date, too, appeared dumbstruck.

In a wicked commentary on the modern “depersonalized” economy, TTVM requires patrons to order their meals by pushing a series of buttons labeled, cryptically, with letters and numbers. This effects a brilliant, perhaps unprecedented, transfer of agency. Gone are the false intermediaries, the waitstaff and the cooks. What remains is merely the eater and the eaten. Artifice has been exposed and excised.

For an appetizer, my date and I shared a package of T.G.I. Friday’s Potato Skins Snack Chips Cheddar & Bacon Flavor. The chips had a sensuous organic design, the size and shape of deer ears. The bouquet offered notes of dehydrated onion and yeast extract, but the aftertaste surprised me with a decadent hint of maltodextrin. At this point, my date was eyeing me incredulously, perhaps shocked by my willingness to experiment.

After this auspicious beginning, we were both somewhat disappointed by our entrees. I sampled the Hot Pocket Meatball and Cheese Pocket, and my date tried the Michelina’s Yu Sing Asian-Style Garlic Chicken. These dishes were served flash-frozen, sans cutlery. The diner was forced to lick the food directly – another clever example of disintermediation, this time removing the traditional “plates,” “silverware,” and “heat.”

Yet this provocation, in the end, fell somewhat flat. The sucking and ice-gnawing quickly grew tiresome, and my date’s chicken clung rather desperately to its paper packaging. The experience left this critic wishing for a sympathetic waiter, but perhaps this is the very irony that TTVM intended.

At this point, my date left suddenly, having remembered the death of a close relative. I moved on to dessert alone, choosing the Hershey’s S’mores bar, a tasty melange of milk chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker morsels. This dessert was generally pleasing, but the pastry chef was embarrassingly heavy-handed with the cellulose gel.

Still hungry, this critic ordered another round of T.G.I. Friday’s Potato Skins Snack Chips. On the second tasting of the chips, I became aware of the chef’s cheeky use of whey, reminding me of the fierce intelligence at work behind the scenes at TTVM.

A note to potential patrons: The wine list at TTVM is severely lacking. Furthermore, some of the menu items are somewhat outre, such as the Midol and fingernail clippers.

Let it be said clearly: For those wanting a “safe” dining experience, there is the Olive Garden. For those wanting a meal like life itself – full of peaks and valleys, pleasures and disappointments, eroticism and abrupt departures by first dates – TTVM is the place to be.

TTVM, Green tunnel at Morris Hall east entrance. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Reservations recommended. ($)

January 26, 2004
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