"You can’t eat decor” (or “you can’t eat the decor") means that a restaurant should serve good food. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a restaurant can’t look nice, or that a restaurant’s appearance doesn’t matter.
“You can’t eat decorations” is a phrase that has had limited use since the 1930s. “You can’t eat decor” is cited several times in print in 1982, but any specific source of the phrase is not clear.
6 February 1936, Modesto (CA) Bee, pg. 12, col. 2:
No matter how much you like beauty, you just can’t eat cellophane decorations, so let us get on with the main part of the festivities.
Fodor’s New York City and nearby attractions
By Eugene Fodor
Published by Fodor’s Modern Guides
Continental restaurant with exotic decor — but you can’t eat decor.
January 1982, Cincinnati (OH) Magazine, pg. 39, col. 3:
Next is ambiance, and here again the critics agree: it helps but it’s not crucial. “The decor is part of the total dining experience,” says Ellen (Ellen Brown of the Cincinnati Enquirer—ed.), but “the decor is certainly not as important as the food. You can’t eat decor.”
23 December 1982, Los Angeles (CA) Times, San Diego section, pg. SD-A6:
The Case of the Missing Ingredients
If You Could Eat the Decor, Zona Rosa Would Be Worth Its Salt
By David Nelson
It is a pity that one can’t eat the decor at the new Zona Rosa in Bird Rock—it’s so much more appealing than the food.
Oh, baby, I love it!
By Tim McCarver with Ray Robinson
New York, NY: Villard Books
Yes, I know you can’t eat decor, but I was always looking for something to break the monotony of life on the road.
New York (NY) Times
By Bryan Miller
Published: Friday, October 20, 1989
New Yorkers, for all their purported sophistication about fine dining, are still suckers for fancy decor. It’s not surprising, really. In a city where living space is calculated by the inch, restaurants are not just places to eat; they also serve as living rooms for the middle class. I conducted an informal poll this year, asking a few dozen New Yorkers at random whether food or atmosphere was more important when choosing a restaurant. Nearly 40 percent said they considered atmosphere at least as important as food.
As food purists say, you can’t eat the decor at restaurants. Il Cantinori has ample pleasing food to justify a visit, but regulars must find something more to savor than I did.
10 January 1996, New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM), “Seafood-only restaurant causes a splash” by Diane Stoneback, pg. C2, col. 6:
But they don’t come just for the seafood either. She said, “Although the guests can’t eat the decor, it needs to be beautiful. It’s a total package. People wouldn’t pay the same kinds of prices to eat in a warehouse or fish shack decor.”
Google Groups: kw.eats
From: (Prabhakar Ragde)
Subject: Re: new restaurants
Well, you can’t eat decor. And it is pretty close to generic “American diner”.
Houston (TX) Press
Come Fry with Me
Valdo’s misses some connections on its culinary journey around the world, but it’s right at home with Gulf Coast seafood
By Robb Walsh
Published on November 21, 2002
Valdo’s Café in Deer Park is a virtual jungle, with over 30 fake plants and 23 landscape prints on the walls, not counting the trompe l’oeil beach scenes in the bathrooms. The bathroom wall paintings show the bricks of the building broken away to reveal an idyllic beach scene in the distance. “People in Deer Park must fantasize about nature a lot,” one dining companion quipped.
The restaurant also has apparently decided to make a bold decorating statement by ripping up the carpeting to reveal the grubby concrete floors beneath. While the industrial look is much in vogue these days, it generally works better if you polish the concrete and remove the water-stained acoustical tile ceiling. Not that I’m ready to open an interior design consulting business in Pasadena. And anyway, as somebody somewhere once said, you can’t eat decor.
$1 Billion Plaza Revives Oak Room With $28 Burgers: Food Buzz
By Ryan Sutton
Dec. 23, 2008 (Bloomberg)—The Oak Room, in The Plaza Hotel on Manhattan’s Central Park South, has always been better known as an old bar than as a good restaurant. Well, it’s still old and there’s still a bar. And after an elaborate renovation, the restaurant still charges exorbitant sums for uninspired food.
Walk back to the dining room. Gorgeous. Ceilings look 30 feet high. A plaque for George M. Cohan hangs (guess he was a regular). Old chandeliers emit a dim, orange glow. It all looks like a faded photograph. No, you can’t eat decor, but you can certainly pay for it. Chef Joel Antunes is responsible.
I know you can’t eat decor, but I was always looking for something to break the monotony of life on the road.