The Rise and Fall of Potato Skins

An increasingly rare sighting of the endangered species in the wild. Photo: Melissa Hom

Potato skins are the unsung heroes of the bar-food world. They’re sturdy and dependable, but too often overlooked, taking a backseat to high-profile options like wings and burgers. At least, that may have been the case at one time. Perhaps due to their inherent lack of sex appeal, potato skins have all but disappeared from menus. (Unless you’re a regular at your local TGI Friday’s you might be hard-pressed to come up with the last time you ordered some.) Which is a shame, because it’s not just the potato skin that’s disappearing from New York but a certain breed of restaurants and bars.

The story goes that the dish was invented in the middle of the 20th century after a restaurateur learned that sailors were eating vitamin-heavy potato skins to stave off illnesses. It probably also helps that the skins are cheap, easy to load up with sour cream and bacon, and go well with pitchers of beer. They are, in other words, extraordinarily ordinary, a no-frills plate of food that’s too easy to overlook. While potato skins started, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, as a “faddish, fun-food entry,” they became an ubiquitous dish of the 1980s. Writing for New York in 1982, during the boom years of the potato skin craze, the late and influential restaurant critic Seymour Britchky described them as “the dish almost everybody orders” and “a recent Manhattan Island page.” They were the original gonzo food mash-up, and an inherently American greasebomb appetizer.

At their best, they combine the best parts of potato chips and baked potatoes. Hot, crispy, covered with cheese and scallions, the kind of thing someone else at the table orders, and you wind up eating like three-quarters of the plate all by yourself. But the thing is, even when they are at their best — which isn’t always a given at various dives and pubs — they’re still just potato skins, which is perhaps why chefs and restaurant owners seem happy to have let them fall by the wayside.

The current, social-media-driven emphasis on visual appeal certainly doesn’t help the dish’s case: Potato skins are ugly. Two dimensional. Brown. They don’t have the kitschy, Kodachrome appeal of deviled eggs or even the look of bountiful excess that can help sell a properly baked potato, which chefs are all too happy to top with European cheese or caviar.

But potato skins receive no such love. They don’t show up in restaurants where chefs specialize in reinvented pub fare. They’re relegated to utilitarian bars with cheap beer, good-but-not-great food, and burgers with beef from who-knows-where. That would be for the best, were it not also for the fact that those places are harder and harder to find in New York City, where soaring rent and fierce competition practically demand that every new bar and restaurant is some kind of thing. (Witness, for example, the transformation of Chumley’s from literary-bar to haute-burger-slinging-revamped-speakeasy.) Things can be great, but they can’t be the only option.

The natural habitat for potato skins is the kind of bar where you can imagine your mom and dad drinking cheap beer after a Stones concert at the Garden in ’72. The food options would be limited, and everything would be greasy, which is exactly the time you’d want a platter full of deep-fried starch, covered in bacon and cheese, with a plastic cup of sour cream on the side, familiar and satisfying and totally unstylish in the best possible way.

The Rise and Fall of Potato Skins