In lieu of a recent personal experience, I sat down and wondered....does fine dining still exist? And if it does, how do you define it? Since I comment about all things related to food and wine, I thought I would offer up my opinion on the subject and hope you'll do the same.
When I here the term "fine dining", I'm immediately transported back to a distant time when going out to eat was a special event. As a member of the baby boom generation, I was raised on meals cooked by my mother in our home. That was the order of life back in the 60's. Every once in a while, maybe every three months we were treated to a night out at a restaurant. For our very dysfunctional family (don't get me started on that subject), it was usually fairly expensive and my brother and I were required to "dress up". Sportcoat, clip-on tie, pressed slacks, and shined shoes
were all de rigueur for the experience.
It seems there were numerous restaurants classified as "fine dining" establishments back then and they all shared a few elements that made them stand out as such. First, they all had this sort of mystique about them. There was an ambiance in the decor. Usually that meant lots of dark wood and red leather. Warm colors and enticing aromas beckoned upon your arrival as to what awaited. There was a Maitre D' to greet you and show you to your table. The waiters were impeccable in their presentation and they were always there when you needed something, but disappeared into the woodwork when you didn't. The food was usually European in nature or should I say Continental. Lavishly presented, the portions were small, yet adequate which usually meant the food was rich with butter and cream. Desserts were all made at the restaurant and there were even
several made at the table, flambeed with great aplomb and showmanship. Those were the "fine dining" memories of my youth and when I started working in restaurants in the '70's, I wanted to work in those kinds of places. In the latter part of that decade, I was
fortunate to get experience in some of the best restaurants my city had to offer and they were all classified as "fine dining". When I went off to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in the early '80's, I was well served by my fine dining restaurant experiences. It was those experiences and subsequent extensive dining room training that put me ahead of my chef want-to-be peers, at least in the dining room service classes.
But then something happened. Fine dining as I knew it started a long slow decline in to the
dreadful abyss now known as...casual dining. There are many reasons this occurred, but I believe when women started to discover themselves and wanted careers and children, the trend veered towards convenience. Time became a huge factor and cooking meals at home with both parents working just didn't cut it anymore. Fast food restaurants boomed and places like Applebee's, Chili's, and Outback Steakhouse became popular almost overnight. A decent meal at a decent price where you could get in and out fairly quickly became a boon to the average family. What was classified as the "fine dining" segment fell precipitously in the wake of these new found eateries. The term "dining" fell out of favor in lieu of just "eating" or "grabbing a quick bite". The masses wanted casual dining...uh....feeding, but they still longed for something special. Concepts soon sprang up like weeds offering an enhanced "dining" experience that's now known
as (shudder).... upscale casual (UC).
Now, UC restaurant chains litter the landscape with their overly friendly service and fantastic
value for the dollar head trip. All done in a cookie-cutter, Better Homes and Gardens style, cutsie atmosphere. It sickens me to what has happened to restaurants over the past 30+ years. There's nothing special about going out anymore and that's why I rarely do. I have a running joke about opening a restaurant called The Trough. "Come feed at the The Trough" or "Lets go graze at the Trough". We've hot-wired the herd mentality into our day to day living and what was once special and unique doesn't exist anymore. Sad. Very sad.
Having said that...let's answer the question, does true fine dining still exist? The answer is a resounding YES! It exists, but only conditionally in some selected places. You will fine numerous fine dining restaurants in New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, New
Orleans, Las Vegas, etc. Large metropolitan cities known for food all have traditional fine dining bastions that defy the odds and will remain relevant forever. However, there are some places that categorize themselves as "fine dining" that have no business doing so. So, what defines fine dining? What makes a restaurant a fine dining establishment?
In my learned opinion, "fine dining" is more about the feeling and the experience and less about the food. Now you may argue that point, but let me continue. You can have a plain Jane facade, but upon entering, the true fine dining (FD) restaurant will have these elements:
Maitre D'/Floor Manager - a powerful presence is a must! No gum chewing, text messaging young girls (no matter how attractive) can be entrusted to greet and seat in a
FD restaurant. This is where first impressions are made and a mistake here can make or
break the experience.
Dress Code - FD translates into, "NO SHORTS, NO FLIP-FLOPS! Business casual with
a sport coat preferred. No hats, no bandannas (you laugh, but I've seen it) and men must have their shirts tucked in. If there's no dress code, then you are NOT fine dining. Period.
Servers - must be impeccable in their presentation and training. Consistency is key and the management staff must enforce the accepted standards. Servers should be on their
stations when on duty to anticipate guest needs. They should be seen and rarely heard.
Professionalism is paramount in a FD restaurant.
Sommelier/Wine Steward -well trained and preferably certified to be able to suggest
wines that will compliment the guest's meal. They need to be able to offer choices at
multiple price points and not just try to build up the check by suggesting expensive wines.
Earning the guest's trust is important in developing a repeat customer (a regular).
Food - Attractively presented. Hot food hot, cold food cold. Yes, even steakhouses can be
FD, but presentation is extremely important. In my mind, a $40 steak better look the part
as well as taste it.
Langniappe (Louisiana-speak for "a little something extra") - Give the guest something
they are not expecting. True fine dining is expensive....make it worth it.
Ambiance - All FD restaurants have it and cutsie doesn't cut it.
Fine dining needs all the above, but more importantly it needs a dedicated owner, managers, and service staff to pull it off. Without true professionals, a real fine dining restaurant is just a dream. Good help, especially in metropolitan suburbia is hard to find and keep. I wouldn't want to
attempt to open a fine dining concept with college students as my primary staff. Hell...knowing what I know, I would never want to open a restaurant of any kind at any time for any reason!
I have but one thing to say to these restaurant owners that call their places "fine dining" just
because they have high prices and a reputation based on past glory.....SHAME, SHAME,
SHAME! It kind of reminds me of the answer to the riddle I was told as a child. Just because you call a dog's tail a leg, doesn't make it so. So stop embarrassing yourself and insulting the intelligence (and cherished memories) of those who know better and categorize yourself as to what you really are.....UPSCALE CASUAL. (Blah!)
The Count has vented and now rests.