Monday, August 22, 2011

Dueling Bloggers: The Past, Present, & Future of Fine Dining

Photo courtesy of Listverse.
Peter - I think fine dining is slowly losing ground and will never catch back up. Gone are the days when people were willing to pay higher prices for "luxuries" like white table cloths and a dedicated bus boy to refill your water glass after every sip. No one wants to pay $160 for a bottle of California cabernet to pair with a ribeye when they can find the same bottle for $50 on Vinfolio, pickup the same cut of beef from Rare Cuts and throw it on the Big Green Egg at home. Granted, diners will always be willing to pay for food which they lack the tools and culinary skills to cook for themselves. But as every chef authors a cookbook and hosts his or her own TV show, Joe Q. Foodie learns a little bit more about cooking and loses a little more interest in dining out.

Rene - This is one of those paradoxes that are really enigmas wrapped in puzzles. As people get more knowledgeable about food, their desire to eat out and experience more types of foods increases. They pick up the New York Times and read about a chef in Brooklyn or a restaurant in Salinas, California and say, "Man I want to check that out." As far as I know the French Laundry or Daniel still have full reservation sheets night in, night out. While the proof is certainly out there that casual dining has supplanted fine dining in terms of sheer numbers of restaurants, if the economy picks back up, I think we will see a return of special event/fine dining. It is like that commercial for New York Life; "There will always be weddings, always be births..." When people want to celebrate milestones, a casual place with linoleum on the floors and the chef's meatloaf will not fit the mood.

Peter - I agree that things are cyclical and things will pickup as soon as the Dow does. But I also think that there is going to be a polarization of the dining scene. Consider that a high number of food fanatics are young people who make decent money but their incomes are not high enough to afford a regular meal at Stella! or Gautreau's, so instead they gravitate toward spots like Boucherie and Green Goddess and Cowbell where you can enjoy higher level cuisine in a lower level environment. Now, common wisdom will tell you that eventually these young people will grow up, have children, and hopefully make more money. But they will also have less time. So what I foresee is that large group of people then shifting away from spreading there minimal amount of dollars across a greater number of meals, to a higher amount of dollars across a lower number of meals.

Rene - According to Scott Boswell the more he makes Stella! a fine dining destination (by removing seats to serve less people, increasing cooks, upping the crystal budgets, etc...) the more revenue it brings in to the restaurant. Everyone right now is zigging towards casual, so those who are zagging stand out. People still will occasionally crave an indulgent or at least attentive evening out. About your young people, the question is when people do have the time to go out to eat what is the occasion. For instance, if you are taking a client or business contact out to dinner. Are you going to go to a Cowbell or an Herbsaint? Get a babysitter one night a month, are you going to waste that on pizza or spend that time on a pampering meal? Look I think it is great that I can go to a chef run, casual restaurant and have solid food. But a few weeks ago, Lindsay and I went to Domenica, had a great meal, some apps, a bottle of wine, a dessert. Bill with tax and tip came to $200. That is a little steep for "casual."

Peter - Special occasions will always mandate stepping up your game, but how many of those occasions occur every year? As for the proliferation of casual, chef-run restaurants, I think those are economic considerations rather than a signal of a shifting dynamic. Butcher and Tru Burger and Ancora are just a piece of the respective empires of Link, Burgau, and Garcia.  Those chefs did not need to open those restaurants to survive. But they certainly enjoy the supplemental income that those restaurants provide, and expansion allows for new opportunities for young chefs without a waterfall of responsibility. Plus, I think people will always enjoy and be able to afford a burger, pizza, or pulled pork sandwich.

Rene - Of course, economically it makes sense to downshift for those chefs in this economy. First of all, it is a way to reward members of their companies by installing them as chef-partners or managers. Second of all, they help support the motherships, which as a general rule lose money. It is a well-unkept secret that el Bulli lost money. If we ever get out of this malaise, the non-restaurant group affiliated casual restaurants may find it hard to get by as people look for dining to be special again. I have nothing with casual spots, but I find that I want something more from dining than the majority of new restaurants are opening can give me. I want a tablecoth every now and then. I want a waitstaff whose wardrobe isnt't designed by American Apparel. I want a plate of food that I can't make at home. I want more from restaurants. I want fine dining to start trending again. 


Meghan said...

"I want a tablecoth every now and then. I want a waitstaff whose wardrobe isnt't designed by American Apparel. I want a plate of food that I can't make at home. I want more from restaurants. I want fine dining to start trending again."

Perfectly stated. I completely agree.

Donnie Boy Riguez said...

Although miraculous in functionality and design, you will not be making anything that passes for fine dining coming off a 800 degree Big Green Egg. Unless of course you're making portobello mushrooms for two.