Pick up a major restaurant review or food industry article in the past few years, and you’ll most likely take away a rather grim prognosis for fine dining, especially in major cities. Pete Wells’ January review of New York fine-dining restaurant Per Se was one of many that have suggested a movement away from fine dining.
Describing the restaurant as “grand, hermetic, self-regarding, [and] ungenerous,” Wells had less-than-favorable things to say about the service, the pricing and some menu offerings. His opinions have been echoed not only by other industry leaders, but many in the general public have also expressed similar sentiments.
However, restaurant industry projections show that the dining as a whole is expected to exceed $782.7 billion this year, the National Restaurant Association said in their 2016 forecast. Their report shows consumers prefer locally-sourced, clean foods – ingredients free of additives, antibiotics, and excessive processing. According to the forecast, 81 percent of all fine dining restaurateurs are already serving locally-produced protein and 92 percent plan to add a locally-sourced item to their menus this year. With such an overwhelming industry response to consumer trends, why are so many quick to write the fine dining obituary?
Fine Dining’s Trademarks and Today’s Culture
One reason many are starting to write off fine dining is because of the changes professionals are seeing in America’s culture that collide with the ideals and hallmarks that have long been a part of fine dining.
- Dress Code: Fine dining establishments have long had clothing requirements for patrons. These have often included jackets or suits with ties for men and dresses for women. In the past few years, though, many of these restaurants have found that specific regions are adapting their codes to reflect the dress of their areas. While a jacket may make sense in chilly New York City, a restaurant in sunny California may find that heavier attire isn’t realistic for their patrons.
America as a whole has become less casual. In an attempt to be more comfortable, many individuals are opting for jeans or even less structured clothing pieces. A maitre d’ in a fine dining establishment has to balance a fine line between customer comfort and maintaining the unique experience of dining in their restaurant.
- Menus: Fine dining restaurants have always had an air of mystery, with rare or exclusive ingredients, delicate flavor balances and creative combinations. In the recipe of a successful fine dining experience, the main ingredient was the chance to savor a meal you may have never imagined, prepared by a world-class chef.
However, the rise of cooking television shows and competitions has brought about an increase in individuals looking to cook-it-yourself. With creative juices flowing and unlimited online recipes, home chefs are armed with the information needed to try and re-create their favorite fine dining recipes.
- Service: The image of fine dining service conjures up tuxedo-clad servers hovering around a beautifully-set table. High-quality linens, exquisite china, crystal and silverware, and prompt service for each course of the meal are expected at fine dining establishments. Along with this comes extensive training for employees and investments in chefs, sommeliers, and more.
In an economy where many individual Americans are looking to save, customers aren’t always as willing to pay the extravagant prices that accompany a fine meal. Others prefer a more casual environment where they can relax and unwind.
A Death or a Rebirth – Where is Fine Dining Headed?
Many high profile chefs are choosing to open restaurants that still have the same air of exclusivity with a more modern touch. The segment of talented fine-dining chefs opening fast-casual restaurants has grown so quickly that the National Restaurant Association ranked this trend as second in the 2016 What’s Hot culinary forecast, and the leading culinary theme. Other top culinary themes included hyper-local sourcing, minimally-processed ingredients, environmental sustainability and back-to-basics simplicity. Trends are pointing toward consumers trading in suit jackets for leather jackets and designer dresses for designer jeans to enjoy a night out without the formality of a fine-dining restaurant.
As a result, many new consumers are flocking toward restaurants with an edgier vibe in a warm atmosphere, opting for cocktails and small plate service. The simplicity of clean flavors, clean design, and clear pricing has proven to be a winning equation for many newer restaurants.
Restaurant reviewers are agreeing, with some reviewers finding that consumers and restaurants alike are redefining luxury and refinement to a more fluid model that gives chefs the flexibility to take more culinary chances and diners the opportunity to experience new takes on favorite flavors.
Fine dining isn’t dead. And as a beloved segment of the restaurant industry, it won’t ever die. There will always be a place for new white-tablecloth restaurants, opulent, rich menus and flavors, and the traditional decor and service. However, fine dining may see itself becoming less relevant in an increasingly casual culture that is seeing more affordable, relaxed environments with exciting menus, vibrant atmospheres and more flexibility for consumers and chefs alike.