I recently attended the 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference. On the final day, amid high finance, the next frontier in health and education and a lunch speech from former President Bill Clinton, restaurateurs and chefs gathered to discuss where their industry is headed and the changing definition of “fine dining.”
Fine dining ain’t what it used to be. That was the driving point of a lively and opinionated morning session at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles early this month. The olden days, with a maître d’ focus, dress code and table settings haven’t disappeared, but they are fading and fragmenting to the point where it’s difficult to decide upon one definition of the term “fine dining.”
That was the assessment of moderator Barbara Fairchild, long of Bon Appetit and most recently of Real Eats. Restaurateur Michael Cardenas fought to preserve the old definition despite a diminishing number of such restaurants in the Los Angeles area and public scrutiny of foods such as caviar, foie gras and bluefin tuna. To Cardenas, fine dining still retains the characteristics of “price points [more than $100 per person] and a special-occasion restaurant.”
Elizabeth Blau generally agreed with Fairchild’s assessment, but said fine dining is shifting from being a theme to being a philosophical approach, both from the customer and developer standpoints. The collapse of formal dress codes is just one sign. Even in the hotel business, traditional fine dining is fading as developers seek all-day business by creating an entertainment destination.
But the first signs of the broad tastes in today’s dining world came from Mark Levy, who asked if there wasn’t a difference between fine dining and high-end dining. Fine dining “is chef-driven, where you have the chef on the premises,” being creative and creating particular products. High end is something like Nobu — places with $120-per-person checks and “an entertainment component.” There is a clear split between the two types of restaurants, he said, even if the price elements may be similar.
Perhaps the most interesting take came from what Fairchild called “the definition of fine dining on this panel,” Josiah Citrin, owner of Melisse. One would expect him to be quite particular about the definitions and standards of dining. And he was — when it came to what he considered the negative effect of popups on chef development and the real aim of the war on foie gras. But with fine dining, perception is everything. Fine dining is one thing for a diner of a certain persuasion, but for Marilyn Hagerty, it was Olive Garden.
So what comes next? As Citrin alluded to, it will be the further refining of the customer experience. Reality television — the chef personalities, cooking contests and the Anthony Bourdains — has made customers more knowledgeable, confident and “willing to be more adventurous and try things.” And that experience is the key, Citirn said: “From how the staff treats you from the second you walk through the door, that every detail has been thought out. … Guests want to tell me, ‘It’s the best meal I’ve ever had, and I’ve eaten all over the world.’ That’s irrelevant. As long as you enjoyed the evening.”
Customers are demanding more diverse restaurant concepts that change more quickly, but they also want a fallback position when they are unsure about money or what to eat; that, panelists said, is where steakhouses have found a real niche.
Finally, while only a small part of the 75-minute discussion, panelists noted the positive and explosive impact of social media. Twitter and Facebook have their place, but converting them to customers is difficult, particularly at higher-end restaurants. Yelp, however, has offered more immediate benefits. Yelp “is just great word-of-mouth happening much faster,” Citrin said.