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Is formal dining holding its own?


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Just because something is a ten-course New Nordic tasting menu, that doesn't make it fine dining. You still have to see how good the ingredients are and the kitchen work is. It could still be ambitious mid-level food. And for 10 courses, $110 isn't even that expensive (meaning it costs so much just because there are so many courses).

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QUOTE Perhaps the confusion arises because there are new optionsplaces like Momofuku Ssamwhere you get haute European cooking without most of the trappings. But it's a misconception to suggest that

First, anyplace that forces a male to wear ties is out.   Second, anyplace that feels like a Cathedral and forces hushed tones is out.   Third, anyplace the accepts reservations appears to be on

Just because something is a ten-course New Nordic tasting menu, that doesn't make it fine dining. You still have to see how good the ingredients are and the kitchen work is. It could still be ambitiou

Just because something is a ten-course New Nordic tasting menu, that doesn't make it fine dining. You still have to see how good the ingredients are and the kitchen work is. It could still be ambitious mid-level food. And for 10 courses, $110 isn't even that expensive (meaning it costs so much just because there are so many courses).

Does that apply to the Four Seasons? Does Le Cirque have to use first rate ingredients to get included?

 

It seems comparable, food cost wise, to other places that get included in the formal group (say Blue Hill). It may not be as good as you'd like, but it's targeting a fine dining type market.

 

Eta: maybe they do, but are you willing to potentially exclude those places. Is this a category or quality discussion.

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Does that apply to the Four Seasons? Does Le Cirque have to use first rate ingredients to get included? . . .

Is this a category or quality discussion.

 

I think it's both. No one's much interested in a restaurant that has the bones of fine dining (as those two places unquestionably do) if the food is not first-rate.

 

Whatever the quality may be today, the Four Seasons and Le Cirque are legacy restaurants. They survive because they have client loyalty, built up over many decades, that has not yet dissipated. The problem that this thread is discussing, is that the restaurants coming along now, are in general not as good as those places used to be, when they were relevant.

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It's useful to think of quality and formality as distinct and separate products. There's demand for each, and costs to providing each, for diners and for restaurants. And if you think about it as a marketplace, the competition has gotten fiercer and the segmentation even finer. Both of these are secular trends. So it feels inevitable that formal dining will continue to decline in prominence. But so will everything else as the landscape fragments (for our small, small slice of the total dining marketplace).

 

It feels like we're conflating high-end tasting menus with fine dining, which is really, to me at least, much more about the formality and much less about the food. For a reference point, I'm 28, and I don't think of a $115 neo-scando tasting menu as fine dining if I'm sitting on a bench and there isn't a tablecloth. The price point is mostly irrelevant, as are the number of courses and the level of service. It's formality qua formality. Tradition, ritual, symbolic practices that many younger restaurants eschew.

 

I think the recession, more than anything, just reset the culture. Formality in restaurants now feels obnoxious and conspicuous outside of the traditional "occasion." There's nothing cool about it, or valuable or pleasurable (that I can't also get from the winsome ladies at Roberta's). The people who care about that sort of thing have bottle service and Ferragamo.

 

Speaking personally, there's nothing inherently appealing about formality to me, and it's actually quite a barrier given the informality of my workplace. It's high enough to practically eliminate spontaneously visiting a formal, or even dressy restaurant. And I'm surely not alone in that regard.

 

Which limits formality to uptown and restaurants that can generate enough demand to carry themselves... The kinds of restaurants that take reservations and never really have to depend on the spontaneity of diners like me. And that's before we get into the plethora of alternatives which the internet has made even easier to discover and explore. So that bimodal distribution of places above a certain check average has emerged.

 

What I like so much about the Elm and dislike so intensely about Daniel is just this... I'd rather my whole check go towards the food, or at least have that perception...

 

And at least when I do employ the EMPs of the city for those more decorous occasions, I can dine without the fear of condescension because one (or all) of us is wearing denim or that we're under 30. It's like watching them shift gears, table by table, and it makes the formality more palatable.

 

As an aside, this board often engages in debate over the logical consistency and intellectual coherence of positions posters take... I think it's important to remember what a tiny idiosyncratic segment of the total dining population we are, and allow for the fact that most of the way we think doesn't really apply outside of these confines.

 

Also, none of this applies to steakhouses. Thank God for that.

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it's actually quite a barrier given the informality of my workplace. It's high enough to practically eliminate spontaneously visiting a formal, or even dressy restaurant. And I'm surely not alone in that regard.

This is a complete tangent, but I often think about how my dining habits changed when all-week casual office dress kicked in.

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It's useful to think of quality and formality as distinct and separate products. There's demand for each, and costs to providing each, for diners and for restaurants.

Except...they are not really as distinct and separate as you imagine. Many of these places have actually been adding the grace notes of formality back in again. No one would confuse Torrisi Italian Specialties with Le Cirque; but Torrisi 2.0 incorporates a lot of the traditional service elements that v1.0 lacked. Brooklyn Fare today is a far cry from the Brooklyn Fare that charged $85 a head. Both Eleven Madison Park and Del Posto got quite a bit fancier in recent years. Neither them, I would note, is an uptown spot.

 

The people who want the best ingredients and the best preparation, generally don't want to eat on paper plates and chance a no-reservations policy.

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I think in some very real sense, "fine dining" demands some level of active, focused engagement with the food on the part of the diner, which generally requires an environment with elements that we'd recognize as being formal.

 

I'm using all these weasel words because the poster children of Per Se and Momofuku Ko are formal in very different ways.

 

But I think this criterion of formality literally in the sense of encouraging the diners to focus on the food serves to exclude both corporate dining rooms and dingy garages with paper plates, in the long run.

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I was in Montauk last week on vacation. There is a pop-up restaurant called Moby Dick that was getting some good word of mouth so we went. The whole kitchen is outside with 2 pizza ovens and a grill. One guy making pizzas with the chef preparing everything else. There are somewhere between six and seven dishes prepared each night and they serve until the food runs out. There are no waitresses or waiters; you order your food and pay at a desk near the kitchen. They give you a buoy with a number on it to put on your picnic table so they know where to deliver your food. Dishes come out whenever they are ready. There is a separate bar that you need to walk up to to order drinks and bring them back to your table.

 

We had the best burrata I ever tasted served with cherry tomatoes from another world along with great olive oil and local sea salt. We had a pasta dish with shrimp, chiles, lemon zest, those same tomatoes and olive oil that could be the best pasta dish served at Del Posto, Babbo or Marea. An impeccably roasted fish with baby zuchini and mushrooms. Because you are all tired of it I won't bring up the kale salad which was probably made within a few hours of being picked and inhaled within a few minutes of arriving.

 

Everyone here dined in shorts and t-shirts including us. At around $60 a head without desserts and before drinks, we felt it was expensive even though we unanimously swooned over the food. Clearly the reason was the informality of the restaurant. If we ate this meal in a real restaurant we would have felt it was a bargain.

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I think in some very real sense, "fine dining" demands some level of active, focused engagement with the food on the part of the diner, which generally requires an environment with elements that we'd recognize as being formal.

 

I'm using all these weasel words because the poster children of Per Se and Momofuku Ko are formal in very different ways.

 

I agree with this. If we're putting restaurants into just two buckets, Ko falls on the formal side of the line, by today's standards.

 

I get the feeling that Adrian thinks that any restaurant with a tasting menu is automatically fine dining, regardless of whether any of those other elements are present.

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Right; fine dining and formal dining aren't quite the same, but they overlap very heavily, for IMO real underlying reasons. Clearly "formal dining" and "traditional formal dining" aren't the same.

 

There's some sort of spectrum, too. The Elm has meaningful elements of formality, in a way that Ssäm Bar never did.

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Wilfrid seems to be happy so long as he's got mediocre foie gras, many menu choices and bidet service.

 

Adrian keeps unicorns for pets and wears a feather in his hat.

 

It's time to add a new creature to the bestiary, but what to call it? How about "homestyle fine dining"? Where the bistros typically offer a raw bar, charcuterie and cheeses, a burger, meat and fish from the grill, in robust portions, simply served, the "homestyle fine dining" venues push out carefully composed, artistically plated dishes, and sport service which--while casual--retains some of the tropes of swankiness.

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