Is fine dining really dead, or has it just changed?
Is fine dining really dead, or has the concept just changed? Starched white tablecloths, fussy service, fussy food, black tie–adorned waiters, stuffy, hushed dining rooms and some degree of pretense tend to fit, I would argue, within the realm of most people’s concept of fine dining.
More and more restaurants — and chefs — appear to be gravitating towards informal service (it is possible to be proper without being pretentious), casual atmosphere, no dress restrictions, communal seating, shared plates and family-style service. While the atmosphere and service may lean towards the informal, the quality of ingredients and attention to detail in the food remains paramount.
Which begs the question, “Can a restaurant be casual and still be considered fine dining?” The answer undoubtedly depends on your definition of fine dining.
Daniel Costa, chef/owner of the highly acclaimed Corso 32 and Bar Bricco in Edmonton, Alberta (neither of which Costa considers to be fine dining in the traditional sense despite the exceptional-quality food) sees fine dining as “having more to do with the service, atmosphere, music and space between tables versus the quality of the food. You have one person pouring your water, one person clearing your table, one person presenting your food, one person explaining your food, an elevated pillow for the lady’s purse, someone walking you to the washroom …”
Costa goes on to say, “If you are simply looking at the food quality as your judgement of what ‘fine dining’ is, then yes, you can absolutely eat it every day.” But ultimately, Costa believes the term refers to more than just the quality of the food.
Perhaps the move towards casual unstructured meals and tapas dining has been influenced by immigration and the family style of so many ethnic cultures. Costa’s concept of fine dining growing up (and I am sure he is not alone in this view) is related to French food. Growing up in an Italian household, he couldn’t imagine eating Italian meals in a delicate setting.
Indian, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and so many other cuisines are traditionally served family-style. As these cuisines have become more popular globally (related directly to emigration) and elevated by chefs within their respective cultural communities (eg. Vikram Vij as it relates to Indian cuisine), the lines between traditional fine dining and having a great experience have blurred.
Contributing to the identity crisis is the rise in the quality of street food, food trucks, upscale fast-food establishments and hip, casual dining restaurants. You no longer have to dress up and take out a line of credit to eat well. Although casual dining isn’t necessarily inexpensive.
The biggest change in “fine dining” may be accessibility. Being able to enjoy exceptional-quality food in a casual setting allows greater segments of the population to be exposed to the quality and style of food that, in the past, may have only been served in traditional “fine dining” restaurants.
Perhaps the true modernization is to get past the labels and focus on the experience — exceptional-quality food, knowledgeable and customer-oriented service, quality beverage programs and great atmosphere. Each of the following restaurants provides an exceptional dining experience with a focus on shared plates in a casual setting. Fine dining? According to the traditional definition, probably not, but, without question, exceptional-quality food and dining experiences in every sense.
State Bird Provisions, San Francisco, CA
Innovative, delicious and attentive service make this restaurant a home run. You can order off the menu, but the fun part is the abundance of roving dishes served dim sum–style. The steak tartare with sunchoke toast, State Bird with Provisions (buttermilk fried quail on the night we went), duck liver mousse with almond biscuit and guinea hen dumpling were all unique and delicious. Easy to understand the long lineups that form each night.
Cockscomb, San Francisco, CA
As popular as Incanto was, Chris Cosentino’s new restaurant, according to the celebrity chef, is more a reflection of his own personality. Fresh shellfish and oysters along with hearty offerings of offals and butcher’s cuts fill the meat-centric menu. Best with a group to be able to try a selection of dishes. Also has great gin and Amari selections.
The Purple Pig, Chicago, IL
The flavours are reminiscent of the tapas bars of Spain and stuzzichini bars of Italy. Pork-fried almonds, braised baby artichokes, olive oil–poached tuna, winter-squash arancini, milk-braised pork shoulder, porcini-stuffed quail, guinea hen cooked under a brick and an extensive selection of cheese and cured meats lend themselves to a delicious grazing experience. The perfect example of how simplicity can taste so good.
Vij’s, Vancouver, BC
Vikram Vij has done more to elevate Indian cuisine and drive it into the mainstream than any other individual in North America. His signature lamb popsicles and jackfruit in black cardamom and cumin curry have become iconic. The stunning food combined with precision service and Vij’s warm hospitality explain the nightly lineups despite the no-reservation policy.
Maenam, Vancouver, BC
Might be the best Thai food in North America. Dishes such as bay scallop ceviche, eight-spice lingcod, aromatic curry of lamb shank and duck breast in red curry possess a purity and depth of flavours. A killer wine program and knowledgeable, friendly staff help to elevate the experience.
Bar Bricco, Edmonton, AB
Inspired by the salumerias in Rome and spuntini (meaning tastes, bites or snacks) bars throughout Italy, the menu encourages tasting through its small plates and broad selection of salumi and cheese. The wine list is predominantly Italian and there is an extensive list of digestifs. The heart of the place is centred around the slicer which drives the menu, and the turntable which drives the atmosphere, with Costa at the helm of both. The beauty of Bar Bricco is its simplicity, accessibility and, above all, the quality. Costa understands the soul of Italian cuisine (and it’s not just because he’s Italian), and he’s not scrimping on the quality of his ingredients.