Is Fine Dining Dead?
Wait. Before we try to answer that question, here’s another: What is (or was) fine dining? Is it all about having to confront a daunting array of forks and glassware? Is there a difference between fine dining and expensive dining? And is there a difference between formal dining and fine dining? I asked a number of local chefs—all experienced in high-end kitchens—what they thought of the future of what we used to call “white tablecloth” restaurants. Are we redefining fine?
High On the Mountain Top
The ski resorts are one of the last vestiges of fine dining in Utah. As Utah’s rough and tumble ski culture was infiltrated by outsiders accustomed to the established luxury of European ski resorts, local resorts began to polish up their silver and their acts. Stein Eriksen’s Glitretind has long been considered the ne plus ultra of ski-and-dine; Executive Chef Zane Holmquist reflects on how to keep that reputation while serving people dressed in baseball caps and T-shirts.
“Fine dining is a luxury, not a need,” he says. “People want to escape to a cushioned environment. They want to be coddled and buffered from reality. It’s not about the price; it’s about the experience. If there was not a tablecloth, my mom wouldn’t consider it fine dining. It’s a signal that the restaurant is going to pay attention to details. Fine dining is more about the service level and the experience than the food. You can get phenomenal food from a pizza place or a taco stand.”
According to Holmquist, New York City was one of the last bastions of formal dining in the U.S. But no one dresses up in New York anymore. There’s not necessarily a rose on every table covered with a white cloth or servers in tuxedos.
Follow a Few Simple Rules
Make your experience and the experience of those around you
Most diners don’t consider it, but the truth is, diners bring as much to a fine dining table as the server does.
The Attire: Remember the jacket of shame—a spare dinner jacket available for men who had not arrived properly dressed? Fine, we’re a more casual society, but you should keep in mind that you, the diner, is part of what makes dining fine. The men in sleeveless T-shirts who keep their baseball hats on throughout the meal should be dining elsewhere. The same goes for women in cutoffs.
The Table: Lots of things Mabel never mentioned should be kept off the table. Ideally, your keys and your phone will be in a pocket or purse. But worried parents want to know if the babysitter calls. In our 24/7 work world, there are some calls you can’t miss. Excuse yourself from the table and find a place to take the call. Given social media, it’s ridiculous to be offended by people photographing their dinner, but please, try to be discreet. And quick.
The Napkin: Put your napkin in your lap as soon as you sit down and leave it there. Do not blow your nose on your napkin. Do not scrub your mouth or the table with your napkin. Just dab your mouth. When you leave the table, put your napkin next to your plate. When you’re finished with your meal, put it in the same place—not on the plate, but next to the plate.
The Menu: If unsure of what to order, ask a waiter to make some recommendations. If you, like most people these days, have a dietary restriction, ask a server to recommend suitable dishes before demanding that the chef cook to order. Don’t be afraid to ask what an ingredient is.
The Glasses: A restaurant serving haute cuisine may have a staggering amount of glassware on the table, and each has its unique purpose. If unsure of which to use, just pay attention; the bus-person will pour water into the water glass, while the waiter or sommelier will pour wine into the appropriate wine glass. It’s also considered good manners to make eye contact with one’s dining companions when toasting.
The Wine: Never discuss the price of wine. When ordering, simply point out a wine in the category of your price point and ask the waiter (or, if there is one, the sommelier) for recommendations; he or she should understand and stick to wines within the desired price range. Unless the wine has gone bad (hint: it will smell like wet cardboard), do not send it back just because you don’t like it.
The Cutlery: The fancier the restaurant, the more silverware you’ll find on the table. For those confused about which fork to use with which course, the rule of thumb is to start at the outside and work your way inward. Never cut up all your food and then eat. The knife and fork should be held while eating, with cutting of food to be done as you eat it. Never ever leave a spoon inside a bowl of soup.
Courses: Don’t order a salad for a main course. Fine dining is an experiential journey that begins with the appetizer or amuse-bouche and ends with dessert. You bought the ticket, so take the ride. The rule of thumb when it comes to courses is to order the same number as one’s dining companion; one person eating while another sits without food is awkward and embarrassing. Many of the world’s best restaurants offer special multi-course tasting menus, so that all diners can enjoy the same specific dishes at the same time.
Eating: When it comes to eating etiquette, there are a few general rules to remember: don’t slurp your soup, and don’t blow on hot food to cool it down. The fork is meant to spear food, not scoop it like a shovel. Don’t use cutlery to gesture to your dining companions. Never stick the entire spoon or fork in one’s mouth.
Conversation: Don’t raise your voice. Do not mention
“To me, it’s the service,” says Holmquist. At the fine dining level, the service is anticipatory—servers know what you need before you do, they control the pace of the meal, so courses come at gracious intervals and there is plenty of time for diners to converse. Of course, the food has to be impeccable. But the restaurant needs to create a sense of occasion. Half of our diners are not tourists, but Utahns in for a special occasion.”
Still, Glitretind is part of a resort—that means their fine diners often include children, and these days, they are not supposed to be seen and not heard. It can’t be stuffy—the old rules about dinner jackets can’t apply to guests who are there for an outdoorsy vacation. And, Holmquist points out, dining habits have changed. “People don’t always want a multi-course dinner. Technology has broken a lot of fine dining etiquette barriers, especially in the last six years. Cellphones on the table are the norm.”
Millennials have changed fine dining, too. Many of that generation aren’t comfortable being served—they’re more inclined to want to make friends with their server rather than respecting the traditional distance between served and served-upon.
Creating an environment for the guests is the goal of any good restaurant. Fine dining establishments just pay more attention to detail—servers must be sensitive to each table. One might have just come from the slopes; another is there to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Above all, service elevates according to the expectation of the guest. “Servers here train for five to seven days,” says Holmquist. “It takes effort and time to grow into a fine-dining serving position. It’s a career to some. But what’s really required is intuition, and you can’t teach that.”
Glitretind at Stein Eriksen Lodge, 7700 Stein Way, Park City, 435-615-0804, steinlodge.com
Nathan Powers is executive chef at Bambara, another fine dining restaurant attached to a hotel. But his diners are more likely to be here for power than powder. Hotel Monaco caters to business people, and Bambara serves suits as well as opera-goers, pre-theater and special occasion diners. “We’re a true hotel dining room—we offer 24-hour room service and serve three meals a day,” but still, he says, Bambara offers fine dining. “It’s just that fine dining is no longer necessarily formal dining in the traditional sense.”
Powers says, “If your napkin falls to the floor, you’ll have a new one before you know it. Dining here may not involve the cloche, the white tablecloth, the dress code, but some of our servers have been here 16 years. We have a very tenured staff whose true interest is serving your particular needs—whether it’s pre-theater or a special occasion for grandmother. It takes about eight months for a server to move up from lunch service to dinner service. The rules of dining have changed, but so have the interests of the diners.”
“People’s knowledge of food and wine has exponentially increased. Sophistication is predicated on how knowledgeable you are, not how much money you make, and
younger and younger people are seriously interested in food. Diners are likely to ask, ‘Where’s that chicken from?’ and the server has to learn about where the food comes from as well as how it’s sauced. Everything is hyper-market specific,” Powers says. Food is expected to be carefully sourced—the peaches should be from Utah, preferably Brigham City, not California.
Bambara is one of the last bastions of formal dining in the The Kimpton Group of hotels that house Bambara, but Powers suspects Kimpton has more fine dining in mind.
Will fine dining continue? Nathan votes survival.
Bambara, 202 Main St, SLC, 801-363-5454, bambara-slc.com
Surpassing Former Glories
La Caille, with its French chateau feel and peacocks roaming the grounds, was once the crown jewel of Utah restaurants. But over the years, because of lack of innovation and poor financial and personnel decisions, the once-glorious estate declined into a caricature of its former self, resembling more a reenactment of Beauty and the Beast than a fine dining establishment.
That is all changing under Director of Operations James Ables and Executive Chef Billy Sotelo.
Gone are the silly wench costumes formerly worn by servers. Caviar, escargots and lobster are still on the menu but in fresh preparations far from the cliched dishes of the past. New luxuries include tomahawk steak aged in a Himalayan salt-lined refrigerator and served on a handmade plate with a handmade knife from Jared’s Forge. Authentic, not imitative, luxury is the goal.
“What we sell is the whole experience that includes the finest food and first-rate service that you don’t experience at a lot of other restaurants,” says Ables. “The line between upscale and fine dining has been blurred, but we’re trying to redraw it.” La Caille focuses on special occasion dining, with the philosophy that fine dining can itself be the special occasion, and it seems to be working—according to Ables, numbers at La Caille are up.
It’s hard. Restoring a reputation is harder than creating a new one. “We had to rebuild customers’ trust, to gain it back,” Ables says.
Sotelo explains, “The difference between La Caille and other restaurants is we’re focused on adding a sense of ceremony to a meal. We’re creating a memory. And we’re teaching people how to make memories. We strive to overwhelm with what we do and along the way maybe teach new diners, millennials, who are raised on casual dining and take-out, something about the pace and grace of fine dining and the difference between stuffiness
To that end, La Caille has offered a fine dining program to French students and culinary students for more than 20 years. “It’s basically an etiquette class. We serve them a five-course meal, including escargots,” says Ables. “We teach them about what silverware to use and the language used on menus and at the dinner table. We teach them how to behave. And, even, how to converse non-digitally.”
La Caille, 9565 Wasatch Blvd, Sandy, 801-942-1751, lacaille.com
The Future of Fine Dining
What’s the opposite of white tablecloth dining? At Table X, you might think the answer is black tablecloth dining. There are no cloths, actually, but the black-topped tables are set with black napkins. And yes, that is symbolic.
“We wanted a new definition of luxury based on style,” says Nick Fahs, one of three chef-owners. We set out to give a facelift to fine dining—to give our own interpretation of fine dining and to define it in a new way.”
What should it feel like when you go to a fine dining restaurant? Unless you’re in a very big city, it’s not a good business model to do traditional white tablecloth dining. Fine dining should be scaled to the culture you’re in, according to culture you’re operating in. But still, says Chef Mike Blocher, you need to take service very seriously. “Here, the front of the house has to be aligned perfectly with the back of the house. Chefs run out of the kitchen to deliver food. Soup is poured at the table, and your napkin is always refolded.”
The most luxurious feeling in the world is that of being catered to. But these days, each guest’s needs are different and individual, and a server doesn’t know how familiar a diner is with the rituals of dining. A server has to “read” the table. A server at Table X could have one table that is savvy and another that doesn’t care—the point is to tailor their experience, so that each diner enjoys it. There are formal boundaries; you want to connect with guests but servers don’t sit down. You need to be approachable—not stuffy—but not pal-sy.
Table X, 1457 E. 3350 South, SLC, 385-528-3712, tablexrestaurant.com