Is Casual the New Normal for Fine Dining?

Is Casual the New Normal for Fine Dining?
08 October, 2020

Photo by: Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / iStock / Unsplash

 

For James Lowe and Pam Yung at Lyle’s and Flor in London, it meant ASAP Pizza, a takeaway and delivery model that used sourdough bases made with British heritage wheat to freight the likes of Jersey Royal potatoes, summer leeks and lovage.  

For Ben Shewry at Attica in Melbourne it meant lasagne, made New Zealand-style, to his mother’s recipe and served with garlic bread. For Cloudstreet chef Rishi Naleendra in Singapore it meant chopped roti prata fried with jackfruit.

For Bertrand Grebaut at Septime it meant un délicieux cheese burger: a potato bun, boeuf maturé, American cheese, iceberg, oignon, graines de moutard pickles (and plenty of them) and a sauce Septime comprising mayo fumée, poivres and jus de viande. For his fellow Parisian Atsushi Tanaka at TA, it meant chirashizushi (albeit with the rice, Spanish tuna and lotus root scattered with slender spears of wild asparagus and haricots verts).

For Billy Wagner and Micha Schäfer in Berlin, it meant selling all things art, and the 10-course menu that won Nobelhart & Schmutzig acclaim switched to condiments and heartier, more everyday fare than you’d expect to see at one of the world’s most talked about restaurants. Torben Giehler’s 2020 canvas Cloud of Unknowing (€26,500) sits for sale on the website alongside potato soup (€16) and beef ragout (€16, “both puristic and timeless”). A shirt from Berlin menswear designer Frank Leder, made from 1970s Bundeswehr bedsheets, and baked into a loaf of bread, is a snack at €470.

As headline-grabbing as these moves have been in 2020, plenty of high-end chefs have dipped more than a toe in the waters of fast-casual dining over the years.

Daniel Boulud crystallised the fancy burger trend nearly 20 years ago with the db burger at db Bistro Moderne, and Tom Colicchio spun the sandwich concept ’Wichcraft off Craft not long after. Rockpool’s Neil Perry has had a burger chain for years, and saw his steakhouse offshoot, Rockpool Bar & Grill, outlive the original Rockpool fine diner. After Christian Puglisi closes Relae at the end of 2020, it’ll be his pizzeria, Bæst, vermouth bar, Rudo, and bakery, Mirabelle, flying his flag in Copenhagen.

It’s keeping values front-and-centre that makes the difference, in or out of a pandemic. The product and the channels might vary, as might the level of fanciness, but what the chef and restaurant are about can stay true. At Nobelhart & Schmutzig, they’re still “vocally local” about their Berlin, whether that idea is expressed on the table or in a jar. Atsushi Tanaka might have spent part of 2020 packing chirashizushi into boxes at Restaurant AT, but he still did it with typical flair, and while ASAP offered a Hawaiian pizza along with all the green garlic and sheep ricotta, it was a Hawaiian made with pickled Scotch bonnet peppers, grilled pineapple and guanciale.

But James Lowe, chef and co-owner of Lyle’s and Flor, cautions against reading too much into the current situation. “People have had to adapt to a more mainstream offer because everyone’s in survival mode,” he says. “When we’re not in survival mode people will switch up the offerings again because they can do.” The market, he says, has not been fundamentally altered.

ben-shewry-casualisation

Photo courtesy of Ben Shewry

“I feel like every year for 15 years, fine dining has been pronounced dead, but it’s not going anywhere,” says Ben Shewry, chef and owner of Attica. “I didn’t set out to open a fine-dining restaurant, but through ambition and striving and a bit of ego, I’ve ended up here, and I think you’re always going to have that.” 

Noma’s burger bar wound down over the summer and its regular carte returned. Menus for its game season, kicking off 13 October, sell for 2800DKK a head (about €380 or $445 USD). Flor has packed away the pizzas, and Daniel Boulud, the man who coined the term ‘fine eating’, is looking to revive the gilded Le Pavillon brand in Manhattan. Thomas Keller has been doing burgers and half-bottles at the Ad Hoc space, but has also introduced a new indoor-dining menu rich in caviar and truffles at The French Laundry at $850 a head.

But if 2020 hasn’t shifted a paradigm in dining, says Lowe, it still gave many operators a taste of doing things differently, and showed them different ways of living their lives. ASAP Pizza might be closed for the moment, but now that he has proof of concept, Lowe says a permanent site is a logical next step. “We know what the turnover is, we know it can work in lockdown. It’s not going to die.” Over in Berlin, Billy Wagner says the online shop and selling dishes outside the restaurant, perhaps for Christmas, New Year and other special occasions, is something that will remain part of the Nobelhart & Schmutzig business model. Rene Redzepi, who says he sold 65,000 burgers this year, is considering slotting another less casual season into the Noma calendar for 2021. “Something fun.”

So the question remains: does a less costly, less formal (and possibly even less indoor) restaurant have to be less good?

There’s a bigger question here, too, about the role restaurants and chefs play in our societies. A move to fine-eating options may spread your risk and diversify your income streams. But spreading the benefit you bring and diversifying the ways you connect with and serve your community might be the new key metrics.

“The business I admire most isn’t a restaurant, it’s Patagonia,” says Ben Shewry. “Community is fundamental to their understanding of success. The best businesses contribute to society rather than take from it.” 

We laud the work of Massimo Bottura and Jose Andres in feeding the less fortunate, and rightly so. But what benefits to our food system trickle down from fine dining? Can we focus on the good of our restaurants and not just the best?

“The greatest innovation in food might not necessarily come from those places,” says Redzepi. “It used to, but it doesn’t have to.”

rene redzepi

Photo courtesy of René Redzepi

The discovery of a new dish, said Brillat Savarin, confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star. Good cooking happens everywhere, and is not simply the preserve of the rich, served by brigades under toque. If one of the lasting effects of this pandemic is the thought-leaders in restaurants doing more thinking about food that is available to a lot more people for a lot less money, then that’s one useful thing we can take out of 2020.

This won’t be the last pandemic, the last crash, the last crisis in our world or your region. “The best restaurants are a reflection of their time," says Redzepi. “What will that time be now?”

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