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What makes fine dining fine?

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What makes a restaurant a "fine dining" establishment? If one looks at restaurants on a continuum, there are obvious extremes, from the fast food/greasy spoon type of place to the haute French Laundry/ Le Bec Fin, etc. I'm thinking about those places that might fall somewhere more toward the middle, and wondering how chowhounders define fine dining...
Looking forward to your thoughts...

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  1. I would define "fine dining" as restaurants that are dedicated to high quality food served by professional staff. Particularly high fine dining is where the staff makes you feel special not by saying: hi, I'm Margie and I'll be your server tonight, but rather attentive and discreet service that you hardly notice they've replaced the silverware between courses and poured a bit more wine for you; that is it's all about you.
    Cisco does not get you there.

    2 Replies
    1. re: NYchowcook

      Well, Cisco might get you a computer system that could help get you there :)

      Sysco is less likely to be helpful at that level in terms of the actual food, though might well be helpful in terms of physical materials (storage containers, etc...those folks sell everything).

      1. re: NYchowcook

        if that's the case Le Bec Fin wouldn't qualify :) Our food was not of high quality and the staff was far from professional :)

      2. When I hear "fine dining" I immediately think "La Maison de la Casa House, Continential Cuisine", that fictional upscale restaurant which Calvin Trillin has spent his gastro-literary career trying to convince us is not where the good stuff is served.

        Fine dining signifiers include cloth napkins, tablecloths, an extra fork, sugar cubes.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Chuckles the Clone

          Nah, I've been to Polish places with $11 dinner entrees that have the white tablecloths, sugar cubes, etc. I think it takes a small spoon at the twelve-o'clock position above the plate.

          Also: they give you a dirty look if you unbutton your pants when the coffee arrives.

        2. no ketchup

          3 Replies
          1. re: Veggo

            I'm trying real hard to come up with a counterexample, but I think you've nailed it.

            1. re: Chuckles the Clone

              Jeez...Veggo really has nailed it.

            2. re: Veggo

              Unless you ask for it and your request is handled with dignity and professionalism

            3. successfull attention to every detail and exquisite unobtrusiveness.

              premium ingredients, artful presentation, elegant tableware and appropriate stemware.

              clean clean clean restrooms with lovely amenities.

              1 Reply
              1. re: hotoynoodle

                Hear Hear!

              2. "fine dining" is a euphemism for "no excuses."

                linen, china, silverware are mere trappings but appreciated where/when appropriate. plan to arrive on time and assume you'll be seated both cordially and on time. a quality meal goes without saying. specials should be special. wine should be an experience and not a return to the familiar. service should be efficient, not familiar. a visit from the owner is usually a good sign.

                litmus test: after you've paid the bill and walked out arm-in-arm with your partner, you say something to the effect, "i had a great time tonight."

                anything less is "expensive dining."

                1 Reply
                1. re: steve h.

                  a good dining experience is one where you leave and say "that was good"
                  a fine dining experience is one where you leave and say "life is wonderful"

                2. Some of my most wonderful meals have been at places that no one would call "fine dining." When I hear the term, I automatically think price tag, hopefully but not always worth it.

                  1. It becomes painfully obvious that you are not there merely to fill your tummy. Plating is important along with scrupulously clean and elegant flatware, holloware and stemware. Waitstaff will have an uncanny knowledge of the menu and wine list. One should fill pampered and enjoy your meal in unusually comfortable chairs with plenty of space to stretch your legs (if necessary). The pacing of the meal is leisurely but consistant. The only sounds should be forks and knives upon china, low conversation and uninteresting background music.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Chinon00

                      I disagree about the music - it should not be uninteresting. It should be either nonexistent or very good and discreet. The sound of a string quartet playing Haydn or Schubert in the next room. For the rest of it, I agree with you.

                      For those of us in SoCal, Maison Akira in Pasadena represents this paradigm to me. Good food, comfortable surroundings and seating, friendly but unassuming and efficient service, fine music one can comfortably talk over. This is the kind of place in which the amenities really are worth the extra money.

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        By "uninteresting" I mean to say that the music shouldn't be of a sort to encourage toe-tapping or to in any way take your attention away from the meal. It should serve the same function as the chair: to comfort you.

                    2. To paraphrase what the U.S. Supreme Court once said about pornography ...

                      "I know it when I taste it"

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        "Fine dining" is one of those things that is very hard to define. As such, it is almost impossible to be objective about it.

                        Rather than paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's famous quotation, why not just use the original, i.e. "I know it when I see it"? This phrase has found its way into our language and is now used for many things, not just pornography!

                        If you read some of the other comments above, you'll see that people generally know when they've had a fine dining experience, even if they can't easily define it.

                        1. re: ambrose

                          ambrose, no doubt you are correct ... it would be better to quote Justice Stewart directly. But this being food and not pornography (a visual thing), I just thought "taste" would work better than "see".

                          Cheers. :-)

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            >> I just thought "taste" would work better than "see".

                            It should. But if you re-read all the replies so far, not a single one of them
                            (except yours) mentions the taste at all. Most of what constitutes
                            "fine dining" seems to be the "flash" part mentioned in the Chowhound
                            Manifesto:

                            "And while they appreciate ambiance and service, they can't be fooled by flash. "

                            1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                              au contraire -- I put "high quality food" way up on my list. Sysco food service ain't it.

                      2. One that offers the 'total package' - ie., Food, Wine, Tableware, Ambience and Service. An example - The Michelin 3 star Boyer's ' Les Crayeres' in Reims..

                        1. The price?
                          Seriously, when I think fine dining I think of the need to dress up, fancy tablecloths, beautifully-folded napkins, and a multitude of silverware on the table, a menu that's not in English (featuring ingredients you were likely to see on Iron Chef last week), a sommelier on tap, a dinner that takes about three hours to eat, and a bill that will exceed our weekly income!

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Kajikit

                            I'm digging everything but the menu not being in English.

                            1. re: Chinon00

                              that description could apply to some stuffy hotel dining room trapped in a time warp with awful food and ancient waiters.

                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                Hey -- I think it's unnecesary and off the mark to point to "ancient" waiters as a bad thing. Professional lifers can provide excellent service indeed, since that's what they're devoted to, and not waiting for an acting career break!

                                1. re: NYchowcook

                                  i frequently bemoan the dearth of professional waiters. i'm picturing more the new yorker cartoon stereotype, with a cloche in one hand and cobwebs on his tuxedo.

                                  hello, your sense of humor is calling!

                          2. Not mentioned yet is the time (duration) of the meal and experience. A fine dining establishment should not have a "turnover in an hour" mentality. Some meals take an hour an a half, or two, or even up to three depending on courses and pacing. Le Bec Fin has seatings at I think 6pm and 9:30pm. That gives you a sense of the timing. Price will of course follow, since less turnover and (generally) fewer tables mandates higher prices.

                            1. You have to kinda fasten your seat belt when the menu for "the lady" has no prices on it, and the numbers on the one you are staring at make you wish, for a fleeting moment, that you were in Italy.

                              1. A friend of mine, an old salty when it comes to the restaurant business, says something along the lines of: ' going to an average restaurant is like cheap, meaningless sex, a one night stand. At the end of the meal, you just feel like you got screwed. Going to a fine dining restaurant, you fell like you got Laid.'

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Fortitudinal

                                  That pretty much says it all.

                                2. This reminds me of a restaurant my boyfriend and I came across on a road trip from Seattle to Phoenix. The restaurant was next door to the motel we had checked into for the night and had a large sign proclaiming "Fine Dining." We decided to try it out and looking over the menu, I asked the waitress how the chicken and dumplings were. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "oh - fine." I don't remember much else about the meal, except that it came with dessert, which on this particular day was lime jello poke cake topped with Cool Whip.

                                  1. I always get a kick out of going to urban spoon. The city I am visiting right now on their list of

                                    “Best Fine Dining”

                                    #1: A Bar that serves food
                                    #2 A pizza joint
                                    #7 A buffet place
                                    #8 A chain Italian restaurant.

                                    Fine Dining, indeed – humpff.