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Are we really over fine dining?

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  1. I can't speak for "us".

    I used to say that if a meal cost as much as an opera ticket, I expected to have as transcendent an experience as I would have at the opera. Very, very few restaurants have lived up to that expectation. But some have, and that makes the pursuit worthwhile. The ones that do, are not necessarily the most expensive, but they aren't low end diners either. They tend to be good restaurants in places like Charleston that take their food seriously and have career waiters on staff. The waiter (and I mean this in a gender-neutral way), often makes the difference. But it is really a combination of the right atmosphere, food that I like, wines that I like, and service that I like. Lots of I's in that sentence, which just means that that "opera" experience is a pretty personal thing.

    1. I think Bittman's message here is that we are missing out on value these days, regardless of the type of establishment and its price point, and I'd have to agree.

      1. He sure seems to be, and many of us are heading there. But is it something to worry about, or part of a natural progression, with new young foodies eager to move in and claim their spot?

        To me, being over fine dining means having the experience and perspective to not get lost in the pomp and the hype. Those are fun, but once they wear off and you start looking for substance, fewer and fewer restaurants have it. Few had it to begin with, but we were distracted by dressing up and spending days of pay on that truffle tasting menu, and being wooed by the simultaneous swoop of servers lifting cloches. All of the things we hadn't tried before that ended up delicious: truffles, foie gras, caviar, duck tongues, uni foam, lentils of ham, sweetbreads, tripe, neapolitan pizza, congee, jellyfish, street food, vietnamese, and on until we've had close to it all, including the durian and the lung that were not delicious. And then we live and learn, and learn to cook better, and learn that waiters are just working stiff too, and we can find all those specialty ingredients on line anyway. Experience does make one jaded.

        3 Replies
        1. re: babette feasts

          I wonder on some level if this is a mix of age and and over-exposure that food writers/restaurant critics are particularly prone to. Anthony Bourdain had a similar attitude towards a meal he had at Alinea where it was a jaded response.

          The NYTimes restaurant review section also clearly has a coded language when they talk about "restaurants for rich people". Those restaurants typically aren't among the "best" restaurants - but rather very expensive places that charge $40 for a fairly simple plate of pasta. Basically very expensive places that serve pretty basic/generic food. The point being that for the very wealthy who could afford to eat at Per Se every night - there's a considerable number where that's not what they're choosing.

          Personally, as someone who can't financially afford to try all of the exciting/pricey food in my area - there still is a huge excitment when my parents will treat me to a "fine dining dinner". That being said, I want the food in that experience to be "wow". Just sitting in a gorgeous dining room with highly training wait staff isn't enough for me to be ok with an exhorbitant price tag.

          1. re: babette feasts

            I wish Chowhounds had a like button Babette Feasts - your response is on the mark. Totally agree with you.

          2. I'm not a fan of Bittman, and it was interesting to me that his conclusion about where he would spend his restaurant money was similar to a conclusion about dining out that my husband and I reached some time ago. We're both good cooks, and my husband is a lot more than that. He's fearless but with a very particular culinary point of view.

            We always talk about a couple of transcendent meals that we have had, one in particular being at Lespinasse, Gray Kunz's late, lamented restaurant. As we ate each dish, the questions we kept asking each other were "What the heck was in that?" and "How the hell did they do that?" That meal, one of several we ate there, was worth every penny of the pretty penny we spent on it. This is to be compared with the restaurant where our usual response is, "Oh, very nice. We'll have to make this." One is about mystery and alchemy in the best, non-molecular gastronomy way, and the other is about simple ideas done well. But there is a third type of dining, which can most simply be described as the, "What a waste of money" way. Most restaurants fit into this category. It's something we can make better, and frequently do, and we can dine in a pleasant atmosphere without some unwashed yahoo in a wife beater stretching frequently to show off both his tats and his underarm hair, and having to shout at each other in order to be heard. No thanks.

            So these days, when we do dine out, we always try for the "How the hell did they do that" kind of restaurant, but we usually have to settle for the "Oh, very nice. We'll have to make this" type. We rarely choose the "what a waste of money" restaurant, but sadly, sometimes we wind up there all the same.

            1. I don't think I was ever that into fine dinning to begin with but I'm sure I'm over it

              Because I cook so much at home I know my wife enjoys going to a nice restaurant on occasion

              I can take it or leave it and in most cases would rather eat my food and spend the $ elsewhere and am usually much happier finding a hole in the wall that does something really well at a reasonable price

              1. When I read that article, I was struck by a paragraph that reflected my own thoughts:

                "I want 'my' place, don’t you? A place with a working chef, not a cookie-cutter spinoff and certainly not a circus. A place where the food is at least as good as what I can do at home and preferably better, and consistently so; one that’s pleasant; one where I’m vaguely known as a repeat customer, but not falsely fawned over; one where I can pay without thinking about what that chunk of money might have gone to instead."

                Honestly, that's where we've been headed too - and for some time now. I suppose a big part of it is the fact that I can cook, and cook well. Now, I almost never have had the time for the sort of prep that goes into a meal at, say, Per Se or Le Bernardin, but I can certainly find the time and energy to occasionally prepare dishes on par with those from places we might pay 200 bucks for two to eat at. Places at the highest end of the spectrum are almost dinner theater - tasty food with entertainment (think of it as the "waitstaff ballet") and a certain degree of uncomfortability concerning conversation and seating.

                The other point I particularly agree about is the idea that I want to know the chef is the kitchen. Ideally, I want a place where the guy or gal who owns, or partly owns, the place is sweating out the labor as much as s/he is making a reward. Not a person who's on TV more than in a kitchen or spending more time with bankers then bakers.

                1. Bittman compares fine dining to a circus, a place for sensory overload that delights children. So,maybe he's just saying his tastes have matured and that maybe we, the readers, should grow up, too, and pass up the trendy hipster places that young people like or the restaurants for rich people that attempt to coddle patrons like infants.

                  1. Several thoughts-
                    -Bittman is certainly jaded and overexposed to fine dining
                    -Traditional fine dining has morphed over the years from what he describes to more casual but still fine cooking and presentation. I'm thinking of the many smaller BYO places we have in PA that are more minimalist without losing a thing foodwise.
                    -He is right that one does need their own regular joint. Mine is Japanese too BTW. It isn't fine dining, but it is good eating.

                    1. Mark Bittman says he is, but he's speaking only for himself. Fine dining, along with other expensive luxuries, took a dip during the Great Recession, but I expect this was for economic reasons, not because those who could afford it became jaded as Bittman has.

                      For the purposes of his article, Bittman leaves out everything between his hole-in-the-wall and Jean Georges. There's a huge range of eateries in between, and they're where I go when dining out with company. Not "fine dining" in the specialized meaning of those words, but definitely finer than formica.

                      When I go out to eat alone, it's usually at a middle eastern BYOL or an alehouse across the street whose specials often include game meats (boar, venison). Those who know Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill probably know the places I'm talking about. Neither is white tablecloth; neither is formica.

                      1. I'm with Bittman on this. I'm also fed up with the whole food as entertainment attitude that has overshadowed the idea of eating well in a cordial environment. I long for those elderly waiters from times gone by with their years of experience. and professionalism. Spending millions of dollars on a dining room is ridiculous just as pretending that salvaged trendy trash is so "IT" that "IT" allows obnoxious "Ittitude" There is nothing wrong with elegance. Just keep it simple and controlled. Nothing is worse than an attack of $200 heartburn.