One of the topics of conversation that has been front and center among food writers, chefs, restaurateurs and food enthusiasts in general for the past few years is this: "Is fine dining dead?"
If you take a gander at most Best Restaurant lists in prevailing food magazines, blogs and such, you would certainly think so. It's quite common nowadays for casual-dining venues and even food trucks to garner Best Restaurant awards. Many of these "best" restaurants don't accept reservations, but do seat customers on plastic chairs and serve drinks in Mason jars. So, if by "fine dining" we're talking about white-linen restaurants with formal table service, uniformed employees, Riedel stemware, dress policies for customers and the like, then, yes: I think fine dining is dead ... or at least gasping its last breath.
Take a look around. Here in Utah, I can't think of a single restaurant that still requires men to wear a jacket, much less a necktie. Of course, there are posh restaurants such as The New Yorker, Log Haven, Fresco, La Caille, Chef's Table, Valter's, Forage and others that certainly—from a cuisine and price point of view—qualify as fine-dining restaurants. But, you could show up in cargo shorts and a T-shirt at any of them and not be turned away. So, what does "fine dining" really mean in today's culinary universe?
Frankly, I'm not opposed to the lack of formality and classical service in most American restaurants. I'll save my truly "fine" (or at least, formal) dining experiences for rare restaurants like Le Bernardin, Taillevent and Joël Robuchon—those that consistently get it right.
If you don't equate fine dining with formal dining, I think fine dining is doing just fine. Every year there are more and more restaurants providing fine food, fine service and a fine atmosphere to customers, regardless of their formality. Some of the best meals I've had in the past year were at eateries like From Scratch, Del Mar al Lago, Takashi, Rye and Park City's new Handle. All of these restaurants lean toward a funky ambiance, but you won't find better food anywhere.
Of course, the food at the aforementioned restaurants isn't precious. And I'm sort of glad that talented and creative chefs are doing more with less. There isn't the requirement to include 23 ingredients on a single plate that "fine dining" used to necessitate. To wit, I haven't eaten anything "finer" in the past year than the simple but sensational shoyu chicken and togarashi frites at Rye—a dish that costs a mere $15.
So, if we can agree that fine dining means great food, excellent service and a terrific ambiance, then I guess fine dining is alive and well. Formal dining ... well, that's another matter.