Survival of the Fittest

The evolution of the restaurant landscape.
Is fine dining an endangered species? The news of the de Cavel–Wade dissolution and the planned retooling of Pigall’s into a more casual eatery reignited a debate that took place after the 2005 closing of Maisonette. Then, instead of a nationwide recession, it was the reverberations from the 2001 riots—the temporary renunciation of downtown—that was the nail in the coffin for fine dining restaurants. But both recession and riots are too simplistic and too recent to be the agents for blame. Instead of a death knell, I see the shifting restaurant landscape as a market correction.

Fifty years ago, the one breadwinner/one homemaker household meant most meals were eaten at home; most restaurant dining could be chalked up to a special occasion. Today that has changed dramatically. We are hyper-informed super-consumers on the go. About 40 percent of Americans dine out weekly; the percentage rises considerably when you include lunch, carryout, and overpriced coffees.

An outgrowth of the industrial revolution—economical and consistent—fast food proliferated as the 1960s unfolded. The ’70s counterreaction to uniformity paved the way for fun-with-French-food Julia Child on the East Coast and the first glimmer of café culture with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse on the west. Luxury restaurants responded to the greed-is-good 1980s by doing what they do best: providing diners with an arena for massaging their own self-importance. By the millennium, our considerably more educated palates and the competitive demand for our entertainment dollars raised the bar higher, so that “fine dining” was somewhat ubiquitous. Amid the dizzying growth of exurbia, we no longer had to look towards the city center as the sole destination for that experience, leaving the venerable urban establishments increasingly reliant on a comparatively small but garrulous network of foodies and the tourism industry for support. Look no further than Las Vegas as evidence that tourism has become luxury dining’s primary customer base. What once was a corridor of homogenous cheap buffets has been outnumbered by dozens of high-end, celebrity-cheffed operations.

With so many options available to diners, restaurateurs responded by building a symbiotic portfolio of restaurants at different price points, concepts, and locations. The less costly operations, in part, support the more expensive flagship restaurant, which often plays the role of loss leader, driving consumer traffic to its sibling establishments through its reputation, awards, and favorable press. In such a market, “fine dining” has little choice but to be redefined once again. And nostalgia aside, I don’t see a problem with that. With the soft economy as a catalyst, this next phase is an opportunity for chefs and restaurateurs to create more with less—an approach that has been the foundation of excellent fine dining for centuries.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue.

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