Food for Thought: Restaurants Are Going Casual. Should They Be?

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Two articles published this month look at the cultural shift going on in restaurant dining right now. The Wall Street Journal pulls together the trend story of bar dining, and discusses how even high-end chefs are doing casual food. And Food & Wine magazine makes the case that with all the casual spots opening, we need fine dining more than ever. Here’s a look:

In “Bar Wars: To attract cash-stapped diners, restaurateurs from Alain Ducasse to Daniel Boulud are making dramatic bids to ramp up their bar business — even if it means serving hot dogs and deviled eggs,” journalist Katy McLaughlin writes:

Around the country, proprietors are turning their restaurants — or significant parts of them — into glorified bars. They’re ripping out dining-room tables to make more bar space, applying for late-night and cabaret licenses and adding the word “bar” to their names. Top chefs are serving up bar snacks like grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs.

And in “Should Fine Dining Die? Now that chefs are busy opening burger joints and dumpling houses, the days seem numbered for fancy dining rooms. Writer Anya von Bremzen makes a case for why we need haute places more than ever,” von Bremzen writes:

Why sink fortunes into a degustation menu from a multistarred chef, whether he’s from Spain or not? Why not enjoy downsized versions of those same dishes cooked by the chef’s disciple at a convivial tapas bar? Recently I suggested to [Ferran] Adrià that the future of Spanish cuisine might not lie with his restaurant El Bulli, located outside Barcelona, but rather with Barcelona’s new wave of casual gastrobistros—pared-down storefront restaurants where young chefs are channeling cutting-edge inspirations into earthy, affordable food.

“Oh yeah?” Adrià replied, cocking an eyebrow. “And who supplies them with their ideas?”

I tackled this trend locally in 2005 with a series of articles called The New Table.

In the first, I reported on the upscale-casual trend itself.

High-quality food in a relaxed setting can be found everywhere. In Manhattan, as culinary landmarks like Lutèce and Lespinasse were shutting their doors, spots like Craft and WD-50 already had opened theirs. In the Lower Hudson Valley, traditional restaurants like Maxime’s in Granite Springs and Auberge Argenteuil in Hartsdale are just memories. Meanwhile, Nyack, once known for antiques, has become a dining destination without a tuxedoed waiter in town. Rye has been transformed by 11 upscale-casual restaurants within six blocks. White Plains is experiencing a renaissance nurtured by such new upscale-casual restaurants like Trotters and Blue and the chains in the City Center.
“It’s a paradigm shift in the restaurant industry,” said Zane Tankel, who as the owner of Apple Metro Inc. in Harrison has about 30 Applebee’s in the New York region. “The lines are clearly blurred.”

Here’s a PDF: The New Table Part 1: Upscale food, casual settings.

In the second, I profiled Buffet de la Gare, which, at the time, was when Annie and Gwen Goulet were handing over the reins to a new couple who wanted to stick with the traditional methods of a restaurant.

The Dimnets don’t plan to change much: not the tin ceiling, not the mahogany bar, not even the name. And the dishes will remain classic French, just updated. But loyal customers are nervous. After 25 years of Annie’s double-kiss greetings, after birthday and anniversary celebrations, after countless cassoulets and tarte Tatins, they are hoping they won’t see another favorite old place fade away.

Here’s a PDF: The New Table Part 2: Keeping Tradition Alive.

And in the third, we meet the chefs.

“Modern restaurants are embracing upscale casual dining, and a new guard of chefs is helping to bring it to Westchester. For most, it’s not about foams ? it’s about flavor: cooking ingredients simply but with unique flourishes. The talent pool is big, but here’s a look at a few of them.

Here’s a PDF: The New Table Part 3: Meet the Chefs.

So, after two weeks of a flurry of Hudson Valley Restaurant Week coverage, let’s look back a moment. How have things changed here over the years?

Are chefs doing the right thing as reported in the Wall Street Journal? Does Food & Wine have a point about keeping fine dining alive?

How do you like to dine? Will the economy change things even more? Are we heading in the right direction.

My thoughts? I rarely like to eat a four-hour extravaganza of a meal, with white tablecloths and a progressional tasting menu. Most of the time — and I think you can see this on this blog — I prefer a few shared plates at the bar with some great wine and my friends.

But I also agree with Anya von Bremzen. If the four-star restaurants go away, how will creativity and innovation trickle down to the local, casual places?

One thing I know for sure is dead. I don’t ever want to go to a pretentious place that’s shooting for an upscale experience and have boring, poorly made Continental food. There are too many choices out there to waste my money on that.

Your thoughts?

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About Author

Liz Johnson is content strategist for The Journal News and lohud.com, and the founding editor of lohudfood, formerly know as Small Bites. As food editor, she won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

1 Comment

  1. I think what you are seeing is a redistribution of types of restaurant to meet supply and demand. Nothing will be made obsolete. Some types of restaurants will simply become rarer because fewer people will want them. Others will try to accommodate what they think is higher demand.

    Nothing stays fixed forever.

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