The new high bar
Sure, competition is tighter than just-washed jeggings, and people’s expectations of food quality are sky high, but it’s still a damn good time to open a fine-dining restaurant.
Technomic is forecasting a second straight year of solid growth for the category. Last year, fine-dining beat out all other full-service categories in unit growth, up 5.1 percent, and it’s on track for 3.9 percent unit growth in 2016. (By comparison, fast casual grew 8.2 percent last year, and is up 7.8 percent in 2016).
And while chefs like Bayless peg Chicago diners as inherently more casual and less showy than their coastal big-city counterparts, the dressing-down of fine dining isn’t unique to Chicago or even the Midwest. Everywhere from New York to San Francisco, Philly and St. Louis are seeing the results of the muddying of the fast/fine waters -- as famed chefs like Jose Garces (Amada in NYC, Rural Society in DC and Chicago), Top Chef’s Kevin Sbraga (The Fat Ham in Philadelphia), Michelin-starred David Kinch (Manresa, The Bywater in the Bay Area), James Beard Award-winning Gerard Craft (Taste, Pastaria and the newly launched Sardella in St. Louis) put their brands behind more casual concepts.
Meanwhile, the fine-dining 2.0s keep coming to the Windy City. Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat, Little Goat Diner) plans to add a carryout window to Duck Duck Goat, her full-service spot with creative Chinese fare. World-class chef Grant Achatz is getting a taste of casual fine with Roister, a lively West Loop spot with an open kitchen and seriously good fried chicken. The forthcoming two-story, dual-concept Smyth & the Loyalist brings two full-service restaurant personalities under one roof -- a come-as-you-are neighborhood tavern downstairs; and an intimate, tasting menu-only restaurant upstairs that the owners liken to what fine-dining would be like in their home.
Does that mean the next logical iteration of fine-dining in Chicago eating in chefs’ homes? (Less overhead!) Or perhaps an ever-roving dinner party? Will fast-casual strike back by bringing humane caviar and foie gras to counter-service?
As Sodikoff points out, the big remaining differentiator between fine and casual dining will always be the level of service.
“Today, if you open a restaurant and serve wonderful classic cocktails, who cares? Or farm to table meat, game and produce, who cares?” he says. “Everyone does that. The difference now between casual and more formal is your level of generosity with people."
And as long as restaurants keep on upping the emotional ante on dining out, we’ll keep showing up in our Canadian tuxedos to live it, because going out to eat is far more than a meal away from home.
“If I give you a piece of chocolate out in the garage and tell you it’s the best in world, you might not believe me," says Sodikoff. "But if I give you that same piece of chocolate in a 16th century palatial environment under a $4,000 chandelier, you’ll say it was the best chocolate in the world. And that’s real. You feel differently about it because there’s more to dining than what you put in your mouth. It’s the experience around you and making it a special occasion.”
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