Food & Drink

A Napkin on the Floor: What Happened to Fine Dining in the Twin Cities?

<strong>La Belle Vie (closed permanently)</strong> |&nbsp;Courtesy of La Belle Vie

It's a universal truth, at some point unbeknownst to us, we will inevitably lose something we love. Whether it be a family member or friend, Lemmy from Motörhead, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, or your only set of apartment keys, we’re all bound to lose something.

It’s with that sentiment that we look towards the world of fine dining, which was struck a major blow two weeks ago when the New York Times knocked Thomas Keller’s revered fine dining icon, Per Se, down from four stars to two. The review has gone viral and sparked a national conversation, but locally we’ve seen the recent closures of several of our own beloved fine dining institutions, including La Belle Vie, Vincent, and Brasserie Zentral. It would appear that, to those of us on the outside, fine dining may be on its last leg in MSP. So, in an effort to try and unpack where the state of fine dining stands in the Twin Cities, we reached out to local Twin Cities fine dining expert and James Beard Award winning chef, Tim McKee.

Keane Amdahl/Thrillist

What exactly is fine dining?

For many, the term ‘fine dining’ often evokes imagery of white table cloths, elaborately folded napkins, never-ending glasses of champagne, servers in tuxedos, and plates of foie gras awash in a sea of white truffles. In the world of McKee, one of the few chefs to have owned and operated what many considered to be the Twin Cities' only ’fine dining’ restaurant, fine dining is the gold standard of the culinary world. It’s not something McKee takes lightly, although he's quick to admit that his old restaurant, La Belle Vie, might not have fully met his standards. “Everybody always assumes that La Belle Vie was meant to be fine dining and I don’t even know that it would necessarily qualify. The dining room was probably the closest we would ever get, but the lounge was never meant to be fine dining."

"People often equate an excellent dining experience with fine dining, and that’s just not necessarily what it is.”

He continues, “I think that what most people think of in the Twin Cities, and what I see getting called ‘fine dining’, is probably not what I would consider fine dining.” This is an astute observation that makes sense given the state of dining in the Twin Cities. For the most part, you're getting a fairly laid back experience where you’ll not only see people in sports coats or casual dresses, but also in jeans and their most comfortable hoodies. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

According to McKee, “I think people value comfort and the ability to be involved in more casual endeavors. Look at going to the theater. There used to be a time that when you would go to the theater, you’d get dressed to the nines. It was an event, and you’d put on your Sunday best. Now people go to the theater in the exact same fashion that they would to go see a movie. The formality isn’t valued like it once was, and there’s no judgement there, it’s just a different time and it’s the same with dining and fine dining in particular.”

What is the state of fine dining in MSP?

First, we must ask, did it ever even exist? McKee notes, “I think if you were to ask people in town which restaurants are fine dining, you’d get some answers, but I don’t really agree with that, and I would bet that the people at those restaurants wouldn’t really agree with that either,” continues McKee, “For example, I would imagine that people would say that Spoon & Stable is fine dining, but I don’t think that Gavin [Kaysen] would agree with that. I think that what we tend to hear a lot, is that people often equate an excellent dining experience with fine dining and that’s just not necessarily what it is.”

In the mind of McKee, fine dining is a whole package, formality and all. It tends to draw a specific demographic: those who covet the minutia of an experience. “Fine dining is performing at the highest level, and I think that what Spoon & Stable is doing is performing at the highest level for what they’re doing. They’re not trying to be ultra-refined in what they’re doing, which is what Per Se, Le Bernardin, and Daniel are doing. They’re aiming at a different target,” McKee explains.

Let’s look to Per Se as an example given their recent scrutiny. It also happens to be a restaurant that McKee has dined at on more than one occasion. “One thing that struck me about that article about Per Se, is that my experience with them is that they’re utterly perfect. The execution is always so precise and so geared toward perfection; that’s what my take away has always been.”

Recalling one of his past experiences, McKee says, “The last time I was there the wine was poured in the wrong glass. Instead of getting poured into a fresh glass it was poured into a recently empty glass, and that’s a huge faux pas. This is not execution for the average diner, this is the top of the top of the top, and they shouldn’t be making those mistakes. I think what happened with Pete Wells [New York Times] is that they made those mistakes and they shouldn’t have. He’s at that restaurant because they don’t make those mistakes, and when they do make those mistakes it’s glaringly obvious. And here, the waiter walked past a napkin on the floor, and that’s not acceptable anywhere, which means that it’s doubly unacceptable at Per Se.”

Where does this leave us?

Berated for a napkin on the floor. That’s the level of formality and perfection of service that comes along with fine dining. And for many, those expectations are easily dismissible. But for those who understand the artistry and craft of the hospitality world, they understand that the service is a performance. A symphony that begins slowly and starts to crescendo as the evening continues. Every section must play perfectly. Even the slightest slip up will inevitably be noticed and scrutinized.

 "Fine dining has evolved into something different. It’s going to be a more casual endeavor. That’s the future of dining."

While there are many who still enjoy the extravagant formality, service, and attention to presentation associated with fine dining, the majority clearly want delicious food in a less rigid atmosphere. It’s this desire that has driven the industry to a more laid-back ambiance with a display of new restaurants featuring world-class chefs offering amazing food, wine, and service that are worthy of any special occasion -- without any of the mandatory formalities. According to McKee, “I think that it’s all part of the evolution. I think one thing that fine dining did was that it strove for excellence, and I don’t think that’s lost now. I think people are still trying to strive for excellence. I think that fine dining as we know it has evolved into something different. It’s going to continue to be a more casual endeavor and that’s the future of dining.”

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Keane Amdahl is a veteran Twin Cities food writer and fine dining enthusiast. Follow him into the abyss on on Twitter @FoodStoned.