column for Forbes titled Is Fine Dining On the Way Out? Per Se, of course, is the Thomas Keller restaurant in the Time Warner Center in New York that famously charges extravagant fees for its fare. (Wells drops in his review that one of his meals would cost his party of four nearly $3000. He also drops that he dined there three times, so you do the math.)My friend the New York based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf responded to the recent downgrading by critic Pete Wells to two stars (from four) of Per Se with a
In his article, Wolf wonders if the drubbing of Per Se has as much to do with the current culture or economy than with an actual decline in the quality of the meal.
“These days the dining public simply knows more, expects more and is impressed less. We’re nearly recovered from the excesses and silliness of so-called molecular gastronomy (mostly soluble fiber and smoke) and begin to better understand the real value of good, fresh, delicious foods. We’ve watched Downton Abbey and know that the class system is just about defunct and we have friends who are tech billionaires who want major meals with world class cult wines, while dressed in product logo t-shirts and questionable jeans.”
It might also be a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which someone finally has the nerve to declare that the emperor is naked. Or in this case, that there isn’t any food on the bare plate.
It isn’t any surprise that the days of fine dining, at least as defined by the sort of white-gloved service doled out to well-dressed patrons, are waning. One wonders if the recent policy shift at Victoria & Albert’s wasn’t initiated as a way to bring in more business. (As far as I know, there is no talk of loosening the dress code, which still requires gentlemen to wear a jacket, or easing the style of service there.) V&A is still here, so is the Venetian Room and Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton. But all you have to do is join me at the opening of even an “upscale casual” restaurant and take a look at how the people who consider themselves avid foodies dress for the occasion to know that the climate is changing. (Actually, I’d be impressed to have some of these people wear product logo t-shirts and questionable jeans instead of the usual cargo shorts.)
Even the category of “special occasion dining” is shifting. No, that’s not quite right. A special occasion restaurant has always been a relative thing. Even a chain restaurant that specializes in all-you-can-eat breadsticks and a bottomless salad before a plate of pasta can be considered a special night out for the person who can ill afford dining out more than once or twice a year, if that often. And that’s not to say that those people are ignorant of what a truly fine restaurant experience can be. Watch them; I’ll bet you’ll see them laughing and enjoying themselves and exclaiming how wonderful the meal is and what a great birthday/anniversary/whatever it has been.
So what about those of us who can afford to dine out more often, if not at $750 a head, as Wells paid at Per Se? Can’t we be just as happy and can’t we celebrate just as much for less as long as the food is good and the service sincere?