I don’t break fingernails, primarily because I don’t have them. If I did, however, I’d be grateful for the touchpad that controls the sheers in the rooms at the new Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel in Vancouver, B.C. With little yellow lights that guide wandering hands toward instant, automatic communication with the little elves that run the drapes, there’s very little chance a person could chip a nail. This is important, because in the Fairmont’s fitness center, you’ll need healthy fingertips to press the buttons on the treadmill that control the music, television, and fan. (The gadgets that control which pores you sweat from haven’t arrived yet.)
At a hotel, it’s usually clear what constitutes luxury: Pillow mints are replaced with papaya pate de fruits. You’d rather cuddle the towels than hug your own child. And goddammit, how do they always know your name?
Once upon a time, really fine dining was easy to define, too. It meant speaking in soft voices, reading menus without prices, and knowing that no matter where you sat, there would be a white-gloved hand prepared to catch your wayward escargot shell. Waiters were presenters and retrievers. Chefs were performers. And your job, as the diner, was to simply enjoy, and hope your server didn’t pant too loudly.
Today, fine dining is harder to describe. Some old-school restaurants still exist, of course. They’re still expensive, and they still switch your napkin from white to black if you wear dark pants. But as diners look for more than a good performance – toward innovation, and creativity, and novelty, and personality on their plates – the things that make a restaurant nice have changed.
On Monday night, I visited L’Abattoir, a Vancouver restaurant that opened last July under the direction of two guys in their early 30’s. The floor is funky tile, or simply wood. The walls are brick. The table settings, with their relatively plain silverware, are almost boring. The light fixtures are made from canning jars. Yet somehow, despite being approached by two homeless men on my way in (the restaurant is located in a part of town known as “Blood Alley”), L’Abattoir feels like the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to in years. The chef cuddled baked sablefish, sautéed black trumpet mushrooms, and a puff of parsley together on a bed of garlic butter sauce with the care of a new mother. Bacon wrapped lamb tenderloin in a careful, crisp embrace. In a take on lemon meringue pie, a buttermilk panna cotta was shrouded in white meringue spikes, then presented on a bed of the very essence of lemon, somehow solidified. No one pulled out a chair for me, and not a single top button was done on the servers’ shirts, but I somehow felt intensely coddled – carefully watched, as if the attention the chef clearly gave the food evaporated off my plate, formed a little cloud over my head, and rained straight down.
In my book, luxury depends on two things: what you’re used to and what you like. I’m accustomed to pretty good restaurant food. I also like it, as a general rule. But like many in the new generation of eaters currently flooding even high-priced restaurants, I live a relatively unfancy life in other realms. I buy much of my clothing at discount chain stores and consignment shops. I don’t own a television. I don’t want for much, but compared to my parents’ generation, I eat out at a higher socioeconomic level than I live, work, or play. And I don’t think I’m alone. L’Abattoir calls it “post-fine dining.”
So, a few questions: For you, what defines fine dining? How has that changed in your years eating out? Is its transition to a less formal experience a harbinger of a sea change in dining out?
Full disclosure: I was in Vancouver on a hosted press trip. My dinner was paid for by the restaurant.