Definition: Post-Fine Dining

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.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Definition: Post-Fine Dining

  1. Lulu

    Saves me a lot of money because when I read your reviews I feel like I ‘m there and can almost taste the trumpet mushrooms.

  2. If I were forced, at gunpoint, to join a political party, it would be the Freakonomics Party. I love breaking things down to look at the difference between how things actually work and how we think they work. Or, maybe more accurately, how they actually work and how we want them to work.
    And nine times out of nine, our sense of “traditional” is based on something that was done for the first time right about the time we noticed it.

    So, “fine dining”? Any dining that tastes mighty fine.

    Sidebar: Have you read Home, by Bill Bryson? Turns out the dining room is a relatively new invention. Before the invention of soft fabrics for furniture, folks ate wherever they wanted, often in bed. But with fabrics came stains, so guests were asked to sit in wooden chairs at a wooden table in a special room.

    Cheers!

  3. Pooh

    I guess things will never be what they once were.
    So lets accept the fact that simple decor but comfortable and spotless is the norm.
    But fine food and service should be expected at all restaurants; especially
    the upscale ones.
    From an old fogey.

  4. To me, fine dining depends on the attitude of the people who work there. When I walk into a restaurant and I can see, and feel, that the people there truly love food and love to make people happy with food…the meal seems more luxurious…as if you can feel the love in the food.

  5. It is an interesting question to ask in the Pacific Northwest – where casual is beyond casual. I don’t need the white gloves or the multiple servers per table. I also don’t need fancy food. I just want professionalism and at least one item on the menu that I can eat. If there has been thought put into that item, not just a throw-away vegetarian dish, then for me it is indeed fine dining. Having said all that, Randy and I were lucky enough to eat at the Fat Duck in England just after it got its third Michelin star. It was, far and away, the most amazing meal in my life. The place is very casual and the servers were all young, but it was magical.

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