Consumers don't want plain and don't want fancy. They'd like something in between. Which would be what?
This article first appeared in the 1 January 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Scott Hume, Editor-in-Chief
From the popularity of fast-casual restaurants to the appearance of Kobe-beef sliders on bar menus, the boundaries between plain and fancy, down-market and upscale, and casual and formal are increasingly tough to pinpoint. The tone to strike is somewhere north of bland and south of fussy. But where, exactly?
"For restaurateurs, finding that balance between what consumers see as casual and what they think of as sophisticated can be pretty difficult," says John Tasso, who recently opened Bar Johnny, a casual wine bar, in San Francisco (see "Hanging Out") after closing his higher-priced, white-tablecloth restaurant Tablespoon.
Perhaps it was the advent of "casual Friday" dress codes that hastened the blurring of the definitions of casual and elegant. Small-plates menus that erased distinctions between appetizers and entrées may have accelerated the trend. Whatever its roots, the trend is apparent everywhere (see "How We Live"). In their homes, in their cars (witness the rise of luxury SUVs), in their dress and in their dining experiences, what consumers seek overlaps casual and formal.
Where casual and elegant meet is where many restaurateurs say they want to be now, because that intersection is where consumers will go, even in a slowed, if not yet recessionary, economy. It's a mindset that boasts high quality standards for food and little use for starched white tablecloths and imperious servers. It's a mood marked by a hunger for simple foods prepared with elegance, care and professionalism.
"What I'm seeing is that we're having people stray from the fine-dining aspects of food," says Daven Wardynski, executive chef at 676 Restaurant & Bar in Chicago's Omni Hotel. "They still want food to be artfully presented and to look beautiful, but they want to know what they're eating."
"Lemon butter" has replaced "lemon beurre blanc" on Wardynski's menu, for example.
"People don't want complicated, but they don't want boring," says John Gladish, who trained at the high end in the kitchen of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and now is executive chef at recently opened Flight Bistro & Social Lounge in Huntington Beach, Calif. "I think diners want something approachable and familiar but still creative. People want to be comfortable, most of all, and I think that means [a restaurant] can be casual if you concentrate on creative presentations at a reasonable price."
For Flight's brunch menu, Gladish created pizza topped with fried eggs, Parmesan, mozzarella and shaved prosciutto. "It's familiar but not everyday," Gladish says. "It's simple and sophisticated. That's what diners want."
CASUALLY EXPENSIVE Consumers may have become less formal, but they don't want informal, says Mark Grossich. His New York City-based company, Hospitality Holdings, operates some of the city's most elegant, enforced-dress-code lounges, including The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal. Now he has opened his first restaurant, Madison & Vine (below), a bistro and wine bar in the Library Hotel.
"People are dressing up again, wearing suits again and placing more emphasis on customtailored clothing and such, and a new [dining] category is emerging," Grossich says. "It used to be that there was elegant or casual. Now we have this casually elegant style that falls in between."
Madison & Vine has no dress code but it does have a menu that Grossich, with a laugh, describes as casually expensive. "We have all the basics: a fabulous burger and chicken; steak, which goes without saying; mussels. It's bistro fare, but all well-prepared and well-presented. And that's accompanied by a 100-bottle wine list with 20 wines by the glass and some unique wine cocktails that make us a little more interesting and unusual."
"I sense that there's less patience now with frou-frou. Diners want to get down to business; they want to have a good time, a good experience."
A LITTLE OF BOTH
Norman Van Aken understands simple and sophisticated. He also understands the tricky dynamic between casual and elegant. So he is offering diners both styles. Van Aken closed his Ivy Award-winning Norman's in Coral Gables, Fla., in May 2007, but he continues to operate the second Norman's location in The Ritz- Carlton Grand Lakes in Orlando. His newest projects take him back to Key West, Fla., where he began his culinary career in the 1970s. In the Beachside Resort & Conference Center, he has developed twin dining concepts known together as Tavern N Town.
The casual side, Tavern, opened in October 2007. The more upscale Town was expected to open this month. "What I wanted was the opportunity to present my food in a casual format while also being able to do a fine-dining, tastingmenu format, so we created a 'hyphenated' restaurant," Van Aken says of the shared-kitchen operation. "You can go into Town and you'll see some items that also are in Tavern, but there are more dishes that you won't see on the other side. The tasting menu happens only in Town; the steak and tapas menu happens in Tavern."
But even the more elegant Town side won't be classic fine dining. "As a person who has been involved in fine dining for a long time, I feel like I've had fun with it, but we're seeing the same dance," Van Aken says. "It's the amuse bouche and the servers breathlessly explaining what the food is going to be. That's great, and we did that for a long time, but now we're seeing things kind of splintering. "Fine dining as we knew it is going in a new direction. I think the small-plates revolution has been a big part of that, making people's thinking more modular in experiencing food," he adds. "The consumer is retreating to places with more of a casual vibe to them than the hyper-elegant vibe of the 1980s and 1990s. Given the choice, consumers will go to a place that has a more casual atmosphere but where they know there's the high quality associated with a four-star chef."
John Tasso closed his nearly four-year-old San Francisco restaurant Tablespoon in September 2007. When it reopened as Bar Johnny (above), the white tablecloths and the tables that had been under them were gone.
"We had a good following for Tablespoon," Tasso says. "I got to know a lot of guests, and they said they enjoyed it. But I always thought it was curious I didn't see them more often." He adds: "I felt the neighborhood needed more of an everyday place."
Bar Johnny is much more casual than Tablespoon in atmosphere and menu. The bar is the center of attention, and high tables at which guests can sit or stand run along the wall. "I wanted to create a gathering spot," Tasso says. "Now I see the same people coming in three or four times a week, whether for a snack, a glass of wine or a full dinner. It's not necessarily an occasion."
The menu now is geared toward bar snacks designed to accompany wine or cocktails, but with evident quality touches. Pretzels and potato chips are house-made, and cheese plates and oysters on the half shell are offered. The full menu has barbecued-pork mini sandwiches and burgers, "and we knew we'd have to have fries that are addictive," Tasso says.
Bar Johnny's clientele skews younger than Tablespoon's did, and the $20 average check is about half what it used to be, but the number of guests is up. "People are coming in for a glass of wine or a snack, and then maybe two hours later they'll say, 'Let's get a cheeseburger,'" Tasso says. "That's exactly what I wanted. Hang out; make a night of it."