Beyond the White Tablecloth: Inside the Bold Future of Fine Dining
On paper, Oriole reads more like an old-school rave than a Michelin-starred restaurant. The address takes diners to an out-of-the-way alley where the former warehouse that houses the Chicago restaurant sits. A rather nondescript front door marks the entrance and, after passing through it, a freight elevator becomes part of the experience. When those lucky enough to score a reservation finally do enter the dining room, it’s quite possible that punk rock, ska, or Ethiopian jazz will be playing in the background.
“The whole place is kind of weird,” says Noah Sandoval, Oriole executive chef and owner who also acts as DJ. “It’s white tablecloths, and The Clash, and [servers] in suits, and cooks drinking beer. But it all works out.”
It works out, indeed. Since opening in 2016, Oriole has been showered in praise. The industrial-wrapped eatery also can be held up as an embodiment of where fine dining stands in the U.S. right now: A highly skilled, highly personal, experience-forward creation devoid of many of the rigid hallmarks that once defined a strict category. Restaurants like Oriole continue the trend of chefs and restaurateurs interpreting and reinterpreting the notion of fine dining, which seems to have less to do with linens, cheese carts, and hushed voices and more to do with impeccable service and food presented against a host of backgrounds.
“There’s a cool movement now where people are taking classic simplicity, classic recipes, and traditional service but doing it in a more approachable and relaxed environment,” says Sandoval. “So, all the points of service are super strict. You have to clear properly. You have to pour wine properly. You have to greet guests properly. And yet we play The Clash in the dining room.”
Yes, even British first wave has a place in American fine dining now.
“In my book, fine dining does not have one meaning anymore,” says Ashok Bajaj, owner and founder of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which includes a host of heavy-hitting elegant Washington, D.C., restaurants like The Oval Room, Rasika, and The Bombay Club. “It gets defined in so many ways now. It doesn’t have to have the formality of the traditional fine dining. You have to have a culinary talent. You have to have a space between the tables. The service has to be there. The competence has to be there, but that doesn’t mean the formality has to be there. Informal can be formal dining now.”
Mirabelle General Manager Jennifer Knowles says she believes that the term fine dining is outdated. Instead, she would like to see the term refined dining or even hospitality-driven dining used when talking about that tier of restaurants. “We are talking all the elements of what you see in any other restaurant and refining that at the highest level,” she says. “Whether it’s the products you are bringing in the back door, whether it’s the amount of time it takes to prepare the food, or whether it’s the details that go into to creating the dishes and the training of the back of the house staff. It’s taking hospitality hopefully to its highest level.”
The shift toward the less formal in places like Oriole and the like seems to reflect a shift in customer attitudes. Many chefs view it as giving customers what they want. “I think a lot of younger people who grew up in the molecular gastronomy deconstructed food [movement] have matured enough to know there is a place for that, but also that the classics are classics for a reason,” Sandoval says.
Calvin Davis similarly notes a changing demographic among diners. “The millennial generation … has rejected [the idea] of getting dressed up to go out to eat,” says the executive chef of Freshwater in Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s a much more casual generation. Now that [they] are getting their footing and going out to eat, I think that [has led to a] a more casual kind of approach.”
Less fine, more casual
At Freshwater, where the pine tables remain uncovered and servers can roll up their sleeves to reveal inked up arms, Davis chose to put the word fine in parenthesis so his sign reads (fine) dining, a not so subtle nod to his interpretation of his relaxed slash high-end concept. He also designed Freshwater to be value-forward, not something typically associated with fine dining. His tasting menu is about $55 per person and about another $25 for the wine pairings. “I was tired of working at restaurants that I couldn’t afford,” Davis says.
No matter the price, a casual fine dining concept can also reflect the comfort level of the people behind it, not just those sitting at the tables. Sandoval says that when he is off the clock, he prefers the Oriole model or that of Smyth, another Chicago restaurant where he says fine dining is executed “perfectly.” (Although neither embraces Freshwater’s affordability as a guiding principle—Oriole costs about $300 a person between the tasting menu and beverage pairing.)
“I really like going and sitting in super high-end restaurants, but I am much more comfortable eating really delicious food where I can speak and I am not scared of making the wrong move,” Sandoval says. “I was recently at a dinner in Paris. I felt very, very important and very judged at the same time. I don’t want people to feel like that when they are here.”
Since comfort is in the eye of the beholder, it’s not surprising that elements of individuality thread through many of these restaurants, seemingly a result of what can happen when fine dining is not looked at as a singular directive. “We find [it] a very personal opportunity for our clients,” says Jenna Cuccia of 17 Summer. She co-owns the Lodi, New Jersey, restaurant with her brother Joseph Cuccia, the executive chef. The pair grew up nearby. “They are seeing us and seeing the work.”
Housed in a 1916 building that had previous lives as a butcher shop, a bakery, and an ice shop, 17 Summer embraces an industrial chic tablecloth-free vibe complete with the original tin ceiling that Joseph painstakingly restored by hand. The pair, both of whom cook here, take great lengths to limit the number of ingredients in many of their dishes. A decision they view as a type of personal expression. They point to the Kohlrabi Carpaccio as an example of this. The chef takes the kohlrabi, slices it very thinly, and puts extra virgin olive oil and lemon zest on it. Finally, in an effort to balance the flavors, it’s finished with Robiola La Tur, a cheese from Italy.
“My brother is very good at letting the ingredients speak for themselves,” Jenna Cuccia says. “He is very passionate about having three ingredients on the plate, possibly four. There is no fluff here. I always say that our dishes are quite vulnerable because if your technique is off, if the acid is off, or there is something that is not in balance, then you definitely will feel that.”
Treating guests like family
In Milwaukee, Justin Carlisle also takes a highly personal approach to fine dining at Ardent. All the meat used in the kitchen comes from his parents’ farm, the same one where he grew up and has been in his family since the 1930s. Carlisle’s mother crafted all the napkins and aprons used in the intimate 36-seat restaurant, a space the chef describes as roughly the size of a garden apartment. His mom even crocheted shawls for the space that are draped over the wooden chairs for customers who might feel a chill during the night.
“Our story is very much family,” says the James Beard award finalist. “How my family is involved, how we have such a small staff [of eight] and we have become family… We try to take care of each other… We want guests to be part of [that] for the time they are with us.”
Everyone on the staff, including Carlisle, interacts with the guests, a portal of sorts for welcoming them in to the closeness of the place. “Diners now would like to know a little bit more about [the story behind the food] instead of I flew this in from France, and this is the best truffle I have ever had,” he says.
Chefs are inviting guests to experience flavor palates that may be personal to them, a continuing change on the parameters defining the fine-dining category. Bajaj vividly recalls people questioning how he could have a fine dining restaurant that was also an Indian restaurant when he first opened The Bombay Club. That is until they experienced it for themselves.
“As we travel more and as the internet opens the world for us, we are using different ingredients,” he says. “Different people and different cultures are influencing the American cuisines. And, all of these young chefs who were born and brought up in this country … they are introducing [their] cuisine. They are producing the food with the same refinement, as the French cuisine would be cooked.”
“In Chicago in general there are not a lot of fine–dining Korean restaurants, or fine–dining Japanese restaurants, but all of the sudden there are people I know opening these places,” adds Sandoval. “They are on a level that Oriole is operating or maybe even a step up. People are committed to setting those parameters, setting the flavor profiles, and being more traditional with different types of cuisines. The diners have embraced other restaurants, and I think that has inspired other people.”