Mark R. Vogel
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
People customarily use the word “fancy” to describe an upscale restaurant. “Where are you going for your birthday?” “Oh, my husband is taking me to a fancy restaurant.” What exactly is a “fancy” restaurant? What are the exact criteria that differentiate a fancy restaurant from a regular restaurant? I polled about fifty of my friends and culinary colleagues and asked them that specific question. Here’s what they said.
Price. When queried about the hallmarks of a fancy restaurant almost everyone mentioned the cost. Fancy restaurants are expensive. As one of my readers put it: “The amount of money that one spends at a fancy restaurant would feed six families in Bangladesh for three months.” But exactly what dollar amount is the boundary between a regular and a fancy restaurant? If the cost will feed those six Bangladesh families for only one month is it still fancy? Your personal background, income, restaurant experiences, and level of culinary expertise, among other things, can all influence your monetary dividing line. Suffice it to say that one Ben Franklin will not cover a basic three course meal (appetizer, entrée, and dessert), plus non-alcoholic beverages, tax and tip, for two people at a fancy restaurant.
Quality. Not only the food, but the culinary dexterity. For those prices, the food and preparation techniques better be top notch. The freshest, highest quality ingredients prepared flawlessly and no less. There is a point however where the incremental gains in quality are disproportionately less than the increase in price. For example, if we were to compare a one hundred dollar Bordeaux and a three hundred dollar one, would the three hundred dollar Bordeaux be thrice as good? Doubtful. If you know your wines, the pricier one might be better, but not by the numerical equivalent. Thus, on the restaurant price-to-quality ratio continuum, prices expand at a greater rate than quality. This is partly because at fancy restaurants you’re not only paying for primo ingredients and culinary expertise, you’re also paying for:
Service. Rarely will you have to track down your server in a fine dining establishment. You won’t be scanning the dining room searching for the bubble-gum-chewing college student, who thinks Burgundy is something that comes out of a gallon jug. Rather, there will be a cadre of wait staff, in formal attire, who will anticipate your needs. You won’t need to ask for more water, a lobster fork, fresh cracked pepper, or any other accoutrement or appareil that would normally accompany your dish. Your food will arrive hot, your utensils will be changed between each course, your napkin will be folded in your absence, and with the exception of a few haughty establishments, you will be afforded impeccable respect and courtesy.
Moreover, the staff will be professionals. Yes, professional waiters. Not between-audition actors. They will have been trained in the art of table service, and be knowledgeable, not only about food and wine in general, but their chef’s menu in particular. In good restaurants, one of the chefs will meet with the servers prior to the dinner service and educate them about that evening’s menu. Your waiter will know how the rabbit loin is cooked, whether there’s tarragon in the lobster demi glace, and what kind of nuts are in the chocolate torte. In sum, service will be prompt, efficient, mannerly, attentive, and flow as smooth as a Mozart serenade. You should leave feeling like a king.
Wine. Now we’re talking my kind of criteria. Fancy restaurants will have a wine list. Not just a few California cabs and chardonnays listed without their vintage, but a real wine list: an extensive selection of reds, whites, dessert wines, champagnes, ports, and brandies from all over the globe. The list will also have vertical depth, i.e., noteworthy wines will be represented by multiple years. You will find renowned names from all of the major wine regions and yes, they’ll be expensive. There will be no “house wines.” Even the wines by the glass will carry a modicum of cachet.
Preeminent restaurants will have a sommelier (saw-muh-LYAY), the resident wine expert. It is their job to assist you with your wine and food pairing. Sommeliers are not only skilled in wine, but customer service. A good sommelier will never intimidate you but make every effort to match you with the right wine based on your needs.
Ambience. Fancy restaurants are beautifully, sometimes lavishly decorated. Combined with the low lighting they are very often romantic. Expect fresh flowers, tasteful artwork, candlelight, classical music (if any), and linen tablecloths and napkins. Likewise, you will contribute to the ambience via the dress code a fancy restaurant will enforce. Men are expected to at least wear jackets if not ties. Don’t even think of showing up in jeans, sneakers, shorts, or any other attire that would allow you to blend in at McDonalds.
Fancy restaurants, particularly the French ones, are more likely to have a tasting menu, i.e., a meal comprised of multiple courses (typically three to eight), featuring a variety of foods, albeit conservative portions. Complimentary hors d’oeuvres, (a.k.a. amuse-bouche or amuse-gueules), are a mainstay of upscale eateries. As a fellow chef stated when describing fancy restaurants: “Amuse-gueules will appear from nowhere and the martini is perfect!”
And finally, the number one discriminator between a fancy and a regular restaurant, one that is nearly perfect in differentiating the two: no kids! You will almost never see children in a fancy restaurant for two very simple reasons. First, there is no kids menu, and second, no one in their right mind is going to pay seventy-five dollars for a three course dinner for a child. Nor will anybody waste an opulent dining experience by spending it picking peas out of water glasses, wiping sauce off blouses, playing referee, escorting multiple bathroom breaks, and reconsidering birth control options.
Are fancy restaurants worth the cost for all the luxury and amenities? Only you can decide that. For gourmets, they are a sublime escape into sumptuous indulgence. Others are more than satisfied with an average, but decent meal at a fair price, minus the fanfare. When it comes to whatever strikes your fancy, no reservations are required.