Last Friday’s Rivard Report article on the closing of Il Sogno rang bells for lovers of that restaurant. But each time a restaurant of that caliber closes, the same knell begins. “It’s the death of fine dining in San Antonio.” The dong echoed from the 1999 closing of Chez Ardid, through the shuttering of Le Reve and into la fin of Bistro Vatel.
After years of writing about restaurants here, and countless formal interviews and casual chats with chefs, I have learned one thing: Chefs get bored. Not unlike the rest of us who lament our role as working class citizens, chefs grow weary of the same menu, same routine, same personnel problems, same marketing issues, same financial woes. Add today’s robust social media critiquing system and you’re got a recipe for exasperation and a good excuse to close, move and change.
But not all restaurant closings or major menu redesigns are about those issues. They’re often about giving people what they want. Restaurants reflect supply and demand at its most basic premise.
In my 2009 San Antonio Magazine interview with Armand Obadia and Thierry Burkle, who had recently closed San Antonio’s fine dining L’Etoile to open the more casual Grill at Leon Springs, the pair opined on the “death of fine dining.” I recall Armand talking about the nascent venture as more in tune with the new generation of diners who shunned dressing up for dinner but who still wanted top quality food and service on a regular basis. The Grill is still humming, the food is still top quality, and the dress code for guests runs from white shorts to black suits.
The question in last week’s Rivard Report wasn’t about change. It was about the concept of “fine dining” or “upscale dining” in our city and elsewhere, a well-wrestled term in the restaurant industry. Even at the 2007 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio and Drew Nieporent tossed around ideas on the future of fine dining. The panel discussion came to no set prognostication, just the vague idea that fine dining is relaxing throughout, accompanied by attentive yet formal service, offers top quality, well-executed dishes, and ends with an expensive bill. It wasn’t declared dead, it was declared amorphous.
Most think of fine dining establishments as at the top of an international class system of restaurants. They are special occasion places with décor to match, provide intuitive hospitality, are a mini-vacation from the everyday, and deliver an ambitiously well-executed gastronomic experience. Fine dining restaurants require a reservation well in advance. They are led by nationally or internationally lauded chefs. Most people visit once or twice a year – perhaps only once in a lifetime.
By that definition, we lack fine dining restaurants in our city. So I submit a new term for us to use: “Delightful Chef-driven Dining.” That’s what we have here at places like Biga on the Banks, Cured, Bliss, Clementine, Rebelle, Battalion, Gwendolyn, The Cookhouse, Outlaw Kitchens, Signature and more. (I am sure I’ll get chided for this list.) The chefs and restauranteurs at these spots, often one-and-the-same, oversee the customer experience from the ingredients that enter the kitchen to what goes out on the plates. The service is remarkable, the food creative, and the bill often reflective of both without being ridiculous. They are not “men must wear a jacket” formal, but they require a more refined level of decorum from their diners. Violators may be towed.
The lucky among us, and our monied visitors, don’t hesitate to dine often at our delightful chef-driven restaurants. We are curious about what has changed on the menu since our last visit, eager to order our favorites from the past, and thankful for the escape from the ordinary or routine. We go to enjoy dishes we can’t/won’t make at home. We go to enjoy dinner with friends. We go to relish in the joy of being taken care of. We go for the experience and stay for the food.
Let’s leave stuffy, elitist “fine dining” definitions behind and focus our energy and dollars on delightful chef-driven dining. Let’s continue to embrace the contemporary experience of sharing a meal created by passion, artistry and a drive to please. We have that in spades in San Antonio and we should be very proud to support it.