Like many words in the English language, the word “fine” can have many different meanings. When someone asks how you are doing and you answer “fine” they may imagine that it is code for “not very well at all.” Yet when we bring the word “fine” before the word “dining”, the tables turn. We expect a little somethin’ somethin’. We want to be impressed. If you can’t roll out the red carpet, then a white linen tablecloth will do.
Fine dining is often synonymous with super expensive. As such, everything has to be “just so.” And by so, we mean perfect. We will review three categories: menu, service and atmosphere to pinpoint a dining experience so fine, it will need another word to drive the point home. Let’s go with “exceptional.”
We shall begin with the exceedingly important point of satisfying hunger. Give your menu the utmost attention. Shall we get on with it? (We imagine speaking that in a snooty accent, but do as you will):
High quality food
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If people are putting down more than they pay for their weekly groceries on a single meal, they not only want the taste of the food to be sublime, but also the texture and appearance. Even when it comes to salt, Ben Jacobsen of the Jacobsen Salt company believes that a fine finishing salt is dependent on “taste, texture and appearance.” Every point of the dish should be more than one step above what the home cook can accomplish.
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Fine dining doesn’t have to follow a mold. You can offer what your competition refuses to. Fine dining restaurant expenditures plummeted during the recession, but the good news is, 2014 had much stronger sales. Be different, whether you experiment with colors or stay away from finicky food trends. Rework your uniqueness year by year, following the Steve Jobs mantra: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Creative dishes, unlimited potential
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Living your life in a creative way opens the door for even more creativity. Break out of every box and let your menu be a piece of art in itself. Consider Head chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, who works in Spain at the hit restaurant Mugaritz. The restaurant was ranked in the top 15 in The Elite Traveler & Laurent-Perrier Top 100 Restaurants in the World list. One of his inventive dishes is ‘la yema helada y las flores blancas.’ This is translated as ‘the broken egg, the frozen yolk and the white flowers.’ You won’t have that anywhere else.
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Fine food deserves fine liquor. Chef Thomas Keller said, “This idea that we have, that we want to have the very best and pay the very least is something that is kind of ingrained in Americans.” Have a variety of price points, of course, but there will be people willing to splash out. Keller adds, “ It doesn’t actually have to do with the very best, it has to do with your perception of the very best because you paid what you wanted to pay.”
Season and whim
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When you are cooking the best food in a creative way, chances are that you are following the seasons closely. For some time, cooking seasonally has been a big restaurant trend. Although some see this as overrated, it will likely be one of the elements that brings your patrons in the door.
A beautiful menu is nothing if you have waiters with stained aprons and clumsy waitresses spilling water on the table. Service is an important step on the road to culinary perfection (which of course, you are always striving towards). Here are some things to keep in mind:
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Although there may have been a period of time when snobbery was the norm, a fine dining experience has a built in expectation. There should be personal and attentive treatment of each customer, with a leisurely pace. It is more than a meal: it is an experience. Being people-oriented is one of the main qualities you should look for in your waitstaff.
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The adage “Be mindful – even when your mind is full” is important for every server. They may have a lot of requests to balance, but they have to stay on task. They have to look calm and collected. Fine diners have a rare uninterrupted moment (as most fancy restaurants are not particularly welcoming to kids). Join the patrons in the present.
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It is certainly not enough to bring the food and keep the water glasses filled. Serving patrons in a fine dining establishment is an art. How the patrons are greeted is exceedingly important, as is how they are seated, and how the food is served to them. The acronym S.E.R.V.I.C.E. is a great guideline for staff: Social. Enthusiastic. Responsible. Vibrant. Intelligent. Courteous. Engaged.
No task too small
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When people shell out the big bucks, they may start getting more demanding than they would in most circles. Let their demands be heard. Let it seem like it is your whole restaurant’s pleasure to help them. That touch is what keeps people coming back. Some upscale restaurants have inattentive servers and this will make you stand out.
You have set the stage. You have the best staff. You have an impressive menu. Now, let’s set the stage. Imagine Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast singing along with you: “Be. Our. Guest.”
China and silverware
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Mismatched plates may have a retro chic vibe that is making the restaurant circuit, but fine dining should have a level of organization and cleanliness that is rare in the “real world.” Have cutlery for everything, from a butter knife to a soup spoon and make sure everything is in its appropriate place. There is something oddly soothing about this dining order that will encourage everyone to slow down as soon as they enter.
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White linen napery has the feel that the fine dining clientele expect. It will absorb every splatter and crumb, but it may be worth it, as it seems to highlight a heavenly experience. The white linen tablecloth goes back to biblical times. You might as well stick with it.
Classic or hip – your choice
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There aren’t hard or fast rules over which colors you should use or how it should look. Some colour experts maintain that warm earth tones are best for fine dining. You restaurant should look clean and orderly, sure, but it should also look like the people who own it. If you don’t love it, who will?
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It is like clothing: you don’t want the outfit to wear you. You want to be the wearer. You also don’t want the restaurant’s many high points to be overshadowed by loud music. Whether it is classical or acoustic, choose something soft and soothing and be diligent about the volume. People want to be able to hear themselves say “yum.”
The importance of lighting
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The first great thing about low lighting is that it makes everything look better, from your date to the food. The second great thing about low lighting is that it discourages food bloggers. We can all do with a little less Instagram foodie pictures. Don’t make it too low, however, as low lighting and soft music help us eat less. This may not be the desired effect.
Working on the details of fine dining means that more seats may be filled with wine sniffing, decadently dressed customers. More importantly, it will ensure that every person leaves your restaurant satisfied and smiling. At any price point, isn’t that we are all looking for from our dining experiences?
But of course.