Sunday, May 16, 2010

Children of the De-Evolution

It seemed inevitable that with the growing education of middle America in all things food, that it would eventually trickle down to our kids.  One of the most recent stories to reach the news (and in the form of a debate, no surprise) is whether kids "belong" in fine dining establishments.

There was a time when people believed that children should be seen and not heard.  They were fed hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly and buttered noodles, and then their parents went out for their anniversary or birthday to eat chateaubriand, even though they couldn't pronounce it. 

Indeed, there was also a time when there were many true fine dining restaurants, too.  The kind that made careful choices of their linens, Bordeaux selection and staffing based on one thing, the discerning tastes of their diners. Those restaurants still exist in part, mostly in metropolitan areas.  But, the days of white table cloth restaurants competing for the title of "best restaurant" have passed.  These days it's not fashionable or economical to eat in a fine dining restaurant.  Or own one, either. 

Even our definition of fine dining has changed significantly.  The term could almost be interchanged with formal dining.  Those linens I mentioned had a high thread count, with nary a poly-cotton blend among them (it showed bad taste).  To offer Bordeaux or any old world wine wasn't enough; to show you were a serious contender, there had to be multiple chateaux and vintages that showed the depth and breadth of your cellar.  And the guest knew it.  The staffing?  Well, let's just say chain dining has properly killed fine dining and the formal, career waiter.  

There are still a few establishments left today that breed their servers as if they were in boarding school.  What the hell am I talking about?  Most older operators know that you can teach someone to serve a cocktail, take an order, ring it in and properly open a bottle of wine.  But, what you can't teach is good manners.  You can't teach your staff to innately know there is a line you don't cross with a guest.  You were either raised a certain way, or you weren't. 

Treating the guest with respect, patience and an all around good nature was the number one unspoken prerequisite for getting a job in a fine dining restaurant.  Having the thick skin to deal with persnickety requests, over-served codgers, diva mistresses and self-important dowagers was held in higher regard than owning six pens that match (and light up!).  It may be referred to as "old school" today, but those who know are nodding their heads right now.  Lord, just knowing the difference between a soup spoon, a boullion spoon and a dessert spoon would be my test for an aspiring fine dining server today.  They might hemorrhage if I gave them a fish knife or fork!  There rarely is a butter knife these days, and they're not needed.  Between restaurants having to cut costs to be able to turn a profit, and the passing of old traditions like setting the table with all the proper flatware, stemware and show plates (a.k.a. chargers), it's no wonder the old guard are like the last of the jedi.

Not too long ago, young, inexperienced waiters started out as bus persons to learn from being in the environment of a formal restaurant and shadowing the lead server.  Even now, this American version of an apprentice is a position all but gone from restaurants. A bus person would earn partial tips and a sub-minimum wage.  So, if you take away all the ruffles and flourishes of fine dining, the server has more time to clear and reset their own tables.  Bye-bye bus boys.  A food-runner, on the other hand, is now in high demand.  They stand at the ready in the kitchen and shuttle food to the dining room and deposit at the guest's place setting.  Then it's back to the kitchen to run more.  They are worth their pay, because they speed up the dining pace. 

No, what we have today is a new breed of dining- fast casual. There's no need for all the fuss of decades past.  Today's style of dining and serving is chummy.  It's folksy and self-deprecating.  It's approachable in a way that says, "We wouldn't dare offend you as much to imply you weren't properly dressed or suited to dine with us."  In short- one size fits all- please deposit your money in any way you see fit.  And, from an operator's view point, can you really afford to turn anyone away?  

The national average of profit margin for a full service restaurant is 10 cents on every dollar.  Some do better, some do worse.  Above 20% is extraordinarily rare.  With the cost of energy, food and spirits rising, the only way to keep that margin is to raise prices or cut costs.  86 the butter knives. 

Yes, there are those out there still practicing their art.  There are those that are the last of the golden years of dining.  White gloved servers lifting silver cloches from bone china, all in unison as the guest hoists their sterling silverware to dig in.  And they're not all white elephants, either.  Even today, new restaurants open with $30 entrees, vertical selections of cult cabernets and floral budgets.  But, they usually don't intend on making a return on their investment.  An old restaurant joke goes, "How do you make a million dollars in the restaurant business?  Start with two."

The trip down memory lane was necessary, therefore, to answer the question, "Do kids and fine dining mix?"  Let's go back to the credo of the restaurant manager:  good manners start at home.  If parents take the time to teach their children what is proper behavior in a public place, they can expect good results.  If a child cultivates a taste for foods their parents eat, and as a result comes to appreciate that a trip out to a restaurant yields great rewards, and oh- ice cream!- they're going to get it.  Trust me.
On the other hand, if the parents decide they're going to use Lacroix at the Rittenhouse in Philadelphia or Per Se or La Bernadin in New York as a litmus test for their toddler's road test in etiquette, it's not only poor judgment, they're asking for the caustic stares and indigestion that comes from getting up and down 10 times during your meal.  But, practice common sense.  Just because you can afford to spend $45 on a steak for junior doesn't mean you should.

Now that I've eulogized fine dining, I'm not necessarily ready to bury it.  I never believed for once that it would go completely away.  It's just hiding and holding back until we fully understand what it is we've given up with informal dining and the chain mentality.  For every franchise owner out there, there is an operator who started in the business at the bottom and worked all the way up.  They, too, know the economic viability these days for formal restaurant start-up.  But, they, like myself and many others out there sit patiently waiting.  The day shall return when a new generation will learn about the ways of the past.  And there will be a place for the gentle sophistication of the formal, fine dining restaurant in this country again.  And a child shall lead them.


Anonymous said...

Yes, we were once informed by management at a "Fine Dining" establishment that they could not, and would not, accomodate children as to not disturb other diners. That was thier right. But, it was also my right to tell him that if my kids weren't welcome, than neither was I, and we left. It was also my right to badmouth and boycott the restaurant for 10 years until it was bought by someone else who was more accomodating. The food and service is better now, anyway. Don't judge my kids. They will, someday, be prospective customers.
--Steve DiGirolamo

R said...

Steve! Still planning on a visit. Make sure to stay in touch, and send your email. Tell Nino we're coming...!


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