People still love good food – they just feel guilty now
- February 13, 2023
- No Comment
Successive reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle of The French Laundry, which serves an idyllic menu in Yountville, California, also illustrate a marked difference in the way the media talks about fine dining. Former critic Michael Bauer breathlessly described chef Thomas Keller in 2018 as the type of discerning cook who is “always looking for ways to up his game”, exemplifying a serious dedication that “has taken him to the top”. Just four years later, Soleil Ho’s criticism was far more skeptical. They wrote that for the amount of work – “on a material level to amass the wealth necessary to dine here and on a social capital level to actually reserve” – the squandering is not simply worthwhile.
Wells also specifically addressed the notorious brutalities of restaurant work in his recent Le Bernadin review: It’s not that this particular part of the food industry “has a monopoly on bad behavior,” he wrote. He’s not wrong. Almost anyone in an apron can be a jerk, whether they donned it in a low-key diner or in the sterile walls of Noma’s kitchen.
But the side note underscores a smoldering sentiment: Whether a customer experiences the stress of dropping a whole pile of cash while the economy is in the toilet, or feels ethically compromised by the ability to insure abusive practices — or both — fine Food seems to come with an inherent side of guilt these days. This aligns with a trend that’s transcending restaurants—many rich people really don’t want to say how rich they are, whether it’s about the places they eat or what they buy at the grocery store. Even if you still think the spectacle of fine dining is fun, admitting it without admitting its possible ills (and your own privilege) has become something of a taboo.
To be clear, Wells and other critics aren’t the initiators of this cultural pivot — they just reflect how confused people are about good food these days. “I think it’s just become a luxury that a lot of people don’t think about anymore,” one person said told me on twitter. Another diner couldn’t stand the labor practices: “After hearing how the [back of house staff] in my town’s fine dining restaurants, why would I ever give money to the people who make it possible?” Others said they still loved good food, but gave up regular meals to save for special occasions. “Spending $200-$300 a month is easy if you eat out regularly or get takeout,” one person replied. “We reserve this for one night a month or every two months at our favorite spots.”
That fine dining restaurants are expected to be both morally good and delicious is a generally positive thing for customers and employees, and I’m glad that’s reflected in reviews that are more holistic and nuanced. And I doubt fine dining is particularly near The End as some have predicted. Between late 2019 and late 2022, reservation platform OpenTable saw the most growth (8%) in restaurant meals in its most expensive category ($50+ per person). Sure, this isn’t a $300 tasting menu, but it shows that customers are still willing to dine out at a higher price. The explosive growth of private, members-only restaurants also shows there’s a market hungry for expensive experiences.
Right now, at least, it’s not so much that nobody goes to fine dining restaurants – it’s that customers just don’t want to brag about it anymore given the moral conundrum.