What Makes Dining “Fine”?
I’m a woman who loves good food and drink.
Thanks to my chosen profession, I’ve been afforded invaluable experiences in the world of culinary craftsmanship, and if someone were to ask me what my hobbies are, I think one glance at my bank account would support the statement that fine wine and dining is how I fill my free time.
Traditionally, fine dining is demarcated by a certain code of etiquette- clearly defined courses, served atop crisp linens, marked by changes in flatware… and it usually carries a hefty price tag. But I don’t always align with that thought, as I’ve had 5 star experiences at a Chick-Fil-A that far exceeded $250 meals I’ve enjoyed inside glittering high rises in metropolitan cities. The common factor that determines whether I consider a meal “fine dining” comes down to one word- effortless. The experience should be so enjoyable and handled so properly that you as the guest doesn’t have a single thought beyond how good it is.
The most important factor in the fine dining equation is the staff. You can tell immediately what kind of establishment you’re supporting by the behavior of their employees. People who are appreciated and compensated for their hard work by their management reflect that by taking pride in the job their doing. Even in fast food, it makes a world of difference in your experience if the person taking your order smiles, looks you in the eye, greets you properly and repeats your order to ensure its correctness. This always stands out to me, because typically in fast food restaurants you get someone who keeps their eyes cast down, mumbles your total at you and sends you on your way. These people are not proud of the integrity of the work they’re conducting and who can blame them? They’re usually grossly underpaid for the labor they perform with little to no acknowledgement from their equally miserable superiors. Don’t believe me? Compare your experience at a Pal’s drive-thru to one at a McDonald’s.
Once someone takes pride in their work, it will reflect in their performance. They anticipate their guests’ needs and provide before the customer has to ask. Things like making sure drinks are never empty, removing empty plates so as not to clutter the table, and being well-informed on the menu so they can properly describe dishes and offer suggestions. These are all hallmarks of fine dining, and also skills that don’t cost a dime but truly enhance a meal. One of my biggest pet peeves when I’m at a restaurant is to ask a question and receive “I don’t know” as an answer. I don’t expect a person to know every single thing, but it goes a long way to hear “that’s a great question and honestly not something I’m as well-versed on. Let me get someone over here who can better assist you with that.”
The next factor in determining if I had a “fine dining experience” is the quality of the food. Did the food meet quality standards of the industry standard with relation to the type of establishment in which I’m dining. Of course the filet I receive at Longhorn is not going to be of the same quality as the filet at Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio Las Vegas. But is it quality compared to other Longhorns or equivalent restaurants I’ve eaten at? And did the meal meet basic expectations, like was it cooked and served properly, and if not, did the staff make swift work of rectifying the situation accordingly? I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in the service industry and I know mishaps happen frequently. Meat can be under/over cooked, sides can be forgotten…that’s life and I don’t deduct points. I also don’t expect to be given a free meal if my medium rare steak comes out medium well. What I do expect, once I’ve brought it to my server’s attention, is for them to immediately remove it, apologize and get to work on correcting it. If they offer a discount on my total or a free dessert, that’s a bonus. Were my vegetables tender, was my salad crisp and un-wilted, was my mac & cheese creamy or dry, all these are common proper serving standards for food and as long as they’re met, then the restaurant has done their job. There is no reason why you should EVER expect to have your meal totally comped unless something went horribly wrong like you swallowed broken glass or the cooks purposefully and maliciously altered your food. For the most part, a simple re-cook is all that’s required.
Finally, a great bar program never hurt. This obviously applies to sit-down restaurants, but due to my experience in wine it always delights me to see a thoughtful beverage menu. Again, you have to take in to account whether this is a corporate or independent establishment and gauge accordingly; corporate places have mandated placements on their bar menu and little wiggle room to veer away from that. But if it’s an independent restaurant with full autonomy over beverage selections, I like to see wines that offer more variety than just California and a spirits selection that at minimum includes all the usual suspects. If you only offer a well vodka and Tito’s as your vodka options…why? Throw in bottle of Belvedere or better yet, Chopin, for good measure. There is an entire planet popping at the seams with unique and beautiful versions of the same ol’ grapes you’re drinking out of California. How about instead of Meiomi Pinot Noir you mix it up and find a beautiful Burgundy at the same price? I mean, the grape originated there; put a little respect on its name.
I hope when taking these things into consideration, whether you’re reading this as a guest or a provider, that you realize a seamless, beautiful dining experience can be achieved on many levels. If you’re not in a position to drop hundreds of dollars on a single meal, find the place within your budget that exceeds the standard expectations and treat yourself. And don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path; there are some amazing hole-in-the wall spots that will blow your mind if you’re willing to be adventurous.