Each fine dining restaurant is unique, but all share a few common characteristics. With precise attention to detail, perfect execution, and exceptional service, every fine dining restaurant aims for a top-notch experience. And while today's fine dining has evolved into an eclectic blend of cuisines and concepts, many aspects of the high-end experience remain the same. Whether you're striving to create an exceptional atmosphere at your restaurant or you simply want to be a more informed guest, here are 10 things you should know about fine dining establishments.
Attention to Small Details
Creating a fine dining atmosphere is all about the details. This goes well beyond music, lighting, and art on the walls. Many fine dining destinations are going so far as to design their own china and stoneware to match the aesthetic and the food. You might not be able to taste the difference between locally sourced razor clams and those from the distributor, but food critics can. Want to know why servers wear white? So they blend in. Every tiny detail is meant to tie together. Nothing should be too loud, too bright, or too much. Subtlety is key.
The Servers Are Exceptional
No matter what the restaurant's concept, servers will be at their best. A good fine dining server will be able to explain the entire menu without notes, often while hitting emotional cues with the guest. They know appropriate jokes, are there when you need help, and pleasantly absent when you don't. Many servers have extensive knowledge of the bar menu, from the newest wines to the most creative craft cocktails. Fine dining requires waitstaff whose experience and knowledge extend beyond the menu to the restaurant business itself. This is no place for beginners, and, with some high-end servers pulling down six figures, fine dining service can be a serious career.
Guest Experience Is Paramount
As a guest in a fine dining restaurant, you're paying for more than the food. You're seeking a wholly different experience. Some typical services in a fine dining restaurant include: holding the chair for women, escorting patrons to the restrooms if needed, crumbing the table between courses, and replacing linen napkins if a patron leaves the table. New wine is never poured in the same glass, and silverware is replaced entirely between courses. Everything must be kept in perfect order. With that in mind, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with fine dining etiquette before you arrive.
Prix Fixe Menus Are Commonplace
A prix fixe or set menu is one that can change daily or weekly and range from two to 10 courses. There are no à la carte options, but there will typically be limited substitutions available for guests with dietary restrictions. This smaller rotating menu allows the restaurant to buy local, seasonal goods at peak freshness. Usually, the chef or sous chef purchases these items, considering the season and applying their creativity when designing menus. In more famous restaurants, there might be a supplementary menu for ordering their signature dishes if that is all you want to try. Not all fine dining establishments use this model all the time, but those that do can focus on crafting the perfect dining experience instead of working out the bill for each person's custom order.
Reservations Are Usually Required
Reservations allow a restaurant to adequately space parties to ensure that the kitchen and waitstaff are not overwhelmed during a dinner rush, which, in fine dining, often runs the entire length of service. In lieu of individual reservations, some fine dining restaurants offer seatings—for example, a 5 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9 p.m. seating. Trendier restaurants, or those in larger cities and with a menu that is cutting-edge but relatively easy to execute, might not offer reservations at all. This often draws even more guests, as diners line up around the block for fear of not securing a table.
There Are Fine Tables If Not Fine Tablecloths
White tablecloths were once the calling card of any fine dining restaurant, but that norm has largely faded away. If a restaurant chooses to skip tablecloths, which require a huge amount of upkeep, there is usually a reason. It may be that the restaurant does not find them in line with its aesthetic, or it is shedding traditional ideals so that it can forge its own identity. Many restaurateurs now view tables as a significant part of the decor, and some are making them with wood from area trees, stone from a local quarry, or other materials they find better suits their concept.
Social Media Is Used With Precision
Enterprising managers and chefs know that one dish serves one diner, but an exceptional photo of a dish can be shared thousands of times. Chefs are going so far as to incorporate more service and plating elements at the table, letting diners know that the "next course will be prepared tableside." This gives diners the chance to pull out their phones for a quick video. They might offer last-minute tables online and broadcast special events on social media to reward their followers.
Top-Shelf Wine and Spirits Are a Major Focus
Most fine dining restaurants make minuscule profits on their food items, but more than 80% profit on alcohol sales. Wine lists are deep with various vintages and price points, featuring everything from a $15 Sauvignon blanc to, in some higher-dollar establishments, a $15,000 bottle of rare Burgundy. Restaurants at this level will have a well-trained bar staff and at least one sommelier offering diners information about the wines and their ideal food pairings.
High-End Restaurants Reward Investors
There's no question that fine dining restaurants offer significantly higher profits than a fast-food chain or a fast-casual restaurant. But remember that the day-to-day operations of a fine dining restaurant cost more and require a lot of experienced staff. Patrons of fine dining establishments expect high-quality food, top-shelf spirits, and stellar customer service, all of which come at a premium. These operations will demand a higher up-front investment, but savvy investors and managers count on big checks to bring big profits to the bank nightly.
They Know the Trends and Often Start Them
A good fine dining manager or head chef watches current food trends and incorporates them into the menu in unique ways. They will also recognize when a food trend turns into a food fad and avoid following it, thus keeping the menu fresh and exciting. Because fine dining chefs are often highly creative, they will often start trends themselves.
Today's fine dining experience is often unlike the fancy linen-draped dining rooms that were popular in the past. The emphasis now is on fresh, local food prepared in unique ways and served in an atmosphere that is unlike any other restaurant. Although the concept continues to evolve, fine dining will always be an option for restaurant-goers. As with fine art, the experience is subjective but always high quality. It's a great time to be a diner.