Fine-dining Quality Meets Casual Ambiance

Not long ago I had a great meal at a new restaurant in a Southern city that has become known for its vibrant dining scene. I got a seat at the counter overlooking the small, bustling kitchen—like a sushi bar but very high energy—and ordered an interesting signature cocktail made with locally made small-batch bourbon and watched the young, tattooed kitchen brigade working with equal parts skill and grace.

The menu was amazing, showing deep ties to Southern traditions and seasonal ingredients as well as a totally on-trend sensibility that brings in multicultural flavors and sophisticated techniques. Rappahannock Oysters with ’Nduja, Navel Orange, and Pickled Barefoot Cayenne. Duck with Farro Verde, Sweet Potato, Tarragon; Caramel Corn Chocolate Cake. A blackboard specials menu gave shout-outs to local producers and farmers. The beverage list was stocked with local craft beers and thoughtful wine-by-the-glass choices, all of them reasonably priced. The food was beautifully plated and ready for its Instagram moment. And the place was absolutely packed on a Tuesday night, with people of all ages and apparent walks of life.

That restaurant was Husk, in Nashville, but almost every food-centric city has a restaurant or two that takes the laidback ambience of a gastropub and combines it with some truly serious food, from Central Provisions in Portland, Maine, to Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, to Nightshade in Los Angeles. These places typify the Brave New World of fine-casual dining, a growing segment that combines the best of destination-dining quality and a casual, affordable atmosphere. The kind of place where you can order a fine bottle of wine and drink it in shorts and flip-flops.

It’s no secret that traditional fine dining has become an indulgence that few people can afford, with associations of fancy white linen tablecloths and haughty service to boot. According to Technomic, in fact, people age 35 to 54 (the target market sweet spot of older Millennials and Generation X) go out to eat most often, but they’re looking for more convenience, affordability, and social ambience than most fine-dining restaurants supply, along with the ability to enjoy unique flavors and memorable experiences.

For younger chefs with serious culinary training and creative ambition, this new niche provides a welcome challenge to innovation. Instead of pursuing careers in fine dining, they’re opening approachable, neighborhood-style restaurants that encourage repeat business.

Here’s what I’ve been seeing a lot of:

  • Local product sourcing provides strong links to the community (for example, Greener Roots Nashville Bibb lettuce, roasted sweet corn, poblano, Noble Springs feta)
  • Relying on seasonal ingredients keeps the menu evolving and customers interested (a signature roast chicken for two partnered with side dishes, sauce, and garnish that change almost weekly according to the availability of microseasonal ingredients)
  • Emphasizing plant-forward specialties appeals to today’s “flexitarian” and wellness-oriented lifestyles, a trend I see getting even more important (a 5 Plate of Southern Vegetables showcased five different seasonal vegetables, each with its own preparation)
  • Kitchen skill levels make it possible to use less expensive ingredients, such as tougher cuts of beef and pork for braising and alternative seafood species (squid à la plancha, pole beans, charred eggplant, red pepper jus)
  • Fluid approach to flavors and ingredients encourages experimentation with global cooking styles and new signatures (spicy grass-fed beef salad with sriracha, cilantro, peanuts, and fried shallot) Full product utilization—root-to-shoot produce and nose-to-tail meat—helps keep food costs down and kitchen staff creatively engaged (tamarind glazed carrots, toasted coconut, carrot top emulsion)
  • Flexible menu formats such as small plates and all-day offerings allow customers to tailor a meal to their specific needs (a menu with no traditional sections for courses, but everything from a chicharron snack with dipping sauce to bone-in Black Angus short ribs priced by the ounce)

And you’d better believe these places are all about presence on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) to help get the word out among Millennials and other tech-savvy influencers.

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Sources: Technomic, Restaurant Directions: The Evolution of Millennials (2018); Technomic, Generational Foodservice Insights (August 2018)