RESTAURANTS OR DINING ROOMS, CAFES OR BISTROS. WHAT ARE WE THINKING ABOUT WHEN WE DESCRIBE OUR RESTAURANT AS 'FINE DINING'?
Do we really mean that the food is fine, the service is fine, the decor is fine or the china is fine? What does fine mean. Does it mean that the other outlet is not fine?
In that great period after the end of the Second World War when air travel became more common and hotels were needed to accommodate the masses, all hotels started out with a Continental restaurant and a Coffee Shop. The inference was that only Europeans could cook but their art was never practiced at breakfast, hence the need for vaste expanses of formica counters and tables and waitresses with bedroom slippers.
Continental was of course an outright lie but it was a great boast for the daily roast, typically roast beef but ranging round the farm yard from the chicken coup to the pig pen while the short order cooks in the Coffee Shop shovelled out eggs over easy with parsley and Club Sandwiches with packets of mayo & ketchup. Chefs with any type of an accent were gold. But a French accent was platinum, regardless of his career path to date!
As time progressed through the fifties and sixties, our Continental Restaurants took on some character, most believing they were French.......the only acceptable cuisine of those decades a
nd the word 'Chez' crept into our vocabulary. Canned snails and soup a l'ognon were matched with 'Cock O'Van' or Roast Beef au Jus.
Others made attempts at Italian.....a far easier cuisine to emulate where pasta could be enveloped with anything. Hardly Italian but what did the masses know.
The 70s and 80s saw the entrance of the Asian market, initially pioneered by the Japanese but later dominated by the Chinese. Chop Suey was all we knew in the West so that became the favourite Asian dish of choice .
Gradually our Coffee Shops became 'Casual'. Bedroom slippers were still de rigeur but a new vocabulary emerged. One where everyone needed to address everyone by their first name and wrote love notes on the bill in flourishing handwriting. Casual of course was to attract the customers who were averse or actually scared off by the maitre d' in a Tuxedo in the Continental 'Fine-Dining' Restaurant. We were all of a sudden becoming Californian, where the real revolution in American Cuisine was flourishing.
Enter the term 'fusion'. Not 'confusion' although that was an ingredient. Fusion became a culinary term for cuisines being married, combined, opposites attracting......con-Fusion was the order of the day as European and Asian, Mexican and American, Jewish and Italian combinations were born and surprisingly survived.
Fine Dining has however survived but has never really been defined, refined or become popular. Perhaps the latter outcome will see the demise of Fine Dining forever. It is of course stiff not casual, pretentious not welcoming, staid not comfortable, expensive not affordable and overdressed not appropriate.
It is of course where designers flourish and blow-out the proverbial pocketbooks of their client owners with their choices of SouthEast Asian silk wall coverings, Venetian crystal chandeliers, fine Irish linen tablecloths and Austrian & Hungarian crystal glassware. Fine French & Italian wines from long distances are stored poorly in basements & beer cellars and described in glowing terms on parchment menus with Argentinian leather covers. The menu choices are equally as discombobulated with French, Italian, English, American, Caribbean, Indian, Chinese and Malaysian jockeying for the attention of the diners being fined.
Why does this cacophony of products from abroad come together under the heading of 'Fine Dining'? What does any of this stuff have to do with eating well, great flavours, the art, colour and scent of great ingredients, the theatre of great combinations of regional ingredients and local customs served adroitly by hospitable locals
Interesting that the opposite or Antonym for Fine......includes words that might be applied to the other Dining Outlet, and those include Repulsive, Unattractive, Unsophisticated, Drab, Inferior, Poor, Unfashionable, Cheap, Horrifying, Second Rate, Dull..............all of which are best represented by bedroom slippers!!
And synonyms for the word Fine include Beautiful, Elegant, Expensive, Fashionable, Attractive, Splendid, First-Class, Ornate, Five-Star and Gilt-Edged.........all of which are perhaps best represented by waiters in dinner jackets.
Now.......what is on the menu you may ask? Well this is where the fine really is!!!