There’s a palpable apathy slowly growing towards ultra-fine dining. The fullbore approach elegant plating and white-gloved service (rather than recyclable paper, sleeveless t-shirts, and a notepad) is not as relevant as it was 5 or 10 years ago. Certain expectations dictate as much – stilted criteria means lots of attention paid towards style, and little towards substance. It’s where you go classical, or go home.
This lack of confidence in fine dining is affecting perceptions of the industry as a whole. Ironically, what you need to impress judges, inspectors, and ‘influencers’ doesn’t fare well with the general public. Grace Dent recently wrote of a certain restaurant’s failings as a result of believing guests wanted ‘dried moss’ and ‘a postage stamp-sized piece of heavily tormented tripe.’
Perhaps this is why diners are shifting more and more towards the fast casual end of the market. Good value and alternative experiences, where the activity of eating dosas or mac and cheese from a carton in a car park in Peckham is highly pursued. For all its old world attractiveness, fine dining isn’t wholly about adapting to the times. So was Street Feast co-founder Jonathan Downey right when he said ‘fine dining has withered’?
Maybe we shouldn’t be quite so pessimistic. A fair few restaurants provide exceptions to the scene’s intolerance for modernisation. Clare Smyth’s Core, for instance, is heavily influenced by her long-running supervision of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant on Royal Hospital Road. And Core’s been packing in the punters since it opened. Andy Hayler gave it 17/20, with special praise for jellied eels which have ‘never tasted this good’ and skate ‘expertly cooked, the lovely brown butter sauce showing the chef’s classical training.’
There’s an effort to make things a little less formal at Core, with an 80s and 90s soundtrack and tables sans cloths. In his review, The Picky Glutton pointed out how Core has ‘avoided the stilted hushness of most gastrotemples’ and is ‘far more friendly and gracious in its service’ than fine dining joint the Notting Hill Brasserie which formerly took up the same space.
Then there’s somewhere like Alyn Williams at The Westbury, which, contrary to the general nature of fine dining, is offering something genuinely unique in its beer pairing menu. Phil Howard, at his now year-old gaff Elystan Street after selling up the very Mayfarian Square, is also shaking things up. ‘Determined to move on from the rituals of conventional luxury at The Square,’ as Fay Maschler puts it in her ES review, he largely succeeds in doing so.
Smyth admitted it herself – opening a restaurant (particularly one of her ilk) seems like a bonkers thing to do in these unstable times. But fine dining is meant to be timeless. With a little modernising here and an un-stiffening there, it surely will be.