Formality is off the menu at the world’s top tables, replaced by casual eating experiences aimed at capturing a new generation of fine-dining customers with a taste for equality not deference. Ben McCormack reveals what’s cooking
Make no mistake: the old guard of gastronomy is making way for a new generation of chefs who are writing a 21st-century rule book for fine dining very different to the experience prescribed when Michelin published its first guide in 1900.
The announcement of the 2023 Michelin stars for France was most notable for the demotion of Restaurant Guy Savoy, the Paris flagship of the Frenchman often called ‘the best chef in the world’, from three stars to two. Meanwhile the world’s current Number 1 restaurant, Geranium in Copenhagen, serves a meat-free menu of biodynamically produced Scandinavian ingredients: foie gras and caviar are off the table and smoked lumpfish roe with milk, kale and apple the dish of the day.
What, then, can luxury marketers learn from the experiences delivered by the world’s best restaurants in 2023?
Equality on a plate
In true Scandi fashion, the mood at Geranium is about as egalitarian an experience as one is likely to find at this rarefied level of eating, with a setting on the eighth floor of Denmark’s National Football Stadium and chefs quietly going about their work in a completely open kitchen that is an extension of the dining room.
It is precisely this egalitarianism that looks set to disrupt traditional notions of gastronomy by bringing fine-dining technique to a wide audience without the formality. Eater, the restaurant bible for US millennials, recently declared that ‘2023 is the year of the food court tasting menu’. Its New York edition highlighted Ploo, a Mexican restaurant at the new Olly Olly Market in Manhattan’s Chelsea, from two chefs who used to work at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Tasting menus at Keller’s three-Michelin-starred Columbus Circle restaurant cost $390; here at Ploo, the five-course tasting menu, which is only available on Friday nights, costs a more modest $70.
Clearly such menus appeal to millennials and, especially, Gen Z diners who might not have a Per Se budget but are just as keen to buy into the tasting-menu experience. For the food court diner of today is the three-star Michelin customer of tomorrow whose tastes will have been formed by entirely different influences and eating environments to today’s fine-dining foodies.
The elixir of youth
The savviest restaurant operators aren’t waiting for Gen Z to grow up, though, and are crafting high-end dining experiences with the young – or young at heart – in mind. Manzi’s, the seafood restaurant founded in London in 1928, will have a DJ when it re-opens in new Soho premises in summer under the ownership of The Wolseley Hospitality Group, which has spent £10m reviving the heritage brand. “Upstairs, it will be the first restaurant in the group to have a DJ,” CEO Baton Berisdha told delegates at the R200 hospitality conference. “I think it’s needed. We need to be brave to evolve the business and move forward.”
Then there’s Tatiana within the David Geffen Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center. The prestigious cultural venue was built in the 1950s by demolishing San Juan Hill, a chunk of the Upper West Side traditionally home to black and Puerto Rican communities. Now chef Kwame Onwuachi is honouring the area’s history with a fine-dining take on Afro-Caribbean cuisine alongside the Nigerian and West African food heritage of his father’s side of the family and the Creole food of his mother. His cooking, described by New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells as “both extravagant and homey”, is attracting a far younger and more diverse crowd than one would usually associate with the Lincoln Center, or fine dining in general: a fact surely not lost on the judges of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, who handed Tatiana their 2023 “One to Watch” award.
Cooking to create community
What these restaurants are offering customers of all ages is experiences that provide a powerful sense of belonging. Diners are not only paying for their dinner but buying into an alignment between the restaurant’s values and those of the customers. This might be ideological, as at Tatiana, or more simply a case of going beyond the hospitality fundamental of a warm welcome to making diners feel at home or, even better, immersed in a universe with a clear point of view.
Swiss-born gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth are most famous for being among the art world’s most respected collectors. Since 2014, however, the couple’s Artfarm hospitality company has been carving out an equally respected niche at the point where food and art intersect.
Last August it was announced that Artfarm had bought the Groucho Club in London’s Soho, and yet Hauser & Wirth’s other hospitality ventures – Roth in Somerset, Manuela in Los Angeles, The Fife Arms in Scotland and Mount St Restaurant in Mayfair – succeed precisely because they are not restricted to members, while offering the same exclusive sense of belonging of a club.
The idea of food as an experience that tells a story – whether a menu tiresomely detailing a chef’s childhood memories to waitstaff laboriously reeling off the history of each ingredient – feels increasingly hackneyed. Instead, Artfarm offers customers an insight into the curation of good taste that lies behind the restaurant, such as the £50m worth of art hanging on the walls at Mount St. Artfarm’s restaurants are the story, both aspirational and accessible – for those who can afford them, at least.
Experience the future
And what of the future of the style of fine dining as defined by the first two decades of this century? Recent announcements by the world’s two most famous chefs of the era suggest its future does not lie in the mere consumption of a meal. In January, René Redzepi told the New York Times that he will close his three-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma at the end of 2024, citing the difficulty of operating within a current fine-dining model he called “unsustainable”. Noma will become a food laboratory once it closes; there is already a limited line of merchandise, Noma Projects, which is set to expand.
Meanwhile, Ferran Adrià, the visionary chef behind El Bulli, announced in April that more than a decade after closing the restaurant, it will re-open as a museum in June, charting the history of a kitchen that pretty much invented the blueprint for molecular gastronomy. “El Bulli will be seen just as it was,” Adria told the Spanish newspaper El País. “The people who knew it will be moved. Nothing will be eaten. It is important to keep the legacy of what happened.”
One of Adria’s haute cuisine innovations was eating meals without cutlery. Yet perhaps El Bulli’s greatest legacy will be a fine dining experience without the actual dining. Who needs the metaverse?
Ben McCormack is a London-based journalist who writes about restaurants for The Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard and Food and Travel. Follow him @mrbenmccormack