Fine dining as we know it is dying, but that's not so bad

Brasserie Zentral closed last week.

Brasserie Zentral closed last week.

When Tim McKee, chef/owner of the late La Belle Vie, hears that I want to talk about the state of fine dining in Minneapolis, he says, "You and everybody else."

One might expect McKee, the man who put true fine dining on the local map, to be seeing red about the recent shuttering of so many culinary powerhouses: La Belle Vie, Vincent, and Brasserie Zentral. All three were run by seasoned professionals who have been in the business for decades. They'd all been around long enough to watch the culture of dining change, and change it did.

But McKee is not panicked. He's casual.

It's pretty simple, he says. People want to eat out differently than they once did. And it's not just a Twin Cities thing. There are indicators of it all over the country.

"We want to be comfortable. We want to wear jeans. That's more important to us than making an event of going out to eat." And no, says McKee, that doesn't mean we're a bunch of rubes.

"We have a strong and vibrant dining scene. People are interested in going out to eat, and they're willing to spend money." It's a simple matter of people wanting something different than they did when La Belle Vie was at its height.

Birdie limits its business hours and sells tickets to keep fine dining afloat.

Birdie limits its business hours and sells tickets to keep fine dining afloat.

McKee also thinks that the term "fine dining" as we use it around here is a misnomer. True fine dining, the likes of Daniel or Le Bernardin (places that seek and keep Zagat ratings and Michelin stars) do not thrive here the way they do in New York for what might be a really simple reason: population size. "They have exponentially more people," McKee says. Not to mention far more tourist dollars.

Vincent Francoual, who closed his eponymous restaurant after 14 years last December, sees things a little bit differently.

Francoual hails from France, and places like his own or La Belle Vie, are what he thinks of as "European style" — places where he says an evening of dining can take on almost a "spiritual" significance; where diners may linger over many hours, over inventive and seasonal courses, in a ritualized order, with attendant wine pairings, and a high expectation of service. He believes the desire to dine that way, or not dine that way, is cultural. And here in Minnesota, "fine dining" has traditionally meant the steakhouse — people are willing to splurge on big hunks of steak and rich sides of potatoes and buttered up, bacony vegetables. Competing against that is a tall order. "It's about value perception. People want to eat it for dinner, and take it home too. It's like a restaurant and a grocery store."

He says even the way Michelin, the ultimate arbiter of taste, rates U.S. restaurants versus European restaurants indicates different standards. He points to a place like Longman and Eagle in Chicago, a wildly popular restaurant with excellent food in an uber casual environment. "It makes me want to laugh. That gets a star? I mean the food is, but not the ambiance or the service."

McKee agrees. "Your food can be every bit as amazing as Le Bernardin...but if you're not reaching for the margins at the top with all the details [including ambiance and service], then it's not fine dining." Why aren't restaurateurs reaching for those margins as much? "It's not necessary and it's not what people are looking for anymore."

Russell and Desta Klein are currently in the throes of closing their highly rated downtown Minneapolis restaurant Brasserie Zentral. At least by local standards, it was about as fine as anything we had left and received almost every accolade availed by press outlets. And yet, as they told the Star Tribune, "the restaurant never achieved the financial success necessary to continue operating."

The new generation of restaurateur does not seem to be grappling with as many financial woes nor the same overhead. They want to cook progressive food as much as any gifted chef — so much so that they're willing to grab real estate in marginal neighborhoods, rehab tiny spaces, sell tickets, cook only on the weekends, open in hotels, and try out any number of other creative fixes.

Locally, we've got Birdie, Corner Table, Sanctuary, St. Genevieve, the Bachelor Farmer, Burch, Il Foro, Heyday, Alma, Heartland, Piccolo, 112 Eatery, Haute Dish, the Kenwood, Travail, and the list goes on. These are places where you'll dine very finely indeed, but the environs might be eclectic and the servers might be in denim. The price points are oftentimes also quite lower than you'll find in traditional fine dining establishments. If this is offensive to any old-guard way of thinking about the concept, it should be noted that all of these restaurants happen to still be open.

Of course, as Francoual reminds us, every restaurant has its own financial ecosystem. A restaurant closing does not always indicate an immediate and devastating lack of audience. Restaurants must have adequate financing in order to weather revenue ebbs. Sometimes, restaurants have bad years and still remain open. Vincent opened just prior to 9/11 and survived the recession, anti-French sentiment (remember "Freedom Fries"?), and all manner of other ubiquitous restaurant pitfalls and doldrums, and yet remained open for what is surely a lifetime in restaurant years.

And just as soon as we've decided that fine dining and all of its attendant adornments are out the door, for the birds, and completely passe, it will be time to reverse those sentiments. Someday it will once more be cool to make dining out an event, to leave your jeans at home, and again start reaching for those margins. Because the world of dining is nothing if not trendy, and by definition, no trend can ever stay the same.