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On a local newspaper-sponsored public forum covering food and wine, there was a recent debate about what constitutes “fine dining”. This was spurred by the fact that Paul Minnillo has closed the Baricelli Inn, often the top-rated restaurant in Cleveland, and a Little Italy landmark, saying at the time that “fine dining is dead in Cleveland”. In the subsequent discussion, I was surprised that many posters agreed with him, given the fact that I think fine restaurants and excellent cooking have simply exploded in northeast Ohio over the past two decades. Then, I realized that it all comes down to your personal definition of fine dining.
So, let's ask the question: What is fine dining?
To me, the answer changes with the times, and with the demands of the customer base. To really see this, you need to look at the history of food service, starting as far back as the 16 and 1700s. In those days, most meals were consumed at home, and most upper class households had numerous servants to prepare and serve meals. Fine dining, in the beginning, relied on the class system, and only those with money and power could afford what we used to think of as a meal that was an event in itself. In those days, fine dining was an everyday occurrence for those who had many resources, and was never available to those who served instead of consumed.
By the 1800s, the French and the Victorians had refined this concept to the point that their meals were their most frequent form of entertainment. Every little luxury was considered, from the flowers on the table to the silverware and crystal, all they way into the kitchen, where inventive chefs created special dishes which emphasized presentation and appearance every bit as much as flavor. Wealthy households still relied on a large serving class, but the first true restaurants began to appear as private clubs evolved into more public establishments, or bistros offered a more upscale environment modeled on the same ambiance and service the customers could find at home.
When fine dining came to America at the turn of the 20th Century, it came with this European model of white linen, flowers, bone china, sterling silver and multiple servants. To some extent, the food came almost as an afterthought, as it was the environment that counted the most. Those who sought this idea of fine dining were almost more interested in showing off the fact that could afford to pay for the best ingredients (and the cooks, butlers, and maids to prepare and serve them) than in the taste of the finished dishes. It was really not until the 1930s or 40s that emphasis was finally placed where it belongs, in the kitchen.
The Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War aftermath were great equalizers in this country. Much of the class system disappeared in the national interest of survival and change. Fine dining was no longer a daily expectation for most people, but evolved into a special occasion event, and restaurants that upheld all aspects of the tradition and service became “destination” establishments. Now, it was possible to actually define that version of fine dining by the ambiance of the room and the number of people waiting on your table. Still, at that point, the food mattered less than the surroundings and the service expected.
All of that began to change in the 70s. Like many other things, you can probably blame it on the automobile, which created our much more mobile society. Time became more precious. Communication was improved. It was possible for more and more people to become aware of fine cooking, celebrity chefs, and the best restaurants in an area. And those establishments became more accessible to everyone, because people had more money and could make more choices on the spur of the moment. With all those changes, in my opinion, the food and the quality of preparation and presentation finally became more important to the overall dining experience than service and surroundings.
Which is not to say that ambiance has been abandoned; it may simply have changed. Modern tastes are different. We may prefer chrome and glass to wood and fabric; modern art hung on the walls to huge fresh flower arrangements. Service has changed, too. Most people today prefer a single waiter or waitress to a staff of hovering busboys or officious maitre'ds. We have become more protective of our privacy, and the idea of the waiter hanging around nearby makes many of us uncomfortable. While we might appreciate the advice of a wine steward, some of us are far better educated about wine and spirits than a lot of restaurant employees. All of this means that the fine dining experience has not disappeared, but it has changed.
And changed for the better, in my opinion! Today's fine dining is, and should be, about the food and the wine. I will take a well-prepared meal made from top-quality, fresh, ingredients, served in manageable portion sizes by a server who understand the proper pace of the meal, even if it is presented in a rustic dust bin, over a bunch of crap food on fine china eaten amongst dark wood and leather. I do not want a constant parade of servers throwing more bread on the table or dumping more water and ice into my glass. I can pour my own wine, thank you!
To me, fine dining in Akron and Cleveland is alive and well, but defined by the growing cadre of well-trained, creative chefs who seem to be appearing in northeast Ohio at an ever-increasing rate. The restaurants they open have high standards for both food and service. If those standards are different from the “traditional” idea of fine dining, that's only because they reflect our times. I don't see that as something to be sad about, nor worthy of complaint. As always, I think the public is getting what it wants from the food service industry, and I personally see it as an improvement.