Haute is no longer hot.
In Tampa Bay and nationally, nearly all of the exciting, high-profile restaurants to open in the past two years have been casual and moderate to mid-priced. At none of them are you required to wear a jacket. At none will you find tuxedoed waiters or red roses in crystal vases. In short, fine dining seems to be breathing its last rattly gasps.
This demise says a great deal — some of it good, some bad — about cultural shifts in this second decade of the 21st century.
And who is driving this shift? Millennials. These folks, ages 25 to 34, eat out more than anyone else. Many of them are employed and not yet saddled with kids and mortgages, and the restaurant industry is working double time to figure out what they want.
The Twitter generation wants good food, but they don't want to spend three hours dining. Their mantras are customizability and choice. It is for these customers that so many restaurants have adopted the Subway/Chipotle "point and choose" strategy of personalizing orders. And the rise of small plates, tapas and "sharables" has rendered multicourse prix-fixe menus stodgy and constraining. A shared cheese and charcuterie board at Annata Wine Bar in St. Petersburg, or an array of whimsical small plates at Edison food + drink lab in Tampa have slowly squeezed out multicoursers like Dunedin's Six Tables, which recently closed.
Increasingly, fine dining is too big a commitment in quantity, time and dollars.
"When I grew up in Bombay, fine dining meant eating at a five-star hotel where there were four waiters to each guest," remembers Hari Pulapaka, co-owner of James Beard nominee Cress in DeLand. "The audience for that kind of experience is diminishing. It's a generational thing, and if restaurants don't adapt, they will be obsolete."
At the recent Florida Restaurant and Lodging Show, Pulapaka took part in a panel of Florida restaurant luminaries assembled to discuss the state of fine dining.
The easiest answer to why traditional fine dining has taken a nosedive is price. Since the economic crisis of 2008, millennials as well as older consumers have been more value conscious, with restaurants caught between rising food costs and customer pressures to keep prices low.
As in most American cities, fine dining restaurants in Tampa Bay have historically been forums for business meetings and gatherings. That hasn't changed entirely, but some of the rules and protocols have shifted.
Chris Ponte, chef/owner of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, describes his fine dining place as "a business restaurant." Although he says business for him continues to grow about 15 percent a year, 2008 changes to the pharmaceutical marketing code prohibited sales representatives from providing lavish dinners to health care professionals, a serious blow to his private dining bookings.
From law practices to high-tech firms, lavish restaurant meals have been replaced by more modest affairs, a testament to belt-tightening gestures all over.
Bruce Caplan, owner of Fetishes on St. Pete Beach, doesn't think it's strictly about the money. For 18 years, he had the continental Fetishes Fine Dining, moving to a new location in 2012 and excising the word "Fine" from its name.
"In terms of price structure, we're probably about the same or cheaper than places like Parkshore Grill. Sometimes it's a misconception. People were eating at (nearby) Snapper's for about the same money, but the 'fine dining' description was scaring them away from our place."
Caplan believes the rise of casual, fast-casual and fast-food corresponds to the development of prepared "freezer to heat source" foods from distributors, which obviate the need for pedigreed chefs and skilled workers in the kitchen.
Which is a lucky thing if you ask James Petrakis, co-owner of Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder in Winter Park and one of the panelists at the Florida Restaurant convention. "With the rise of the celebrity chef and food television, a lot of young people aren't willing to take the time to develop a craft. They want success right away, thus it's hard to staff a fine-dining restaurant," he said.
Caplan sees this on the service side as well. "When I started waiting tables years ago, I was surrounded in that dining room by people with a lot of talent. In those days, it was much more of a profession than it is today."
Wistfulness about a simpler business model is echoed by chefs and restaurateurs around the country. From Joel Robuchon to Tom Colicchio and Todd English, celebrity chefs have focused their recent energies on casual concepts.
In St. Petersburg, Michael Mina and Don Pintabona are poised to open Locale Market and the small Farmtable Kitchen restaurant at Sundial this fall.
Fabled fine-dining restaurants such as the Donatello and Bern's Steak House in Tampa, or Bob Heilman's Beachcomber in Clearwater are going strong (see box for more), but Farmtable will join a number of celebrated newcomers, all of them casual, bustling, with nary a tuxedo in sight: Elevage at the Epicurean Hotel, Roux in South Tampa, Local Public House in San Antonio and Rooster and the Till in Seminole Heights, as well as soon-to-open Ava, and Fodder and Shine, both in Tampa.
Harry Balzer, restaurant industry expert for the NPD Group, says fine dining accounts for 1.5 percent of all meals eaten out (he says fast food accounts for 80 percent). He doesn't think fine dining is disappearing — "let's think about the '1 percent,' not everybody is affected by recession" — but he says he wouldn't be surprised if the appearance of high-end restaurants is changing.
Restaurants have done away with the trappings of fine dining (drapes, carpets, linens, low music — the unintended result of which has been increased restaurant noise levels); they have done away with rigid formality in service and dress code.
The democratization of restaurants may not be entirely good: Do away with the top-end restaurants, those elitist bastions where a platoon of cooks and servers attend to the privileged few, and you may do away with some of the creative laboratories that incubate trends.
But as with most restaurant trends, this "casualization" may just be one end of a pendulum swing. Kevin Fonzo, chef-owner of K Restaurant and Wine Bar in Orlando, says for now the demand is just not there for traditional fine dining.
"I don't think it's dead. It's taking a nap."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.