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The luxurious past

Is vintage fine dining a trend?

Photograph: H. Armstrong Roberts / CLASSICSTOCK

Fine dining is dead.

People have been saying so since fine dining was born more than 100 years ago in France. But a few weeks ago, when NoMI, a holdout of formality in the Park Hyatt Hotel, reopened with an approach that shuns white tablecloths and Champagne carts, the question of fine dining’s lifeline took on more pertinence. “Elegance has evolved into something different,” NoMI chef Ryan LaRoche told TOC when the restaurant reopened. He added: It’s “such a relief.”

NoMI’s move appears on trend with where restaurants have been going for the last decade—restaurateurs like Donnie Madia have progressively moved from quiet, upscale restaurants (Blackbird) to bustling, and sometimes defiantly low-end, spots (the Publican, Big Star). Restaurateurs Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz have taken similar routes, eschewing the formality of their first restaurant, Boka, for downscale places like Girl & the Goat and their forthcoming pizza spot, Balena.

But there’s evidence that NoMI may have jumped on the casual bandwagon too late. Frank Brunacci, the opening chef of Trump Tower’s Sixteen, recently departed that formal restaurant, announcing plans to go even more high-end: He wants to open a truffle-focused restaurant. That gravitation toward higher luxury is echoed in the Elysian Hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, Ria, which opened in late 2009 as a high-end à la carte spot, but has since gone to (more expensive) tasting menus—and lost no business doing so.

Billy Lawless, who surprised fans of his bustling gastropub the Gage when he opened the lush, tiny, pricey Henri next door, admits that “in some ways luxury, you could say, is dying.” But “in other aspects, it’s actually having a revival. I mean, if you look at some of the menus around the city, you’re seeing whole roasted foie gras à la carte. Oyster service is huge again. Caviar service is getting big again. The Champagne carts that are being offered today are far more expensive than they ever were.”

Oysters, caviar, Champagne. It sounds like the stuff of another era—an era when unemployment wasn’t 9 percent. It may be because the brand of luxury that restaurants are now dipping into is a retro one. And just as with fashion, what’s old is new again—even whole lobes of foie gras.

“Our philosophy of luxury [comes from] an older style of luxury,” says Brian O’Connor, general manager of Ria. “There were a lot of people who said in 2009, 2010, you don’t open a fine-dining restaurant. There were a lot of people arguing, ‘Oh, let’s have a place where you can get a steak, or a nice piece of fish, and we’ll call it a day.’ And what [chef Danny Grant] and I…saw is that there’s actually a great opportunity in Chicago…to do something at the high end, to really go all out, and deliver something that would be new to the city. You had Tru ten years ago, you had Alinea five years ago, and we looked at it and said, ‘Well, let’s give them a run for their money.’ ”

And what O’Connor says he found is that, when it comes to that classic, high-end experience in Chicago, “there is a demand beyond the supply.”

The demand for luxury is certainly evident in the furor over tickets to Next’s Tour of Thailand menu, a roughly $100, coursed-out meal consisting of many dishes you can buy at inexpensive Thai restaurants for $10. Grant Achatz attributes some of that demand to the tweaks current-day restaurants are making to old-school luxury. People crave elegance, but not the stiff, cold ways it used to be executed, he says. So instead of employing the serious, tuxedo-clad servers that may be a historically accurate replication of old-school luxury, restaurants employ a chattier, more relaxed waitstaff. It’s “comfortable elegance, comfortable luxury, approachable luxury,” Achatz says.

O’Connor concurs, and adds that, really, even back in the day, cold service was never really appreciated. “It established who you were, and that you were at an important place,” he admits. But customers “kind of suffered the pomp and circumstance along the way, without really ever loving it.”

But everything else about old-school luxury—the doting, the decadence—is back in vogue.

“People love to be taken care of, people love great service, people love to be pampered—no matter what,” Achatz says. The proof is in the demand for the Office—the tiny, exclusive speakeasy underneath Achatz’s bar the Aviary—which Achatz says trumps the demand for Next or Alinea. (Of course, the Office also has the smallest capacity of the three.)

“The Office is intentionally luxurious. Like, over the top, right?… And you know what? It’s packed every night. Why? Because—because—it’s luxurious. Because people go down there and they know when they go down there they’re going to get dripped over. And they’re going to pay a lot, admittedly. $20 cocktails, $55 beef tartare, oysters on the half shell…. But that’s why they’re going.”

Whether they will continue to fill the Office remains to be seen. And perhaps nobody is watching more closely than the Peninsula, which must decide what to do with Avenues now that chef Curtis Duffy has announced he will be leaving. The hotel has hinted that Avenues—famous for its Champagne cart—may reconcept. Whether it will go the NoMI route, or ride the wave of vintage luxury, the owners aren’t saying. They have a few months, after all, to figure it out. And by that time, who knows? Fine dining may be on its way to casual again.

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