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Posted July 22, 2013 by renospiteri in Don't Miss
 
 

Fine Dining Restaurants – Whither Thou Goest?

dec2005-bouley4
dec2005-bouley4

Fine dining –  Whither Thou Goest?

It is no secret that fine dining restaurants are run on slim profits anywhere. These establishments are rarely considered to be cash-cows, and taking present economic trends, recession problems that have plagued the industry during the last four years,  huge set-up costs, staff-competence requirements and commensurate salaries, and general shifts in customer behaviour, mean that it is even harder than ever to make fine dining pay. That is of course, if one is going flat out, for this restaurant model and concept. There are many who think that they are operating a fine dining establishment, but once visited and reviewed,  most fall far short of this model.

Fine-dining set-up

 

Then again, are these establishments really sought after in Malta? There might be,  of course small cliques of possibly wealthier, older diners who like to have napkins draped on their laps and each mouthful of wine or water  that they sip from their wine glass or water glass as the case may be, is instantly poured for them by an attentive waiter. For most present day diners, such fuss  is uncomfortable and obtrusive. I personally like to pour my own wine, after the initial tasting portion is poured for me to taste,  and the first portion is poured by the waiter to each guest on the table. I  like to control my own consumption in my own time, rather than having it forced on me through continuous replenishment of every sip.  Above all , such service is delivered at prices disconnected from any idea of value for money,  and further extras thrown-in,  with the  more expensive supplements , such as that offer of for example:  that expensive pre-dinner sparkling wine (Champagne,  Prosecco, or the like), that over the top cocktail, extra payment for any side orders of condiments, maybe potatoes and  vegetables.; as well as one must also check-out service and cover charges that are included,  as well as a normal top-up of some 12.5 per cent of the total bill to cover gratuities (tips) on the final bill.

 

Fine-dining set-up. If one really tries to notice the clientele that frequent these establishments, one will find  no one under the age of forty; possibly men in suites entertaining business guests, and with the whole experience reflecting an aura of stiffness and boredom. Certainly the food presented might be extremely  elaborate,  but naturally very expensive , served in small portions  and which might not appeal to everyone . Wine selections on the wine list, will depend on the restaurant’s expertise, but I have seen cheaper, supermarket,  wines included ( locally that is), with a  mark-up of  more than 500 per cent on the normal price, with the more expensive wine brands, unreachable by most clients not having a vast expense account.

Gordon Ramsay London

The Fat Duck – Bray.

By whose standards, is fine dining defined as being so?   Let me put it this way, once one would have dined at one or two of these restaurants overseas, (the Fat Duck in Bray, UK, comes to mind, at which one  must pay a visit if in the UK, even simply to see what the fuss is all about, but then to be surprised by the sheer passion, inventiveness and creativity of Heston Blumenthal and others in his league ),  it is difficult to get excited by anything that is offered at other  places anywhere. Food offered in most aspirant,  fine dining restaurants, might be otherwise pleasant, even technically correct, but it is mainly found to be  fundamentally modest, which in most cases comes at an unwarranted  premium for the client. Does anyone really think that culinary foams, expensive, imitation molecular gastronomy presentations, and certain alchemic food preparations,  are going to be still with us some five years from now? Time will tell, as surveys carried out have already indicated  that a massive change in consumer trends, as well as in spending  strength have changed .

 

 

For the operators, a fine dining restaurant is always  going to be a long term investment. Even if a project goes well, it will take several years to recover the initial investment and operators, (especially new, un-experienced  owners), have to realise that it might take a couple of years or more just  to settle in, build a regular clientele, and generate a positive balance sheet. This demonstrates how fine the line between success and failure can be. Certainly the owners of fine dining restaurants will have to work very hard and administer the establishment very carefully in order to stand a chance of making a worthwhile profit, and to be still in operation after the first year  is over. Financial sustainability is much more than an imperative must, for the fine-dining concept.

 

Factors that need to be taken in consideration, that put extreme strain on the fine-dining model are among others, set-up costs;  rents and operational expenses which are common to all restaurants; plus the requirement for highly trained and competent chefs, and top notch front-of-house staff , which are not easily found in Malta; sourcing and cost of top quality and the freshest ingredients, to produce an excellent product.  These are all eventually going to be reflected in the menu pricing which can make or break an establishment, due to overpricing and the consequent lack of clientele, or under-pricing which would throw the establishment into bankruptcy. I’ve seen it happening in more than one unfortunate circumstance in both cases.

  Exceptional cuisine choices from some top class fine dining restaurants: Snail porridge; Crab biscuit; Foie grass with Scallops on Haricote beans and Armagnac reduction; Ice-cream Dessert; Chocolate fondant with ice-cream; Fillet steak main course presentation. 

 

 

 

Another problem that is arising at the present is consumer behaviour for fine dining restaurants, for example:  orders for fewer food items; drinking less – no orders for pre-dinner cocktails or other beverages; ordering cheaper wines but nevertheless a good wine is expected; and it is a known fact, that most would not go to an establishment were supplements and additional costings  are charged.  Diners are now becoming much more cost conscious and discerning and will not pay high prices for  low quality ingredients, and that goes for everything from beef, other meats, poultry, fish, seafood, antipasti and starter dishes, and mass produced, out-sourced  desserts. The freshest ingredients, one must remember, are those that have travelled very short distances. Same goes for wine:  High mark-ups on cheap, inferior  wines are not acceptable as people are becoming more knowledgeable about quality wines nowadays.  It is painful to check-out a wine list, and discover that well known locally produced wine brands are priced at something like 355% above the retail price (e.g. Eur13.5/Eur48).

 

Up-Scale Casual dining set-up.

In Malta, it can be concluded that one can assume, that fine dining restaurants per se, are not all that sought after, and these are very few and far between . Up-scale casual diners are more in-line with what most discerning  diners seek, and then again these establishments  have to offer top quality cuisine, service and value as competition in this category is hot.  Clients are more choosy and well informed. Most are followers and members and contribute to restaurant forums such as this highly acknowledged  website  as well as the Facebook forum Restaurants In Malta:The Good;The Bad;The Rip-Offs, both of which have changed the restaurant landscape somewhat  for quality awareness, in the last few years. Reviewers are also on the look-out for the best run establishments as well as for devious, get-rich quick operators.

 

Up-scale Casual dining set-up.

Thus, the general trend in good dining venues in Malta, are up-scale casual dining establishments, serving well above average, well  prepared and presented cuisine, with the freshest ingredients, at reasonably good value for money and with excellent service. Trends are for an environment that is up-scale, sexy and nicely designed, but less formal. A strictly white table cloth environment, with tables fully set-up with all kinds of glassware and cutlery,  makes people feel that they would have to sit for a full three course dinner, regardless if they feel up-to-it or not. Trends are favouring a more relaxed atmosphere, but  with all the trimmings just mentioned, to  create the best overall dining experience for the modern, but highly discerning present-day clientele. Having said this, “Up-Scale Casual Dining Restaurants”, should not be mixed up with family oriented diners or casual diners that are designed for the mass market  and which are entirely different concepts.

 

 

 

 

 

Typical cuisine preparations and presentations expected from up-scale casual dining restaurants which include up-scale steakhouses and seafood oriented restaurants.

 

Elaborately decorated morsels of food, in tiny portions, which may also be very expensive, would certainly deter clients of whatever ilk and background . This is the present situation, whether we like it or not – hence the question in the title – Fine dining – whither thou goest?  Clients shall only follow, if  you are going to consistently deliver value  for customers’ money,  in cuisine, service and an overall, enjoyable experience that exceeds expectations in a relaxed atmosphere and ambience.

 

Reno Spiteri, BBA., Dip.Mkt., ACWP.

Restaurant Reviewer and Management Consultant.