Paul Wellman (file)

The Problem with Fine Dining

How to Enjoy Eating Out in an Expensive, Small-Portioned World

I’m one of the many who love to criticize fine dining. You just paid how much for one tortellini?! People are starving out there, and I am spending a week’s worth of wages on a wine and cheese pairing? Shoot me! Worst of all: I leave hungry.

Then one day I finally got it: Fine dining is not a meal. It is entertainment. It is performance. It is art. It is a bloody rock show. Do not come hungry.

The purpose of fine dining is to stimulate as many senses as possible to create a unique, memorable experience, preferably shared with friends. (Yes, friends—please, do not go to fine dining with someone who you dislike.)

Take note of the room — the artwork, décor, spacing, architecture; this is all intended to feed your senses. Some of the most elaborate interior design occurs in fine dining restaurants, so don’t miss it.

Talk to the staff. This is not Applebee’s, where you have come to correlate eating out with frantically trying to catch someone’s attention, while simultaneously giving the impression that you are not frustrated, or being ignored, and are still engaged in that conversation you are missing. Social interaction with the staff is part of the experience. Educated on the courses, the wait staff is your fine-dining guides. They can explain how normal ingredients were magically transformed into unique, unrecognizable materials— the intended texture, and the inspiration behind it. The perfect wine to offset a flavor in a dish. Which farms provided specific ingredients, how they were farmed, what characteristics they contain.

Touch the food. Imagine walking into the Van Gogh museum, and being allowed to touch and feel every piece so that you could experience all the individual brush strokes that make up a masterpiece. In fine dining, each dish is meticulously plated and presented as a piece of art. Ingredients not just chosen for taste, but also appearance, in an attempt to paint a portrait.

Have I mentioned to not come hungry?

Portion sizes are intentional. Having just a few bites of this masterpiece requires your full attention, forced by the price you are knowingly paying for this one bite. With that in mind, you concentrate, pick out each flavor, spice, texture, and discuss fully with those around you, giving your taste buds center stage as you experience something truly unique.

Correct, you did not just throw down a massive plate of Alfredo, your palate covered in cream, eventually unable to pick out anything unique from bite to bite, the meal disappearing into your food-induced coma, the flavor lost in time. If you are starving, go to Olive Garden.

I knowingly spend thousands of dollars a year on concert tickets. Why? Because I like seeing a common scale played on a guitar that was stolen from our past, yet unforgivingly twisted into something new and modern. I like to awe in the sheer intensity and effort of a drummer’s rhythm pulsing through a crowd. I absorb the atmosphere, the stage design, light show, the sound, the performance. I share the experience with those around me. For two hours of this performance, I gladly shell out hundreds of dollars, even though I could have listened to the record at home.

So before your next trip to a fine dining restaurant, remember that these establishments provide a culinary concert— the transformation of classics into modern works, the plating, the design. This is not dinner; it is a performance. My recommendation: don’t come hungry.

Spencer Hardey is a finance professional who can be spotted biking in the Funk Zone or swimming at Leadbetter.

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