Successive San Francisco Chronicle reviews of The French Laundry, which serves a bucolic set menu in Yountville, California, also illustrate a stark difference in the way the media talks about fine dining restaurants. In 2018, former critic Michael Bauer breathlessly described chef Thomas Keller as the type of exacting cook who “always looks for ways to up his game,” exemplary of a serious dedication which “has put him on top.” Just four years later, Soleil Ho’s review was far more skeptical. They wrote that, for the amount of work—“on a material level, to accumulate the wealth necessary to dine here, and on a social capital level, to actually make the reservation”—the splurge was not simply not worth it.
Wells also explicitly addressed the notorious brutalities of restaurant work in his most recent Le Bernadin review: It’s not as if this particular slice of the food industry “has a monopoly on bad behavior,” he wrote. He’s not wrong. Just about anyone in an apron can be a jerk, whether they’ve donned it at a low-key diner or within the sterile walls of Noma’s kitchen.
But the aside highlights a simmering sentiment: Whether a customer is experiencing the stress of dropping a whole bunch of money while the economy is in the toilet, or feels ethically compromised by the possibility of underwriting abusive practices—or both—fine dining seems to come with an inherent side of guilt these days. This falls in line with a trend that reaches beyond restaurants—when it comes down to it, a lot of rich people really don’t want to broadcast just how rich they are, whether it’s via the places they eat or what they buy at the grocery store. Even if you still think the spectacle of fine dining is fun, owning up to it without admitting to its possible evils (and your own privilege) has become sort of taboo.
To be clear, Wells and other critics aren’t the instigators of this cultural pivot—they just reflect how confused people are about fine dining right now. “I think it’s just become a luxury a lot of people don’t think about doing anymore,” one person told me on Twitter. Another diner couldn’t stomach the labor practices: “After hearing how the [back of house staff] is treated at my city’s fine dining choices, why would I ever give money to the people facilitating that?” Others said that they still loved fine dining, but scrimped on regular meals to save for special occasions. “Spending $200-300 a month is easy if you eat out or get takeout frequently,” one person responded. “We reserve that for one night out a month or every other month at our favorite spots.”
That fine dining restaurants are expected to be morally good as well as delicious is a broadly positive thing for customers and workers, and I’m glad that’s being reflected in reviews that are more holistic and nuanced. And I doubt fine dining is particularly near The End, as some have predicted. Between the end of 2019 and the end of 2022, the reservations platform OpenTable saw the biggest growth (8%) across restaurant meals in their most expensive category (over $50 per person). Sure, that’s not a $300 tasting menu, but it does indicate that customers are still willing to eat out at a higher price point. It’s also clear from the explosive growth in members-only private restaurants that there’s a market hungry for pricey experiences.
At least for now, it’s not so much that no one is going to fine dining spots—it’s that, given the moral conundrum, customers just don’t want to brag about it anymore.