Not long ago, eating out was a pitstop before a show or a movie. Today it has become the entertainment itself; a communal ritual where good conversations and great storytelling play as critical a role as culinary exploration. It is a truism to say that after years of confinement, customers have found a new appreciation for dining out. What has significantly changed though is the reason why. According to National Restaurant Association, “more than 70% of respondents agree that customers… [are] as hungry for connection as sustenance.”
Fine dining or hole in the wall, eating out nowadays is as much a question of mood than it is of food. A sensory feast is expected, but it must be fun and social. Never make you feel intimidated, on a stage…or in a lab. One night you may delight in the candlelight, double page menus and white tablecloths, the next unapologetically splurge on super salty French fries at your favorite cantina. “There is no standard dining style anymore and the white tablecloth does not mean the same thing for everybody. One thing is sure though, with the costs of food skyrocketing, no one wants to risk an adventure that is not fun!” explains Priscilla Martel chef and owner of Restaurant du Village in Chester. This trend is even more relevant with Millennials and Gen Z, who not knowing the daily ritual of family dinner, ignore the subtle hierarchies between fine and casual dining.
Recently commenting on Noma’s closing, sometimes called the best restaurant in the world, Rob Anderson, owner of The Canteen in Provincetown, admits marveling at “the way the wizards in Noma’s* kitchen transformed several courses of fuzzy mold and crunchy insects into something beautiful, but the experience was intellectual, not emotional.” In the post pandemic era, dining out has become a 360 experience where one expects to restore their body, mind, and soul.
No doubt that the quality of food remains diners’ number one factor of choice but the way quality is evaluated extends beyond food itself. Twenty years of Food Network channeling and three years of social isolation have turned diners into inquisitive amateurs who seek to engage with restaurants at a more personal level. According to Square latest survey, 86% of customers want to communicate with the business they frequent. They want to know it all, the story behind the scenes, the owner’s values and the chef’s dream, the way menus are curated, how food waste is managed, and if they treat their staff fairly. More than buzzwords, “zero waste”, “nose to tail”, or “equity” have become realities, largely due to younger generations of diners. Young chefs like Emily Mingrone, owner of Tavern on State in New Haven, understand it and are elevating comfort food to new culinary heights with freshly sourced, responsibly raised ingredients, and simple menus.
Tucked in the middle of the vines, Bistro Chamard in Clinton, one of the longest standing Connecticut Wine Trails, invites diners to a unique epicurean journey of golden sunset light, French inspired wines from the shoreline and a simple menu of locally grown food curated by Chef Mathew Bouffard. Indifferent to marketing, music is at a minimum; the show is in the plate and through the window. Waiters know their wine and their menu. All this without a hint of pretense.
Restaurants are reclaiming their role as community hubs, cultural places where to share values, or strike a conversation with a total stranger. More than two-third of American diners prefer local independent restaurants to chains or franchises because of the way they care for their customers. For Ani Robaina, chef/owner of the catering company Ani’s Table, “Diners are our neighbors regardless of the size of the restaurant. They want to share their stories and know about yours. It is all about empathy and humanity.” If not new, this trend is the renaissance of a more communal spirit.Ahead of its time and like an old neighbor, the Bistrot du Paradou in France has been offering the same exquisite life-altering experience for more than 30 years. There, you will see the chef chat with the guests and waiters may casually ask where you come from. Le Paradou never changed its formula: a minimalist choice of two entrees daily, but impeccably cooked, locally sourced ingredients, and a huge cheese tray to binge on. People have been visiting from all the over the world exactly for that.
Diners have become savvier, more discerning, unimpressed by one-chef-shows. They want simple food made from real ingredients that somebody prepared. In other words, food and people you can connect to. Or as Margot, the nonplussed guest of an exclusive high-end restaurant In Mark Mylod’s dark satire The Menu, serves it to the globally worshipped chef: “you cook with obsession, not love…. You’ve failed. And you’ve bored me. And the worst part is I’m still fucking hungry”.