By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
I remember the weekend. I, along with three friends, hit the road the morning of May 3, 2002. We were driving from St Paul, Minnesota to Chicago, Illinois for a weekend of dining we had all talked about and prepared for, for months.
Lunch at Goose Island Brewery, dinner at Charlie Trotters, Saturday brunch at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, dinner at Rick Tramonto’s Tru, beers at the Map Room and finally, hit the road Sunday morning with the most gourmet of grab and go food from Trotter’s.
I think I’m still full and while I wouldn’t exactly put it up there with the “Works and Days” by Hesiod, I lament sometimes with chef friends about how we are seeing the end of an era. And COVID-19, as it can be blamed for many things, is only the final nail in this coffin.
Americans generally use the term fine dining as a bit of a blanket statement for any restaurant they deem ‘fancy.’ Another vague term, but more specifically, I’m talking about true fine dining.
Linen covered tables, a dedicated sommelier, staff in suits, multiple courses, a wine list that reads like the Library of Congress, and a final bill that can sting for a while.
In their hay day, these restaurants were not only a mecca for boomers, but they were the most coveted of jobs and internships for aspiring cooks and chefs. They were the ultimate resumé builder for young men and women like me.
But slowly, they began to fade. Access to reservations went from impossible to difficult and pretty soon, a table for four at 8:00 pm could be had in as little as a week or two.
Then the inevitable: One by one, many of these pillars of the industry began shuttering. Charlie Trotters, Cyrus, Le Cirque, and La Belle Vie (where I was the opening sous chef).
Rising costs of server wages, fickle delicate ingredients that became more expensive, a 2008 recession, ultimately all were contributors to their downfall and hundreds like them.
But something else was also happening. A sea change; the next generation. Generation X, whose moniker began in 1981, never found substantial interest in dining the way previous generations had. Fine dining was replaced with grab and go, fast, casual, modern bistros and gastro pubs.
Suits were replaced with t-shirts, tattoos and bandanas. Linen was covered with butcher paper and eventually removed altogether. Portions got larger and mysterious unpronounceable ingredients began to disappear, and atmospheres became more casual.
I’m all for change and evolution. There are fantastic chefs and restaurants all across America that are at the top of their game with none of the aforementioned. But it doesn’t mean I don’t miss the old style and the skill and experience.
Whenever I knew I was traveling to the big city, my priority was to get reservations in wherever the underground chef pipeline said I had to dine. And much like seeing the World Trade Center before they collapsed or riding a classic roller coaster before it’s dismantled, I’m fortunate I was able to experience many of these culinary giants when their doors were still open.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.