One of the main features of a luxurious lifestyle can be fine dining, by which I mean eating out at expensive, trendy, or fancy restaurants. Today I want to explore whether fine dining is worth the cost, or whether it’s a waste of good money.
Who am I to talk of this? I am not a critic on top restaurants, do not know the ins and outs of molecular gastronomy, and never ate at El Bulli. However, I have eaten hundreds of fancy meals over the years and will eat almost anything; I enjoy most cuisines, including Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, French, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Korean, American (new and classic), Lebanese, Iraqi, Greek, Italian, Turkish, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Indian, Thai, Portuguese and Vietnamese. I know burritos, bibimbap, and many things in between.
I’ve also dined at top restaurants in many places, from Eleven Madison Park in NYC, Isola in Hong Kong, and Zuma in Miami, to food trucks in Portland and buffets on cruise ships. I have lived in Puerto Rico, Boston, Berlin, Madrid, and Miami, and have dined in most of Western Europe, many parts of the US, Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, Greece, Turkey, and Hong Kong.
So while I am not a trained food critic, I do claim some experience in this area, know my way around good restaurants, and have a well-developed sense for BS.
The Truth About Fine Dining Restaurants
In one sentence: most fancy restaurants are not worth the money, at least as far as food taste is concerned.
Let me unpack this. First, I would say that, in my experience, the food is truly great in about 25% of fine dining restaurants (where two people dine for $100 to $150 or more, before tax and tip). By truly great I mean exceptional-tasting food, whether it be a new, unique recipe or simply an excellently-executed classic. I mean stuff that you put in your mouth and say “wow!”, and tell your friends about.
I do not mean beautifully-plated food or unique recipes with mediocre taste. I speak solely about taste. If it doesn’t taste amazing, it’s not worth spending hundreds of dollars on, unless you need to impress someone or really like the ambiance.
Allow me an example. I love Peruvian food; a great ceviche (or cebiche) and tacu tacu are a real treat for me. I’ve been to tens of Peruvian restaurants in several cities, but my favorite remains Divino Ceviche, a simple, inexpensive joint in Miami with simple decoration, no real view, and a family-restaurant feel. You won’t find white tablecloths or servers with fine clothes, but you will find the best Peruvian food I’ve ever had.
On the other end of the scale, I was recently at Zuma, a fancy Japanese place in Miami’s EPIC Hotel. Zuma is expensive, seemed to have a full-fledged staff (busboys, waiters, hostess, and probably a sommelier), huge windows with great views, and a glitzy crowd. It has unusual Japanese fare, but it tastes incredible. It was truly a memorable meal, with small plates that are bursting with unique flavors, and elegant-without-being-snobby service.
There, your money is well-spent, but it is the exception; most fine dining restaurants of its price and reputation do not have that kind of food.
Fancy Restaurants, Hype, and Junk
Therein lies the problem, and the point I’m trying to make. Most fine dining restaurants have mediocre food that’s not worth the money. They live mostly on hype, and, I think, make money because people are reluctant to criticize things that other praise. In a conversation where everyone’s saying that the new, trendy and expensive restaurant in town is wonderful, people generally don’t like being the odd man out that says that everyone there is wrong and the place sucks, even if it’s the truth. That’s how hype spreads, until enough folks visit the place and, realizing they’ve been had, don’t come back, or the next trendy place pops up and the “in” crowd moves over.
The Way Forward
I suggest a strategy of moderation. Try different places, and eat mainly at inexpensive joints with great-tasting food. Only try expensive places if people you trust (including local restaurant critics and food bloggers that you consider credible) recommend them. Otherwise, unless you have to impress someone or have another good reason to be there, don’t waste your money.
What do you think about fine dining and fancy restaurants?