I read the headline on a recent Elk Grove Patch story——and, yes, I admit I snickered. Fine dining in Elk Grove? Now that’s an oxymoron in the making. Then I felt guilty: Why was I being so quick to diss Elk Grove restaurants? That led to me to ask myself, what is fine dining anyway? Are there rules and regulations guiding it? Who made them and, most important, how relative are they? In other words, does the term at all depend on the audience—or are they etched in marble for all time, places, and people?
As usual, when in search of meaning, I turn to the internet. There I found that the general consensus is that fine dining takes place in an independently-owned restaurant in which the decor creates a specific atmosphere, the portions are small and visually appealing, and the service of all courses is offered by trained staff. There is an emphasis on the culinary experience—and a higher price point than your average chain restuarant.
That covers a lot of ground, I would say, but it doesn’t necessarily mean, as one writer on Yahoo Answers had it, “Expensive food, small portions, gourmet chef, snobby customers, cloth napkins and tablecloths, fancy surroundings.”
I’ve had what I consider fine dining at a number of places that wouldn’t fit the above definitions. Here in Elk Grove, for example, I’ve eaten at (and ). Their portions are anything but small and their waitstaff, at least when I’ve been there, is less than efficient. But I consider Palermo a fine dining experience nonetheless.
Similarly, I’ve eaten at a number of big-city restaurants that have ambitions to be fine dining but to my mind fail miserably. Just recently, for example, I had an extremely forgettable meal at Scoma’s, the famed seafood restaurant in San Francisco. The waiter’s jacket was starched, but his service was lazy. The food was merely adequate, and the evening left me feeling cranky.
I say “fine dining” is a euphemism for “special night out.” I don’t care whether the place is elegant or down home as long as they make me feel that they care about my experience in terms of both food and service. That means that all involved understand that the purpose of the evening is not just to tie the old feed bag on.
Fine dining is a performance, similar to a play. It takes place within a stage setting and the participants are both actors and audience. The scenery, the talent, the words of the play and the direction are all crucial to the success of the performance, in that taken together they are the whole experience. Should one of those things be off, it is a cause for critique but not disparagement. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if the play is a comedy or a tragedy, high- or low-brow—it is still the theater.
We’re a casual lot here in Elk Grove and I would argue that our fine dining reflects that. So yes, we have the two stars of the Elk Grove culinary scene, and , but we also have a number of other restaurants, I believe, where the tableware might not be so fine and the waitstaff might be wearing jeans, but the goal of the creator behind the place is to provide a dining experience that goes that extra mile.
I have the feeling that those restaurants are Mom and Pop places, where they’re trying to recreate the cuisine of their native land. It needn’t be fancy; it needn’t cost an arm and a leg. It is, however, special—and that’s what makes it fine.