Is there still a place for stuffy dining rooms, white tablecloths, and over-the-top service? With fine dining under threat from the casual revolution, we examine the current dining climate in Bangkok and find out whether there’s a future for fine dining.
There’s no escaping the fact that modern fine dining has undergone a significant shift. Not only in Bangkok but globally, with restaurants offering a more casual, less-restricting dining experience to customers.
Once the bastion of high society and the pinnacle of the culinary world, fine dining has seemingly been eclipsed by meals offering a more authentic experience: think tables loaded with plates, laughing, jovial customers; or a small seater street food restaurant turning out award-winning crab omelettes. We are surrounded by good food, accessible at different levels, so much so that we don’t need to seek out highfalutin, shiny-starred restaurants anymore, especially when it’s difficult to justify paying thousands of Baht per meal.
Opinions remain mixed, and while I firmly believe that there will always be a place for fine dining in society circles—birthdays, anniversaries, expense business lunches—I think it’s evident that the modern diner is exposed to so much more nowadays and they are, therefore, looking for diversity and new experiences. Ever hungry, ever demanding.
While there is still a place for the big, heavy-hitting Michelin restaurants, a new, successful brigade of restaurants are placing more of an emphasis on people having fun. Indeed, how the modern diner approaches and thinks of food has changed too. Compare the restaurants of today to those of ten, twenty, fifty years ago; with designated sommeliers, waiters cleaning your tablecloth with those little silver combs and desserts presented on roving carts.
Food now is fetishised not as nourishment, but as a kind of aesthetic triumph, thanks in part to social media and the abundance of food TV shows and documentaries. In turn, this has opened the culinary world to the consumer, who today, seeks out stories, Instagramable dishes and value for money over chandelier dining rooms and ironed white tablecloths.
According to research, 70 per cent of diners have turned against the formal French style of service, and towards the clatter and ease of multiple plates on the table—a very Thai-style of eating. Fewer than 20 per cent are interested in fine dining. As a recent article in The Atlantic stated, “The pageantry of the restaurant experience has shifted from a spectacle of service to a spectacle of soulfulness.”
Chefs such as Gaggan Anand (Gaggan), Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn (LeDu), Tim Butler (Eat Me), Fatih Tutak (The House on Sathorn) and Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava and Dylan Jones (Bo.Ian), to name only a few in the city, all exercise a more casual operation; others, like Jay Fai, offer something even below casual. The focus for these chefs is less about the wallpaper and starched serviettes, with everything geared towards the food on the plate and the fun, casual customer experience. Moving away from stuffy service and waiters in bowties, you’re far more likely to find uni ice cream and a glass of biodynamic wine, served to you as a Kiss track blast from the speakers, than the outmoded and antiquated French classics.
It’s about time, too. Bangkok’s restaurant revolution was a rather slow maturation compared to much of the world and took a new direction with the launch of the Michelin Guide last year. This has, unquestionably, opened up the city, adding another arbitrary list to the mix which, supposedly, draws a line upon which people can measure quality.
Are all of the named Bangkok restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide, fine dining? No, of course not. That’s not what restaurants or fine dining in 2018 means—although, I’d be hard-pushed to find a straightforward definition. Likewise, Michelin must remain relevant, so they address street food institutions and hole-in-the-wall establishments like Jay Fai. They have previous, self-serving marketing stratagems too, awarding the likes of Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Singapore and Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong. Are these fine dining institutions? Are they heck.
So, what is fine dining today and does it have a future? The answer to that question will differ depending on whom you ask, but what is certain is that the idea and appreciation of food and the surroundings in which it’s served, and the approach of modern-day chefs and restaurateurs, have moved on significantly; just as the expectations of the customer has. The presumption that it’s going anywhere, anytime soon, is misplaced. Fine dining remains a celebratory, often heavy-on-the-wallet, experience; but it must compete with newer, glossier, more innovative offerings in order to survive.
Above all, eating out is about having fun; otherwise, we’d all be staying indoors. The tradition of predominantly French-led fine dining, with its snooty service, staff hovering over your shoulder and those ridiculous leather-bound tombs they call wine lists, look dated compared with the excitement and the emotion of a shared dining experience, the likes of which you find throughout Scandinavia, Latin America and even pockets of Southeast Asia. I’m not putting French food down, they invented, and promoted it for a century, the very concept of fine dining—haute cuisine. Moreover, they created the restaurant too, a place to be fraternal and egalitarian. French food is one the most magnificent ornaments of civilisation, but as the diner has evolved, so must the chefs and the restaurants and most importantly of all, the food served.
As fine dining grew successful, it became fashionable. More and more chefs emerged, meaning more and more restaurants emerged. Along with ballet, the opera or a night at the movies, taking your loved one to a posh restaurant became the norm. Valentine’s Day? A restaurant. Mother’s Day? A restaurant? Wedding anniversary? A restaurant. Somewhere public where you can break-up without making a scene? A restaurant.
I enjoy a steaming bowl of tom kha kai just as much as I enjoy dressing up and heading to a swanky hotel restaurant for a three-hour long meal. For me, it’s about the company, the mood I’m in and what sort of cuisine I can’t do without on that particular day of the week. When the food, the service, and the ambience—be it in a restaurant, at a bar, seated at a kitchen counter or on a plastic stool in the middle of the pavement—is good, I wallow in it. An accidental noodle find in a backstreet of Chinatown is just as thrilling to me as the unapologetic theatrically-led tasting menus of expensive, fine dining establishments; neither defines me. Food is food, and the real pleasure is that we live in a city with ample choice.