Fine Lines

Increasingly, operators want their concepts to be defined as upscale, without the elitist image of fine dining.

Breakfast concepts, sports bars, family diners—it seems every restaurant wants to claim upscale status.

As a simple adjective, perhaps it works. But as an industry segment, upscale has its own measures to be met. Ironically, it’s rare to hear an operator say he has a fine-dining restaurant. The threat of being thought elitist causes as much consternation as the fear of being left outside the upscale circle.

So, what’s the difference? Technomic defines restaurant segments largely by dollars and drink: Family dining encompasses restaurants with little or no alcohol service and average checks under $12; casual dining includes alcohol service and check averages of $12–$50; fine dining emphasizes dinner service, with an extensive alcohol program, and check averages above $50. More recently, Technomic defined another segment: Upscale/polished casual-dining restaurants where checks average $25–$50 and the ambiance and drink menu more closely resemble fine dining.

While some of the parameters from family and casual dining seem spot on, there is far too much ambiguity around the $50 mark. There is logically some overlap in average check amounts across the segments; upscale casual likely hits a higher average—perhaps more like $35–$75—and fine dining certainly rings in with higher-volume checks, likely starting closer to $75 and spiraling up.

Rather than splitting hairs over check amounts, however, upscale and fine dining are better defined by characteristics other than dollars: service, dining experience, menu, and—in both cases—a strong chef presence.

In talking about her nationally recognized restaurant Beast, chef/owner Naomi Pomeroy, the 2014 James Beard Award winner of Best Chef Northwest, tells me, “I feel like most places with a prix-fixe menu are pretty fancy and upscale—and that’s not to say we aren’t—but, our food tends to be pretty approachable.”

Approachable is not a term historically applied to fine dining, but the $100 average check at Beast certainly elevates it to that segment. But then, very little about today’s fine-dining venues reflects the stuffiness or formality of traditional white-tablecloth settings.

Fine dining is about authenticity and innovation, not pretentiousness. Diners might find the experience calls for coat-and-tie etiquette but not comparable attire. That authenticity and innovation are also embraced at the more relaxed settings of upscale restaurants, where servers and guests strike a convivial balance.

The common denominator for fine and upscale dining is sophistication, which, building from the definition at embodies character, ideas, tastes, and mannerisms that are the result of education and worldly experience.

Restaurant owners are clamoring to be upscale because they want to be part of that emerging sophistication. Fine dining and upscale restaurants are where the trends start—every concept aspires to a higher level.

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