Once considered the pinnacle of fine dining, traditional French restaurants have fallen out of favor in the past decade or so as consumers seek lesser-known cuisines and more laidback experiences. But, a new era of French dining may be on the horizon.
NextGen concepts take inspiration from the tried and true but leave behind the unnecessary gatekeeping associated with fine dining. What emerges is a more casual approach that keeps high-quality French cooking at its core, and allows space for chefs to make creative twists.
“I think today when we talk about seasonal restaurants, where cuisine is locally and seasonally driven, this is the French concept. The DNA of French cuisine was based on that,” says Daniel Boulud, revered French chef and owner of 20-plus restaurants spanning New York City, Miami, Palm Beach, Florida, and international destinations, such as the Bahamas, Canada, Singapore, and Dubai.
Hailing from Lyon, France, Boulud has been celebrated for advancing French culture and cuisine. And though the chef comes from a fine-dining background, he has taken care not to alienate his neighbors.
“Sometimes a restaurant becomes so famous that locals don’t go anymore,” he says. “French restaurants thrive on staying local and being part of the fiber and social life of people.”
Boulud still sees value in full-service concepts in markets like New York, where customers expect “to be pampered more than ever, and want special moments more than ever,” he says.
Despite offering a more casual dining experience at Le Gratin in downtown Manhattan, Boulud questions the longevity of French fast-casual restaurants.
“Usually, chefs go into the fast-casual market with one thing in mind: to grow it and sell it. But restaurants like mine, like DANIEL, you don’t want to grow it or sell it; you want to keep it forever. It’s a different mindset of business,” he says. “So in casual, you really have to bring something people can live on every day. You can go across the street and sit down at a French bistro every day and have something healthy.”
To thrive in today’s market, the evolution of French cuisine involves embracing a new identity and distancing itself from the old, complicated reputation.
“We are working hard every day to not be perceived as fine dining,” says Jérôme Sérot, a French expat who cofounded Southerleigh Hospitality. The San Antonio–based group comprises Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery, Southerleigh Haute South, and French-focused Brasserie Mon Chou Chou.
Non-foodies might make a mistake in thinking Mon Chou Chou is a fancy establishment, given the beauty of the exterior’s architecture and name, but Sérot says it’s true French comfort food with a steak program, scratch-made fries, and a curated selection of wine that won’t break the bank. Some of the comfort dishes include Souris D’Agneau (slow-braised lamb), Plateau D’Huitres (East Coast oysters), and Côte de Porc (seared pork porterhouse).
Mon Chou Chou opened in San Antonio’s Pearl historical district in December 2020, which Sérot describes as both the best and the worst time to open a new restaurant and introduce comfort French food to the Texas market.
“Part of our due diligence was to create a list of everything that goes against this perception,” Sérot says. “[French cuisine] is known for being too expensive, unreachable, too complicated, with an environment that’s not casual at all. Brasserie is the exact opposite.”
Though traditional French brasseries are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the current Texas market wouldn’t support that model—or not yet, he says. San Antonio’s French footprint is small, but Sérot has seen a wave of French concepts arriving on the scene recently, from fast-casual digs to quick serves. And that trend applies nationally, as well.
Olivier Desaintmartin, a French chef since 1978 and a champion on The Food Network’s “Chopped,” wanted to make a departure from the white tablecloth world of fine dining when he opened Caribou Café in Philadelphia in 2003.
Caribou’s casual, bistro environment features posters from Paris, a Belgian-style bar, and country-classic comfort food at a more affordable price point. A prix fixe luncheon menu includes soup du jour or petite salad, a classic French entrée that changes daily, and a salty caramel crepe or chocolate mousse, all for less than $30. An all-day, five-course bistro meal costs $45.
“I did cut down on butter and heavy cream, and I adjusted to what people reach for with comfort food,” Desaintmartin says. Menu innovation comes in the form of incorporating ingredients and recipes from various regions in France, from a Brittany-inspired seafood crepe with salmon, shrimp, crab, and Mornay cheese sauce for $21 to Parisian onion soup gratinée with gruyere and croutons for $10.
Desaintmartin is able to keep prices low by maintaining a lean roster of staff members, some of whom have been in his employ for upwards of 20 years. “We have full service at casual prices, but we still want waiters or bartenders to know all their wines, cocktails, [how to] set the tables and clean them,” he says.
As restaurateurs continue redefining what fine dining and casual hybrids look like, the next generation of chefs is poised to blend the traditional and the new wave in their menus.
“What we’re the most proud of … is the mentoring we have been giving chefs in America of all backgrounds, nationalities, and origins,” Boulud says. “It’s incredible, and they are all growing today and creating their own lineage.”