Daniel Boulud may be best known for bringing forth fine-dining establishments that feature classical French cooking, but that reputation doesn’t bar him from embracing the new. In fact, the famed chef and restaurateur makes a point of updating his restaurants every decade or so.
The latest refresh for his flagship, Restaurant Daniel, was originally slated for 2019. But due to long lead times with items like chairs and carpeting, those plans were pushed back—a delay that was soon exacerbated by the pandemic. To get through those months of uncertainty, Boulud, who has won multiple James Beard Awards and been inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame, introduced new business models and updated existing ones. Some of these measures were temporary, but others, like a subtle shift in mindset, endured. Already the chef was leaning toward a more casual atmosphere, and the dining restrictions from COVID validated that decision.
He remains committed to fine dining, albeit an updated vision of the category.
“Fine dining was associated with pretension and, I would say, maybe attitude. That’s not at all what it is today. Fine dining is really about the connection people have with our staff, how relaxed people feel in an environment where we are there to pamper them,” Boulud says. “And people craved that. During COVID, they couldn’t have access to that, and I think life was not the same. It feels like a real celebration to go to a fine-dining restaurant again.”
And Boulud has much to celebrate. Despite the challenges of the last two years, his New York–based company, Dinex Group, has moved forward with expansion and innovation. In summer 2020, he launched Daniel Boulud Kitchen, the group’s first non-catering off-premises operation. By fall, he welcomed guests back to Restaurant Daniel with an outdoor pop-up ideally suited for socially distanced dining. The following May, Le Pavillon, a project five years in the making, debuted in Midtown Manhattan. And then in late September 2021, a renovated Restaurant Daniel unveiled its refreshed environs.
This year, Dinex still has plenty of irons in the fire. Boulud has partnered with the newly branded Mandarin Oriental Residences in Beverly Hills, California, to open a restaurant on the ground floor and a rooftop bar/lounge. The project is also reported to include at-home dining experiences for property residents—a service that is likely to benefit from Boulud’s experience building off-premises programs during COVID.
In addition to his first West Coast outpost, the chef is also seabound with Le Voyage by Daniel Boulud, a restaurant aboard the Celebrity Cruise liner Beyond, which is set to embark on its maiden voyage in April. Boulud is also taking over a space in New York’s Financial District, which has remained empty since summer 2020. While the name has yet to be announced, the chef is already committed to showcasing the cuisine of his hometown, Leon, France.
“The one project we have downtown, where Augustine used to be, is going to be a classic French bistro,” he says. “It will be more French classic, which is something I’ve always practiced in my life and on my menus, but I never really did a bistro as such, so that will be fun. I look forward to that, something very Leonese.”
Reinventing the meal
With these high-end restaurants in the pipeline, it’s easy to assume Dinex has eschewed the steady migration toward laidback dining—a movement that had started prior to the pandemic and only picked up steam since then. In some ways, it’s true. For the most part, über-casual restaurants are not in the cards for Boulud.
“I think the fine casual is something good for me. I don’t want to go too casual unless I’m creating a [quick-service] type of business, but that’s not the case, except for Épicerie Boulud, which I think is the most approachable and casual,” he says. The market/café has three locations in New York, and Boulud believes there’s still plenty of white space in the city. His other New York concepts include Bar Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, and Café Boulud, an upscale, but not quite fine-dining, restaurant slated to reopen this year. Dinex also has outposts in other domestic markets, like D.C. and Miami, as well as international ones, including Montreal, Dubai, and Singapore.
And while Boulud might not be charging toward the limited-service segment any time soon, casual elements have seeped into the formula, thanks to pandemic-era operations like Daniel Boulud Kitchen. The new business model was originally born out of another project altogether. Just a month after COVID began, the chef teamed up with Marc Holliday, CEO of SL Green Realty Corp and Boulud’s business partner in Le Pavillon, to found the Food1st Initiative, which brought back restaurant workers across New York to prepare thousands of meals for healthcare workers, first responders, elderly residents, and food-insecure families.
With limited staff in the kitchen, Boulud saw an opportunity to reignite business, at least in some fashion. Customers were regularly calling to ask if the restaurant could prepare meals for takeout, so the chef decided to do just that, beginning Memorial Day 2020. Like Restaurant Daniel, the off-premises menus regularly changed and included dishes like bouillabaisse, cassoulet, and braised short ribs, among others.
At a time when consumers were relegated to a mix of cooking and takeout, Boulud’s to-go option presented a welcome upgrade. Customers might not be able to revel in the ambiance, but they could still enjoy fare from a storied, Two-Michelin Star institution.
Over the summer, Daniel Boulud Kitchen expanded to the Hamptons, where it would send a truck on weekends with meal kits. The concept also moved onto platforms like Caviar and Grubhub.
“Suddenly we ended up with boxes everywhere, and we became a cooking-and-packing operation, which was not really in line with what Restaurant Daniel was meant to be,” Boulud says. “At the same time, we had a lot of fun making amazing dishes, and we didn’t care about being the cheapest. We cared about being the best.”
Daniel Boulud Kitchen eventually moved onto Goldbelly where meal kits, macarons, and more are still available for nationwide delivery. But once restrictions eased to permit 25 percent capacity, Boulud eagerly turned his attention back to the dine-in experience. Given the months of lockdown, he wanted the restaurant to be an escape of sorts, and thus began Boulud Sur Mer.
Designed to evoke the coast of southern France, the pop-up encompassed the inside of Restaurant Daniel as well as its long sidewalk. Boulud worked with architect Stephanie Goto to add greenery and ocean-blue screens for a stylishly distanced interior.
“We needed to break the expectations and take people to a different setting. So that’s what [Goto] successfully did inside,” Boulud says. “The vegetation, trees, and screens really helped make people feel very safe and comfortable.”
The chef adds that his gravitation to “go more green” started while building Le Pavillon, where half the venue is a garden and the other half a 120-seat restaurant.
But for all these flourishes, the real departure from the norm was the exterior of Restaurant Daniel where private bungalows were constructed for intimate and secluded dining. Though they sported beachy pink-and-white stripes, the bungalows stayed up through the winter months, thanks to heaters and closable curtains.
“We were trying to create a fine-dining experience in a very casual setting, and that worked out very well. I think that kind of helped us,” Boulud says. It should be noted that even though the chef describes his pop-up as more laidback, it still utilized luxury materials, including Hermes wallpaper, Emeco chairs, and Perennials fabrics.
This seemingly disparate dynamic—luxurious yet casual, refined yet relaxed—works for Boulud and his restaurants. To him, casual doesn’t mean muting the elegance but rather making the environment more comfortable for both guests and staff members.
Servers shed their typical black blazers and dress shoes in favor of sweaters and Converse high-tops. The menu was pared down for a smoother back-of-house operation, and prices were also, accordingly, reduced.
“We needed to relax ourselves with the idea of staying open during the pandemic. I think it helped everyone else relax, [too],” Boulud says. “We really enjoyed seeing our regular customers back. And we were also welcoming a new generation of customers. We saw that a lot during the pandemic because not too many fine-dining restaurants were open.”
The pop-up has since given way to a new take on Restaurant Daniel, just as the iconic restaurant nears its 30th anniversary next year. Though the plans had been underway pre-COVID, Boulud went back to the drawing board with Tihany Design’s Adam Tihany and Peter Lu. The result is a space that’s still sophisticated but with an altogether different feel.
“The change is a little more fresh and young and less formal, I would say. And yet it keeps a certain elegance, a certain quality in the service, in the food, in the experience that is the hallmark of fine dining,” Boulud says.
One of the more intensive changes was nixing the split-level layout by raising the center dining area to the same height as the surrounding border. Similarly, the balustrade was removed to brighten the dining room and create more fluidity. The ceiling, chairs, and carpets were also updated.
Though more subtle than Le Pavillon and Boulud Sur Mer, the nature theme weaves its way through Restaurant Daniel. The renovated space made its debut last fall with landscape paintings by artist Alex Katz. The plan is to rotate the artwork twice a year and spotlight different artists.
Changes have also permeated the back of house. Executive chef Jean Francois Bruel was promoted to corporate chef, and now, as Boulud’s right-hand man, splits his time overseeing Restaurant Daniel and Le Pavillon. That move opened the door for chef Eddy Leroux, a near 20-year veteran of Dinex, to assume Bruel’s former role. The menu remains firmly rooted in French cuisine and cooking techniques, and dishes still adhere to hyper-seasonality, rotating about every two months. Nevertheless, the menu did undergo its own update. Leroux has said in interviews that it was important the plates visually reflect the restaurant’s new aesthetic.
Beyond gold-plated silverware
Restaurant Daniel has long been a destination unto itself. While it may welcome some regulars, for many, it is a place reserved for special occasions. And Boulud is fine with that.
“I think the restaurant business is about—whether you’re in Paris, New York, Singapore—bringing something special to your city and becoming sort of a destination to that city,” he says.
This outlook, however, is not shared across the industry. Operators might also bill their restaurants as “destinations,” but many are more concerned with luring guests on a regular basis. Some even tout their menus as so versatile that customers could dine there every day of the week without getting bored or ordering a repeat meal.
At a time when ambitious NextGen Casuals and emerging fast casuals are eating up market share, some critics have argued that old-school, fine dining chefs and operators like Boulud are out of touch and no longer as relevant as they were in decades past. And it’s true that these restaurants comprise a relatively small percentage of the industry.
But size does not equal relevancy. Dinex Group’s steady stream of business and popularity continue to prove its staying power year after year. The fact Boulud is opening fresh concepts and expanding into new markets further drives home the point. And through it all, he still deeply believes in the magic of fine dining.
“What is the definition of fine dining in the end?” Boulud says. “It’s not because we’re giving you gold-plated silverware and fancy crystal; it has a lot to do with the experience of the food, the service, the setting, the opportunity to indulge in a way that maybe you cannot find everywhere.”