Eat This List: 5 reasons you (yes you) should embrace fine dining
April 30th, 2013
10:00 AM ET
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This is the eleventh installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about. Today's contributor is John Winterman, maitre d' at Daniel restaurant in New York City.

I can be as casual as the next guy. I'm from Indiana, so I don't have much choice. The only known Hoosier engaged in high snobbery was Bill Blass, otherwise no one ever got beyond “local boy done good” status – even James Dean.

I have ripped this joint and raised some hell. I've been to enduros and hydroplane races and at least one tractor pull. I drank my first PBR at age five and I still have a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.

But I also know the tragedy that is a grown-up wearing shorts in public. I know the difference between the ballpark and the opera house, between a dive bar and The French Laundry.

As the maitre d' at Daniel I get to work in one of the finest fine dining establishments in the world. The restaurant exudes charm and flair, a hybrid of modern French-American style be it on the plate or in the service, a place that requires jackets and frowns on jeans.

That being said, it is a balancing act. We defend a standard of dining in a time where a chef can earn three Michelin stars while eschewing silver, crystal and a jacket policy. Upholding a standard is ever more critical as you try to justify separating people from their money on a nightly basis.

Herein, a dollop of wisdom on why fine dining still matters.

1. Forget the special occasion
Everyone wants to celebrate at a fancy restaurant: graduation, engagements, promotions, divorces, mergers, recording deals, sneaker contracts. As far as I am concerned, every morning when I shuffle across the street in my jammies to free-base Americanos, pick up the New York Times and not see my name in the obituaries is a reason to celebrate. Why wait for an occasion? Life is an occasion.

Sometimes it is worth living like there is no tomorrow, because when you get right down to it, there isn’t. Work hard, play harder, have passion; you deserve a glass of Krug and a perfect foie gras terrine for dinner. It should be welcome to have someone take care of you for a change.

2. Fine dining is affordable luxury
Yes, when you start looking at check averages that hover above $200 per person before tax and tip, you start doing math in your head. But when you place yourself in an environment that is at once tactile and serene, where you have one staff member for every two diners, where there is a small army capable of occupying Paris tending to a rare and elegant product, the actual cost is truly not exorbitant.

Break it down per hour: if you hit $250 per person you will most likely be dining for three-plus hours, roughly $80 per hour. You cannot get a spa treatment for that, nor a lawyer, nor a Ferrari, nor a weekend in St. Bart’s.

3. Fine dining has more than one entry point
You can come to the lounge at Daniel and have a bespoke cocktail, perfect canapés, maybe try a few artisanal cheeses. The few restaurants that fall into our category have an entry-priced prix fixe menu, bars and lounges, à la carte options, wines by the glass, dessert tastings. You can dip a toe without taking the plunge.

When it comes to comparable luxury items, it is nearly impossible. There are no starter-priced $400,000 sports cars or villas next door to Mick Jagger on Mustique. Most of us will never touch a private jet or buy a Patek-Philippe watch, but we can pop in for a tasting of white truffle risotto for comparatively little money.

4. Why be obvious?
Anyone can go to a beer garden wearing retro-high tops. Anyone can follow a burger trend. But no matter the blend of luxury ingredients or the rarity of the kicks, the fact remains that it is still a hamburger or a sneaker.

Over a career dating back now more than 20 years, I have served any number of unique clients who embraced a few stolen moments of pampering at a high-end restaurant. I've walked legendary musician Lou Reed through a multi-course tasting menu, opened Dom Perignon Rosé for Metallica's Lars Ulrich, guided actor Jason Biggs through an entire white truffle and called my mother when I realized Roger Waters from Pink Floyd knew my name.

The common thread throughout is that everyone got dressed, donned a sexy jacket with a high-collared shirt and became willing participants in on ongoing stage show called Haute Cuisine.

5. Sensory emotion
A Walkman, an old Honda, my Rachael Ray cookbooks - the world is full of my cast-off objects. The allure of the material is fleeting and instant. The allure of cuisine endures.

I carry distinct memories of first tastes, such as oysters at Acme in New Orleans, 1928 Cheval Blanc in the studio kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Laurent Gras’ lacquered pork belly at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco. My mind reels at the list of special meals: white truffles in December, Brillat-Savarin cheese in summer, a surreptitious taste of foie gras while I was running up the service stairs some twenty years ago.

We come together at a table for many reasons – to celebrate, to laugh, to declare war. The material fades but the tastes and aromas linger, direct links to our most primal instincts and the only true sensual pleasure we share in a room full of strangers.


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Filed under: Daniel Boulud • Dining • Eat This List • Feature • Fine Dining • Restaurants • Service

soundoff (198 Responses)
  1. erica

    All the negative comments about fine dining are really quite ignorant. While it may be expensive to eat like this on a regular basis, everyone, in my opinion, should experience such a high caliber restaurant. I have not had the pleasure to eat at Daniel, but I've been to a few in NJ (Nicholas to name one). These types of establishments are about the experience of good, well made food. You connect with your server if you're lucky. From there, again, if you're lucky, you will have a new found appreciation of ALL food, the people that prepare it, and the pure talent that is necessary to create truly wonderful and delicious dishes. This is not to say that people that work in average or fast food restaurants don't work hard. The food industry is among the toughest out there... long hours, injuries, etc. But fine dining folks have a passion to their craft. No neighborhood Applebee's could ever compare to the pleasure of a beautiful, thoughtfully prepared meal and lovely glass of wine.

    September 26, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  2. Edwardo

    I can spend $100 or less per person and have a world-class meal. And you need not spend more.

    It might not be in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles or some other hyper-inflated oh-so-cutting-edge enclave. There is plenty of "haute cuisine" to be found in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Kansas City, Portland, or Nashville. I spent $800 on two once in Toronto at a pretty famous place, and it wasn't really that much better that the $50 per person I spent in Buffalo last weekend. Food at both were impeccable, service was excellent, bathrooms were in fact clean... and even the tables had cloths. I ate ramps, truffles, free-range lamb, oysters and premium shiraz. I ate enough to be full but not completely engorged. I then went and had some top quality cocktails and called it a night with friends at my condo. And it didn't break the bank.

    Ever think it might be the location and not the cuisine?

    May 3, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  3. Edwin

    Once I get my finances in order I may treat myself and a special someone to a fine dining experience. Not quite there yet, though, so for now chain restaurants will have to do!

    May 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  4. VladT

    Gosh, this turned into "rich-bashing" real quicklly.

    Again, I am middle class ( trust me ), but when I go to travel to Southern Cali to visit my mom and gramda, we are doing Mother's day "right." I have been saving for a while, and will be able to treat them both to a fine dining experience. Hey, to all you haters out there who think rich people are all "high and mighty," switching from daily starbucks to home brewed could save you $20 to $25 a week. Times four, there's one meal for a fine dining experience.

    It's called saving, people. All people ( not just the "evil rich" ) can do it. It works

    May 1, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • Dominic

      And what if they don't want to throw away their saved money on a three hour meal? Maybe get something with more utility in the future? Or maybe just deposit in the bank and let interest do the rest?

      May 1, 2013 at 11:15 am |
      • Buck

        The point is that you shouldn't bash people that enjoy fine dining every now and then. You see it as a waste of money but some people do not. Use your money how you see fit, but don't ridicule people for spending money on a nice night out over a fine meal.

        May 1, 2013 at 11:19 am |
        • Dominic

          Nor should you bash people who don't enjoy it as many on here are doing. If people want to spend $200 on fine dining, that's their prerogative. But I can't stand it when other people feel that what they're doing is what other people should be doing and look down on them for not conforming to their standards.

          May 1, 2013 at 11:30 am |
        • Buck

          If you don't enjoy fine dining, that's your opinion and you're entitled to it. I won't ridicule you for that at all. Some people just enjoy food differently than others. And who exactly is looking down on you if you don't go out and enjoy some fine dining? I haven't read anything here that suggests that. The only negativity here is from the people that, as VladT said, are "rich-bashing".

          May 1, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Buck

      Well said. Even if you're in a situation where you can't even save enough to splurge on a fancy meal every now and then, don't bash the people that can.

      May 1, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  5. sybaris

    Yes, fine dining is definitely worth it.

    People will ask what the difference is between a $200 plate and the $8.99 special

    At $200+:

    -I'll probably not see patrons who looked like they just came from their shift at Billy Bobs Transmission Repair
    -Be subject to other peoples unruly children screaming and running around like they're at some budget day care
    -Have a waiter who is knowledgeable and courteous and not some pimply faced high schooler with an att.itude
    -Usually have a great view
    -Not have to stand in line to get in (reservations)
    -Table will have a fresh cloth and not *cleaned* with the waiters DNA infested rag
    -Going to the restroom will not be like playing a game show and maybe getting the outhouse behind door #3

    Yeah, it's like that.

    May 1, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • Dominic

      – Yes, normal people are scary aren't they? What sort of bubble do you live in anyways?
      – As opposed to being surrounded by adults who act like spoiled children instead.
      – Generalizations are fun aren't they? Judging from your post, it seems like you're the one with the attitude.
      – Don't know about you, but when I dine out, the view is generally further down the list.
      – Because you're so self-important you're above standing in lines right?
      – Germs are everywhere. They are millions of bacteria living in your mouth right now. Everything you touch is DNA infested.
      – It's a bathroom. Bathrooms are dirty. Get over it.

      Have fun throwing away your $200.

      May 1, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • sybaris

      Dominic, how DO you get through the door with that huge chip on your shoulder.

      May 1, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
  6. sybaris

    Yes, fine dining is definitely worth it.

    People will ask what the difference is between a $200 plate and the $8.99 special

    At $200+:

    -I'll probably not see patrons who looked like they just came from their shift at Billy Bobs Transmission Repair
    -Be subject to other peoples unruly children screaming and running around like they're at some budget day care
    -Have a waiter who is knowledgeable and courteous and not some pimply faced high schooler with an attitude
    -Usually have a great view
    -Not have to stand in line to get in (reservations)
    -Table will have a fresh cloth and not *cleaned* with the waiters DNA infested rag
    -Going to the restroom will not be like playing a game show and maybe getting the outhouse behind door #3

    Yeah, it's like that.

    May 1, 2013 at 9:10 am |
    • Chuck Raney

      Hit ReFresh when making Snippity Comments so yiou don't have to post Twice. thank You.

      and Yes, it IS like that isn't it ?

      May 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
      • Siesta_Bear

        Hit spell check Chuck.

        May 6, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  7. JP

    By all means, go drop a ton of money on ridiculously marked up fad food, knowing that the servers and support staff are paid bare minimum wages. Because after all, you're worth it! Live like there's no tomorrow! Because, after all, that's what makes the world go around, working class people throwing their hard earned money away.

    May 1, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • Eat This

      $250 per cover x 50 covers per night x 5 nights per week x 50 weeks per year x 20% tip = $625K in tips to be shared by the three person team that serves a station. Do you care to rethink that minimum wage argument?

      May 1, 2013 at 9:48 am |
      • Sasortx

        Not really. One of my kids worked in the "fine dining" industry, and decided to go back to sports bars, because the money was SO much better. That 20% tip? Waaay more likely to come from the guys eating wings and drinking beers than the "bespoke" martini and foie gras terrine crowd. And those guys on the line? They don't see a dime of those tips...

        May 1, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  8. G. Ramsay

    The Roger Waters part was cool ... the rest was just Marie-Antoinette-snobbery. Why not use that $250 to feed 50 people at a homeless shelter instead of being gluttonous pigs? The feeling you get will last a lot longer than what you would get at Chez Snob.

    May 1, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • Buck

      Why not volunteer your time to a homeless shelter instead of wasting it on the internet trolling?

      May 1, 2013 at 9:07 am |
  9. Scott

    $80 dollars / hour is an affordable luxury to those who can afford $80 dollars / hour spent on non-essentials.

    I can feed my whole family on far less than $80 at a nice steakhouse. Will the food be as good? Probably not, but we'll enjoy it. Will the service be as good? Same point. Will any aspect be as good? Probably not.

    But if I go out and spend $200 on a night of dining I have blown my entire descretionary budget for a month. That fact alone would ruin any ability to enjoy such an event.

    I really, really wish I had as much free money as the author of this article. It must be nice to be so richly out of touch with the reality that most people live.

    May 1, 2013 at 8:33 am |
    • Reality

      Maybe you could afford $80/hr if you didnt have a family. You made a choice to have those kids. Kids are expensive. Just because you plagued the earth with your spawn doesn't mean anyone else's choice of dining makes them rich or not. Think of all the crap you buy those snot nosed idiots a month, it could easily pay for a nice dinner.

      May 1, 2013 at 8:39 am |
      • J. Davis

        Ouch! What's with the judgement? Clearly Scott was just stating his facts. $80 an hour per person can be very expensive for many people. What's wrong with saying that? Why make rude comments about someone's family and children. There's nothing to be that angry about, so just relax or go rant about a real problem.

        May 1, 2013 at 8:48 am |
        • Reality

          Children area real problem.

          May 1, 2013 at 9:22 am |
      • madi

        yep, you are so right! We probably wouldn't be having this conversation had your parents also thot of you as a 'snot nosed idiot'.. Grow up! '

        May 1, 2013 at 9:33 am |
      • Dominic

        Says someone who obviously cannot understand the appeal of having children and the fact that some parents want to spend money on them.

        May 1, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Eat This

      $80? You have clearly never been to a nice steakhouse.

      May 1, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  10. Pat

    I think one more reason should at least be foot noted: Because some of you will remember and learn from the experience and strive to create truly fines dishes at home for family and friends.

    May 1, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • G. Ramsay

      ... and charge them $80 an hour.

      May 1, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  11. Eat Me

    For all the opinionated fools that insist their local mom and pop restaurant is every bit as good as the experience described in this piece, how many of you have actually dined at a top restaurant? When I say top restaurant, I don't mean the night you put on your good sweat pants and went to the Olive Garden, I mean a four star New York City establishment. And yes, New York City is an important distinction - the best of the best in NYC are a quantum leap beyond the best in other American cities (except the French Laundry).

    After enjoying a meal like the one alluded to above you'll probably change your opinion of the value of fine dining.

    May 1, 2013 at 8:11 am |
    • Pork Chop

      I doubt it.

      May 1, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • Dominic

      I have in both New York City and Italy. It's not worth $200. There are plenty of places in both locations in smaller price ranges that are. But fancy four and five star restaurants are as much about 'being seen' as they are about the food.

      May 1, 2013 at 11:21 am |
      • Eat This

        Then you have dined in the wrong places. Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean Georges (to name a few) - worth every penny.

        May 1, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
        • Sasortx

          Says you, Not me. Been there, done that. Not impressed. "Fine" dining is, in my opinion, for those who fancy themselves as some sort of rarefied human being who simply cannot live an "average" life. Excellent food can be found in a wide variety of establishments, as can excellent service. It is not, as you would have it, an "either/or" situation, I find the fussiness and prissiness of "fine" dining to be an intrusive annoyance to my enjoyment of a meal, let along paying exorbitant amounts of money for the "privilege." But there will always be plenty of people, such as yourself, who believe there truly is some vital difference. So Daniel's, et al. is lucky to have you.

          May 1, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • jj

      I like Olive Garden although I wear jeans not sweat pants

      May 8, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  12. .

    A cold Pabst, tacos and friends. I'm in any day and it ain't costing me 250 clams.

    May 1, 2013 at 7:32 am |
    • Ian Johnson

      Come to Charleston, South Carolina. You won't have to for less than a third of the price suggested above you'll get an equal or likely better experience. And if you deserve to drink Krug any day, it makes much more sense to go buy a bottle of it in a store and drink it with friends. Sorry, but this was a ridiculous article.

      May 1, 2013 at 7:55 am |
      • Eat Me

        Oh my poor uninformed friend. I have been to Charleston and I have been to Daniel. I would eat from the dumpster behind Daniel before I would eat in Charleston's best restaurant.

        May 1, 2013 at 8:06 am |
        • .

          But do you like green eggs and ham?

          May 1, 2013 at 8:16 am |
        • Dominic

          So what do you do for food when you leave your bubble? Live off your fat reserves?

          May 1, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  13. Dave

    I'm not against a high end meal from time to time, but this just sounds pretentious. I have shelled out hundreds on meals and found that the best ones I have ever had come in at a much much lower price point. Dining out shouldn't be about what your eating. It is about who you are eating with. If an expensive meal makes you feel good about yourself then by all means do it, just keep in mind not everyone has the means to spend upwards of $500 on a meal. I find it in poor taste to pass it off as a normal everyday thing we should all be doing on a regular basis.

    May 1, 2013 at 7:26 am |
  14. Sheelagh

    I loved this article. Beautifully written and humorous, it's an ode to fine dining, which is more than just exquisite food. I can't indulge because I can't afford it, but I agree with the author entirely. I, too, am delighted each day my name isn't in the obits, and that's reason enough to celebrate the joy that is life. Quit griping and complaining folks. He wrote a delightful opinion piece. Just read it and agree or disagree – – – or, like me, be a little envious. Great piece.

    May 1, 2013 at 7:18 am |
  15. Roger

    And come dressed in one of those clown suits from Vineyard Vines.

    May 1, 2013 at 6:54 am |
  16. Sane Person

    " $250 per person you will most likely be dining for three-plus hours, roughly $80 per hour. You cannot get a spa treatment for that, nor a lawyer, nor a Ferrari, nor a weekend in St. Bart’s."

    While literally true, most people do not get spa treatments, ferrari's or weekends in St. Bart's. Most people do not spend the equavilent of thier monthly morgage on dinner. Congratulations, you are the 1%.

    May 1, 2013 at 5:58 am |
  17. Kona

    Yeah, buddy, tell that to people on food stamps! No surprise, the author is just out to drum up business.

    May 1, 2013 at 2:34 am |
    • gager

      Fine dining did not create the people who need food stamps. Those people have nothing to do with the article.

      May 1, 2013 at 4:16 am |
      • MACT

        And they ceertainly have nothing to do with $250/head meals.

        May 1, 2013 at 6:45 am |
        • CJ

          Odds are they're the ones who helped prepare it in the back.

          May 1, 2013 at 8:39 am |
  18. john

    Great advice if you have lots of free time and way more disposable income than you have good common sense.

    May 1, 2013 at 2:24 am |
  19. Jeff

    "Eat This List: 5 reasons you (yes you) should embrace fine dining."

    Until you check their kitchen and see what the staff is doing... peeing in your food, cockroaches on the plates...

    May 1, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  20. Beirne Konarski

    This article was too much marketing for me. I've found that the meals at high-end restaurants aren't much better than ones from good hole-in-the-wall places, and often worse. We still go out to fancy places for special occasions, but most of the time wonder if it was worth it.

    May 1, 2013 at 12:33 am |
    • Brian Smith

      I think you tried to take more from the article than was given. You don't have to spend a bundle to enjoy yourself or build a memory – but there is some wisdom to enjoy life when you can afford to do so – even if it is simply going to a fine restaurant to try a truffle and glass of wine.

      May 1, 2013 at 1:26 am |
  21. Bill

    Smoking pot > Fine Dining.

    May 1, 2013 at 12:17 am |
    • big_papa

      I 2nd that.

      May 1, 2013 at 7:16 am |
  22. Siesta_Bear

    One reason I love being gay is that I do not have kids to feed and dress, nor do i have kid's college loans to hold me back, nor do I have a wife or home mortgages to worry about. I go to fine restaurants and fly first class and enjoy great hotels because life is short, why waste why money on kids? Even if you are not gay, live a single life until you are old and then settle. Life is short, treat yourself better so life can be better.

    April 30, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • Smith

      More likely you really wanted kids and a family and friends, but couldn't have them for some biological or mental reasons, and had to resort to a life of saturated selfishness and delusion.

      May 1, 2013 at 12:02 am |
      • Siesta_Bear

        You are wrong.

        May 1, 2013 at 12:13 am |
        • KW

          I am with Smith... You hit it

          May 1, 2013 at 12:27 am |
        • Siesta_Bear

          Yeah, I hit a high in a better life you will never get to experience because I didn't go along the standard boring egotistical life of thinking that having kids is so important.

          May 1, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • asdf

      Someday you will realize you wasted your life on frivolous pursuits.

      May 1, 2013 at 12:40 am |
      • Olaf Big

        Maybe. Someday you may realize the exit door is the same anyway, and from that doorstep it does not make any difference.

        May 1, 2013 at 2:00 am |
    • KL

      I've eaten at a few 3 michelin star restaurants and enjoyed them very much, same goes for first class flying and high end hotels...but nothing, absolutely nothing comes even remotely close to the joy that my daughter brings me. Getting a hug from your child will make you understand what being happy really means. I hope you get to experience it one day. However I do understand what you are trying to each their own...this is only my thoughts on the subject.

      May 1, 2013 at 1:27 am |
    • Harold

      I've been all over this planet many times. Trust me, there is nothing better anywhere than your own children.

      May 1, 2013 at 1:35 am |
    • Steve C

      Siesta_Bear you are awesome. I'm not gay but I had a vasectomy for the exact same reasons. Let the breaders do what terrorist do, hate us for our FREEDOM!

      May 1, 2013 at 1:48 am |
      • Snotty

        How can you be so snooty and self-satisfied, and yet can't spell "breeders"?

        May 1, 2013 at 2:41 am |
      • flour power

        Make bread, not children

        May 1, 2013 at 3:55 am |
      • Dominic

        Not sure if trolling...

        May 1, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Roger

      Believe me, a wife and home mortgage are chump change compared to what kids cost. I love my kids, but those who think kids always bring more happiness than doing without are brainwashed.

      But they'll never admit it.

      May 1, 2013 at 7:03 am |
  23. Bob1god

    U eat to stay alive, anything else is egocentric !

    April 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • KL

      This is like saying you only make love to pro-create. Eating is one of life's greatest pleasures...try to view food differently and I promise you it'll make your life that much richer.

      May 1, 2013 at 1:35 am |
    • Patrick

      And why do you stay alive?

      May 1, 2013 at 2:57 am |
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