I fell in love with fine dining as a pimply-faced teenager tired of pork chops smothered in canned cream of mushroom soup or hot dogs wrapped in crescent dough.
One summer day in the year 1980 a family celebration brought us to the Pacific’s Edge at Highlands Inn south of Carmel. We surrendered our Oldsmobile 88 to a valet and ascended the steps to the most elegant restaurant in Central California.
Strolling into the dining room, equally in awe of the ocean view and the sheer formality of it all, we approached the hostess stand, where a dapper older man pointed to me and informed my parents: “the young gentleman must be properly attired.” Wearing slacks and a sweater did not meet the dress code, so the man discreetly borrowed a jacket from a nearby closet and helped me into it.
Someone escorted us to the table, holding the chairs for the women, and an expert team of servers moved about us in stealth mode. Everyone had a job, and performed it with expert grace. I loved the rhythm of the room, and the low murmur of conversation.
At one point, someone led my grandmother to the restroom, re-folding her napkin before her return. Someone else swept away the scattered breadcrumbs from our table between courses. I remember cold butter carved into the shape of a rose. I remember tasting caviar for the first time, the tiny eggs bursting salty goodness on my tongue.
Most of the food was heavy and rich and delicious. I ordered a steak of some kind, and I remember running my bread across the plate to soak up the accompanying sauce (bearnaise, I believe). I could swear now that our dessert came to the table on fire.
That time, I know now, were the waning days of fine dining, as haute cuisine gave way to ingredient-driven, simplified fare without all the fuss and pretention.
Some say fine dining is now dead. I say it’s alive and well, and only its definition has changed.
In a fight to remain relevant and profitable, Pacific’s Edge was the first local restaurant to change with the times, beginning with its $750,000 renovation in 2003. It incorporated a lighter, brighter, more contemporary décor to match more accessible, less-pricey food.
When the economy tanked a few years ago, the restaurant already had a local, seasonal
menu with more love and less haute. Now it showcases spectacular views with food to match. Run by one of the best triple threats on the Peninsula (executive chef Matt Bolton, wine director Paul Fried and manager Jacques Melac), the restaurant matches the expectations and demands of the new dining public.
You’ll find local halibut, abalone and spot prawns, wild mushrooms, interesting greens such as mâche and micro-wasabi, and artisanal cheeses, honey and olive oil. It’s still fine dining, to be sure, just all put together without the heavy-handed pretention of the past.
Other high-end restaurants are following suit, especially since the shocking closure last year of Club XIX inside The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Plans there include a more contemporary redesign of décor and food, more in line with sister resort Spanish Bay, with patios, fire pits and food more compatible to a busy tourist’s schedule.
Marinus at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley plans a renovation just before Mother’s Day this year, to put the décor more in line with Chef Cal Stamenov’s “California Natural” cuisine. Casanova in Carmel has also announced a similar redesign of the décor and menu. Like Marinus, Casanova will provide more a la carte options, and smaller plates, along with a lower the price point slightly. This provides the modern diner with more flexibility and a larger menu.
A national trend has seen elite chefs opening brew pubs, burger joints and neighborhood bistros, swapping slacks for jeans, foie gras for chicken livers, silent dining rooms for hipster-Yelpers, $800 bottles of Bordeaux for value-priced boutique wines.
We continue to see quality ingredients, cutting-edge techniques and expert service. There is no wasted motion, with no time to carve a flower from a carrot, fold a napkin into a swan, create a melting ice sculpture, or wash 11 different wine glasses that no one will ever drink from.
Restaurants desperately want to impress, and many of them do — by giving us exactly what we want: expert service without a cloying, in-your-face approach; a convivial atmosphere that engages us socially; and great-tasting food that thrills and surprises at every turn.
It’s a new era, and it tastes pretty damn good.