Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America

Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America

by Alison Pearlman

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Fine dining and the accolades of Michelin stars once meant chandeliers, white tablecloths, and suited waiters with elegant accents. The stuffy attitude and often scant portions were the punchlines of sitcom jokes—it was unthinkable that a gourmet chef would stoop to plate a burger or a taco in his kitchen. And yet today many of us will queue up for a seat at a loud, crowded noodle bar or eagerly seek out that farm-to-table restaurant where not only the burgers and fries are  organic but the ketchup is homemade—but it’s not just us: the critics will be there too, ready to award distinction. Haute has blurred with homey cuisine in the last few decades, but how did this radical change happen, and what does it say about current attitudes toward taste? Here with the answers is food writer Alison Pearlman. In Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, Pearlman investigates what she identifies as the increasing informality in the design of contemporary American restaurants.   By design, Pearlman does not just mean architecture. Her argument is more expansive—she is as interested in the style and presentation of food, the business plan, and the marketing of chefs as she is in the restaurant’s floor plan or menu design. Pearlman takes us hungrily inside the kitchens and dining rooms of restaurants coast to coast—from David Chang’s Momofuku noodle bar in New York to the seasonal, French-inspired cuisine of Alice Waters and Thomas Keller in California to the deconstructed comfort food of Homaro Cantu’s Moto in Chicago—to explore the different forms and flavors this casualization is taking. Smart Casual examines the assumed correlation between taste and social status, and argues that recent upsets to these distinctions have given rise to a new idea of sophistication, one that champions the omnivorous. The boundaries between high and low have been made flexible due to our desire to eat everything, try everything, and do so in a convivial setting.   Through lively on-the-scene observation and interviews with major players and chefs, Smart Casual will transport readers to restaurants around the country to learn the secrets to their success and popularity. It is certain to give foodies and restaurant-goers something delectable to chew on.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226029931
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Alison Pearlman is a Los Angeles–based art historian and cultural critic who blogs under the name the Eye in Dining. She teaches modern and contemporary art and design history at Cal Poly Pomona and is the author of Unpackaging Art of the 1980s, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

smart casual

the transformation of gourmet restaurant style in america
By alison pearlman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 Alison Pearlman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-65140-8

Chapter One

when fine dining met casual dining

Did fine dining die? In 2010, critics were wondering. Several spoke of a growing disconnect between the rise of restaurants serving pricey gourmet cuisine and the decline in traditional accompanying formalities, such as tablecloths, suit-wearing servers, and jacket requirements for diners.

It wasn't the first time that writers had pondered fine dining's demise. Craig Claiborne, the authoritative food and restaurant critic who initiated the dining column in the New York Times and also that paper's still-practiced star ratings, published an article along those lines in 1959. "Elegance of Cuisine Is on Wane in U.S." claimed that "two time-honored symbols of the good life—great cuisine in the French tradition and elegant table service—are passing from the American scene."

But what Claiborne blamed for fine dining's fall is diametrically opposed to what recent critics think. Claiborne argued that the public who supported restaurants' best work—diners who could distinguish fresh ingredients from frozen, could linger for hours and not rush proper service—was dying out. By contrast, the critics in 2010 pointed to people's greater food sophistication and demand for culinary excellence! It was a question of priorities, they maintained. Fewer people required formal service, luxe surroundings, and dressing up, but what was on their plates mattered more than ever.

Another difference between 2010 and 1959 had to do with the definition of fine dining itself. For Claiborne, its meaning was crystalline. It designated specific cuisine style, surroundings, and rituals of service. Contemporary critics were not so sure. They thought new circumstances required a reassessment. By asking whether or not fine dining was obsolete, they partly meant the relevance of the concept fine dining upheld by the likes of Claiborne.

That the need for new definitions came up repeatedly in 2010 is not surprising, considering the volatility of preceding years. Between 2005 and 2010, restaurant appraisals underwent paradigm-shaking upsets. The accolades heaped on the hypercasual Momofukus were part of a pattern: surprising honors were going to places with the most informal styles imaginable.

In late 2005, when standard-bearer Michelin released its first restaurant guide to New York City (for 2006), Florence Fabricant of the New York Times reported on one of its much-anticipated verdicts in shock: "The Spotted Pig, a no-frills Greenwich Village pub with an idiosyncratic menu, got a star, putting it up with restaurants like Babbo and Gramercy Tavern, while respected restaurants like Chanterelle, Felidia, The Four Seasons and Union Square Café got no stars."

Fabricant had seen nothing yet. The 2011 Michelin guide, compiled in 2010, awarded two out of a possible three stars to a restaurant set in the prep kitchen of a Brooklyn grocery store. This made it, according to Michelin, one of the three hundred best restaurants in the world. The 2012 guide topped that, giving it three stars. At the time of ratings, the Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare's chef, César Ramirez, was personally serving a twenty-course tasting menu over a placemat-bedecked stainless-steel table. It took up most of the middle of the kitchen, which accommodated just eighteen guests on utilitarian metal stools. Meanwhile, the historically high-ranking Manhattan establishment Bouley, the eponymous venue of Ramirez's superstar chef-mentor, David Bouley, a restaurant with an actual dining room and battery of servers, received only one star in the same guides.

Unprecedented rankings were coming from other quarters as well. The one most astonishing to me came in the July 2010 "Best New Chefs" issue of Food & Wine. In it, Roy Choi was named one of the ten most "fantastically skilled, creative, and driven" young chefs in America. After sampling Choi's cuisine, I don't disagree. The judgment was surprising because it represented the first time that Food & Wine so honored a chef for opening a taco truck. Granted, the Kogi BBQ truck Choi launched in Los Angeles in 2008 was no ordinary case. It introduced the ethnic-fusion dish known as the Korean taco. It also jump-started a nationwide traffic jam of gourmet food trucks of every conceivable theme—from vegan-only to artisanal ice cream to, yes, even French haute cuisine! They multiplied at such a pace that the Food Network on cable TV wasted no time making them the focus of a reality competition show. Celebrity chef Tyler Florence began hosting The Great Food Truck Race in the summer of 2010. That same year and for the first time, the annual National Restaurant Association conference devoted an entire section of its floor show to food trucks so that conferees could learn how to start their own. So, yes, the Food & Wine honor went to Choi for a very special taco truck. But, still—a taco truck?!

These upsets were legitimate reasons to question the definition of fine dining. But they shouldn't be mistaken as harbingers of the end of formality. It's just that the gourmet landscape had become complicated.

Consider the trend of increasingly lengthy fixed tasting menus. As restaurants featuring so-called modernist cuisine surfaced in the United States in the 2000s, the service of tasting menus reached new heights of ceremony. The extraordinary number of courses multiplied the occasions of presentation and explanation and made the pacing of courses, some being just one or two bites, a matter of tight choreography. At Moto restaurant in Chicago, I had twenty courses. Alinea, in the same city, served me twenty-six. At minibar, in Washington, DC, I ate thirty. What's more, many offerings arrived to my table with unconventional vessels and utensils unique to the restaurant, requiring me to follow a server's directions to eat. When I opted for wine pairings, the intricacies of service were compounded.

And yet while such formats have raised the level of ceremony, the new formality has been qualitatively different from the old. No longer is the emphasis on inherited rituals—in manners, use of utensils, and so on. Given the vanguard thrust of contemporary gourmet restaurants, the diner shows aplomb by knowing to expect the unexpected. Furthermore, lengthy tasting menus have required of diners something new: a capacity to concentrate on and appreciate, for a sustained period, the chef's—and sometimes also the sommelier's—performance in minutiae.

Also deviating from the old formalities, this new variant of tasting menu has often occurred in ultracasual surroundings. In the case of pop-up (temporary) restaurants, a contrast between complex menu and simple digs has been the norm. Creating the mold for Los Angeles pop-ups in 2007, instigator chef Ludo Lefebvre launched LudoBites on designated dates in the off-hours of a bakery and sandwich shop. I found the height of incongruity in chef Laurent Quenioux's pop-up, LQ@SK. He advertised an eighteen-course, all-white-truffle menu for $350 per person at a quick-lunch café that normally services the down-town-LA office crowd. It's not fancy trappings; it's the uniqueness of the menus and the fact that diners must be in the know to make reservations that give such occasions cachet.

Nor did formality disappear entirely from restaurant dress codes. Its relationship to fine dining, however, had become variable. In 2010, most three-star Michelin restaurants in America still required male diners to wear jackets even if they had dispensed with the necktie rule. In October, I checked restaurant profiles for two of the highest-ranking regions on the popular reviews-and-reservations site The French Laundry, the only three-star place in Michelin's guide to the "San Francisco Bay Area and Wine Country," insisted on jackets. Of the three-starred in New York City—Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Masa, and Per Se—all except Masa required jackets.

The Masa exception signaled changing times. Ironically, as of 2010 Masa was in one sense the most exclusive of them all. Its no-menu omakase meal, including some of the finest and rarest sea creatures as well as other luxe ingredients such as truffles, caviar, and foie gras, was the most expensive prix-fixe menu in America. Including one relatively modest bottle of sake, my solo dinner there in August 2010 came to a before-tip reckoning of $726.85. And yet on its website (, Masa described a dress code of "casual and comfortable." So, even at the Michelin pinnacle a range of formality had come to pass. Relatively speaking, formal dress persisted. But gourmets no longer saw the link between it and the finest, most costly dining out as axiomatic.

Apart from the very top tier, the general trend was toward dress codes relaxing. In 2005, among white-tablecloth restaurants this had advanced to a point worthy of special comment by the Zagat survey. Its America's Top Restaurants guide stated in the introductory assessment of new trends, "Just a few years ago, jacket and tie were de rigueur at fine restaurants ... today, they're de rigor mortis—'jacket suggested' is the most formal requirement that all but a few America's Tops places make." White-tablecloth places were increasingly specifying diner attire by business casual, smart casual, or some other qualified-casual code.

Compared with the exacting jackets required, the terms business casual and smart casual are vexingly ambiguous. They leave wide room for interpretation. They also seem ambivalent. Their approval of casualness is hedging. I see the ambiguity and ambivalence as a middle-sector parallel to the categorical confusion caused by value compression on both ends of the gourmet spectrum. Despite the enormous range in establishments' level of elegance—the gap between the French Laundry and the Kogi BBQ truck is, undeniably, huge—the gourmet credibility and influence of places at both extremes had become equivalent.

The decoupling of the traditionally fancy and the gourmet did not, however, happen suddenly after the year 2000. In fact, all the foundations of a new, omnivorous approach to restaurant style were laid between 1975 and 1985. During that time, a new generation of restaurateurs broke with the chandeliered precedent of American fine-dining establishments. Inspired by the settings and cuisines of modest neighborhood restaurants and bars, they produced novel mixtures of fine and casual dining.

groundbreaking restaurant settings

Pioneers of more casual gourmet environments emerged in parts of California and in New York City. They influenced gourmet restaurants across the country through their high critical regard and by the strength of their own lineages of chef-protégés and restaurants.

Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA), 1975

In California, Chez Panisse, which Alice Waters opened in 1971, was the earliest example. Its mix of fine dining and informal setting was sufficiently evolved, and it became broadly influential. The restaurant took on national importance in October 1975, when Caroline Bates reviewed it in the prestigious Gourmet. Its novel combination of perfectionism and informality gained further traction by her emphatic and empathic account of it.

On the one hand, Bates was impressed by Chez Panisse's culinary originality and virtuosity. She praised chef Jeremiah Tower, whose menu, she declared, showed deep knowledge of French cuisine while departing from the "monotonous regularity" she found at most other French restaurants of the time. She also lauded the staff's constant pursuit of the freshest and best ingredients, evident to her by their habitual "blind tastings of butters, creams, and olive oils."

And yet Bates was also charmed by Chez Panisse's lack of pretense. She interpreted the service—in which, she noted, the staff had little experience—as endearingly sincere. The surroundings also radiated a gratifyingly homey quality. Under their spell, Bates wrote, "the two-story home looks lived in and loved. It is warm with the honesty of natural wood." She was also taken by the restaurant's simplicity:

The dining areas downstairs are furnished simply with a few old-fashioned fixtures, unmatching straight-backed chairs, and tables covered with napery and nosegays. Just inside the main dining room a still-life table arrangement of flowers, unblemished fresh fruit and glistening fruit tarts suggests that this is a restaurant more interested in art than artifice.

The décor that Bates appreciated was an amalgamation of several informal sources. One was the country farmhouse restaurant. Thomas McNamee, in Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, explains that Waters visited many local restaurants in 1970 in a determined search for ideas for her own place. A farmhouse restaurant in small-town Bolinas struck a special chord. Indeed, McNamee's description of Gibson House parallels Bates's account of Chez Panisse in 1975: "It was a converted Victorian farmhouse, surrounded with flowers.... There were flowers everywhere and inside as well, and patchwork quilts on the walls, and mismatched china and flatware." That Waters furnished Chez Panisse with nonmatching flea market finds of Victorian vintage, and insisted on abundant but rustic displays of flowers, reveals the aesthetic imprint of Gibson House. It must have reminded her of her first exhilarating experience of a country-house restaurant in Brittany in 1965, during her initial, and life-changing, trip to Europe as a student.

Other inspirations were the everyday cafés and bistros of Paris, where Waters first fell in love with French food. Aspects of the interior Bates remarked on, such as bare wood floors and straight-backed chairs, were frequent sights at these modest but proud establishments. In addition, the "handwritten menus on the bistro chalkboards" and the daily changing fare that McNamee says so impressed Waters in Paris made their mark on Chez Panisse's daily fluctuating dishes and often cursive-scripted menus. I found many in a six-volume compilation from the restaurant's first eight years.

Of Chez Panisse's various models, those of bistros and cafés had the most widespread and lasting impact on gourmet restaurants in America. The Chez Panisse kitchen was famous for incubating future star chefs who carried the torch of casual style into their own places. They, too, appropriated everyday genres, whether bistros and cafés or some other informal types—brasseries, trattorias, bar-and-grills, and so on. Chez Panisse alum Mark Miller opened Berkeley's Fourth Street Grill in 1979 and Santa Fe Bar & Grill in 1981. Jeremiah Tower modeled his renowned San Francisco restaurant, Stars, which opened in 1984, on brasseries in Montparnasse.

Michael's (Santa Monica, CA), 1979

A further force for informality in California was Michael McCarty's restaurant, Michael's. By the time Bates raved about it in the May 1980 Gourmet, the restaurant had already garnered a stellar reputation as far reaching as New York and Paris for its combination of a "revelatory" menu and a "casually sophisticated" design.

McCarty had aimed to create what he called a "modern American restaurant." He went about this by setting it in a 1930s modernist home, whose unadorned walls he used to emulate the style of a mid-twentieth-century American modern-art gallery. Bates described the interior as "painted art-gallery neutral." The point of this, she continued, was "to set off Michael's private collection, which leans to the works of Richard Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns, and David Hockney." Michael's was indeed a novel mixture of restaurant and gallery. The minimalism of the gallery style extended to the furnishings. In the dining rooms at Michael's, Bates observed "sleek chairs and large sofas with pale pink upholstery."

The gallery aesthetic cleanly broke with American restaurants' prior association of formality with ornamentation. But it was not by itself informalizing. Like temples of gastronomy, art galleries can connote reverence and hushed decorum. And yet, in combination with the servers' attire, McCarty's vision of a "modern American restaurant" came to life as a stylish statement of informality. The sofas' pale-pink upholstery appeared as an organic extension of the servers' pale-pink shirts.

Reading histories of the California gourmet scene, I was fascinated by occasional mentions of McCarty's adoption of preppy, pink, Poloinsignia shirts instead of the expected tuxes or dark suits for his wait staff. But these statements were unsatisfactorily brief. I arranged to speak with Andrew Turner, Michael's knowledgeable general manager and sommelier, over dinner at the restaurant. He graciously filled me in. When preparing to open in 1979, McCarty wanted a look for his staff that wasn't stiff. Tuxedoes were out of the question. Even suits were too uptight. He asked a friend of his in the apparel industry to recommend a designer, specifying that he wanted one both "up-and-coming" and American. The friend suggested Ralph Lauren. With very few and brief exceptions over the years since, the servers at Michael's, male and female, have been wearing the current cut of pale-pink, long-sleeved, collared Polo shirts and Ralph Lauren ties. They were wearing them when I visited in the summer of 2010.

Immediately after Michael's, other ambitious gourmet restaurants adopted similarly informal server attire. An early photograph of the young chef Wolfgang Puck and his wait staff at Spago, which opened in Los Angeles in 1982, bears witness (fig. 2). It features male and female staff wearing long-sleeved button-down-collared shirts in an array of pale pastels. In 1985, critics were already noticing the emergence of jacketless servers at their most praiseworthy new places in New York City. When Bryan Miller gave restaurateur Drew Nieporent's Montrachet three out of four stars in a New York Times review that year—a rare honor for a restaurant seven weeks old and with a then little-known chef, David Bouley, at the helm—he couldn't help but also note the novelty of the staff's jacketless costume: "[Drew Nieporent's] waiters scurry around the room in black shirts, pants and ties looking like a team of cat burglars." Since then, countless top restaurants have followed suit(less), creating aesthetically coordinated, stylish looks for servers without the dressiness of jackets. From my visits to restaurants for this book (see the appendix), I noticed that jacketless and Oxford-shirted, with dark slacks and a waist-down apron, was by far the most pervasive look for servers.

The increasing informality of servers' dress tended to go hand in hand with the evolution of a more relaxed style of service. In her review of Michael's in 1980, Bates admired the ebullience of the staff. Theirs was nothing like the slick, aloof treatment she had come to expect at fine restaurants. Per Bates: "The waiters (all innocent of the world-weary cynicism of the professional) wax eloquent about the evening's dishes, describing the minutest cooking detail. One learns that the garlic in a dressing has been blanched twice for a salad composed of duck legs, foie gras, lobster, and blueberries; or that the peppercorns in another sauce are the romantically mysterious baies roses ... grown on an island 'somewhere off New Guinea.'"


Excerpted from smart casual by alison pearlman Copyright © 2013 by Alison Pearlman. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1   When Fine Dining Met Casual Dining
2   New Shapers of Trends and Taste
3   Exhibition Kitchens and the Theater of Manual Labor
4   Gourmet Plays on Common Food Faves
Selected Bibliography

Customer Reviews