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Who Killed Haute Cuisine?

The dominance of the French in U.S. fine dining may be over

John Mariani
Posted: September 9, 2003

Sophisticated French restaurants are struggling to keep their American diners.
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The news this past April that Lespinasse, one of New York's most illustrious and most expensive French restaurants, was closing for lack of business sent tremors through an industry already reeling from bad news. After all, if a showcase for haute cuisine such as Lespinasse -- helmed by celebrated chef Christian Delouvrier, with a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine list, four stars from The New York Times and five from the Mobil Guide -- can go under in expense account-rich Manhattan, what is the future for similar restaurants elsewhere in the world? Is the French model of haute cuisine to become a thing of the past?

There have been plenty of other troubling signs, especially in New York, a bastion of expensive French dining rooms. Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque 2000 says that tourism-related business at his restaurant has been down at least 50 percent since the war in Iraq began this year. He was weighing the option of closing for lunch, a move already made at Restaurant Daniel after 9/11, when the once-lucrative foreign business tanked. Tables at Jean Georges, La Grenouille, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House and Le Bernardin are no longer tough to come by on short notice.

Of course, some misguided jingos stopped ordering French wines and eating foie gras to "punish" France for not going along with the war in Iraq, though fortunately, they were largely a highly vocal, grandstanding minority.

What's more, the damage is not limited to U.S. French restaurants. In London, Mourad Mazouz spent $16 million this year to open Sketch, which is overseen by Paris' star chef Pierre Gagnaire. Yet tables go begging at lunch (a meal here can easily run $175 per person), and other French stalwarts in London, such as La Tante Claire, L'Odeon and Neat, have closed. The French cuisine at The Connaught hotel is now Italian. These days, it is the rare evening in Paris when one can't get a reservation at any of Michelin's one-, two- or three-star restaurants for lunch or dinner.

There are economic underpinnings, but restaurateurs have always had to deal with periods of boom and bust. The most recent boom lasted giddily through the late '90s, when $45 entrées and $300 Champagnes were common expenditures among the Wall Streeters and dot-commers who fueled it.

During the current bust, travel spending inside the United States fell from $571 billion in 2000 to $525 billion in 2002; hotel occupancy now averages 60 percent, when three years ago rates of 80 percent, even 90 percent, were common; the number of business travel trips, which fuel high-end dining, is down nearly 16 percent since 2001, according to the Travel Industry Association of America; and the unemployment rate in the United States has hovered around 6 percent, while in Italy, France and Germany, it is more than 9 percent.

Now that things aren't quite so rosy, restaurants are suffering, with declines in sales of between 10 percent and 20 percent rife throughout the United States. While family-style restaurants such as Outback Steakhouse and Chili's are seeing double-digit sales increases, upscale restaurant closings are rising.

But there are exceptions. Quite a few new, non-French restaurants, such as New York's Fiamma (Italian) and Jean-George Vongerichten's Chinese place, 66, are packing them in. Indeed, Vongerichten projects 66's sales at $10 million this year. Hot spots such as Azul in Miami, Adega in Denver, Muriel's in New Orleans and Mantra in Boston are doing terrific business, although their prices are not quite as high as at deluxe French venues.

Even assuming the economy improves, transatlantic jets fly full, and expense accounts are again generous, I still believe that very expensive, very formal, and often very stuffy, restaurants following the French model will continue to wear out their welcome. To paraphrase Shakespeare: The fault is not in our Michelin stars, but in ourselves.

In other words, French haute cuisine restaurants are pricing themselves out of their traditional market while trying to build in more and more extravagance, which ironically rarely seems to pay for itself. No longer can chefs merely add truffles to a dish and expect their guests to pay $85 for it. The hubris of restaurateurs who insist they need 30 people in the kitchen to cook for 70 guests each night -- as is the case at the two-star Domaine de Châteauvieux outside of Geneva -- seems preposterous when many restaurants every bit as good make do with a whole lot fewer.

Not only are sophisticated diners unimpressed by excesses, they find over-the-top amenities a satire of fine service. For example, Ducasse used to offer his New York guests a selection of knives with which to cut their meat and an array of pens with which to sign their checks. It's also interesting to note that prices at such restaurants are better: At Lutèce in New York, the fixed price lunch is now $29; 10 years ago it was $38 -- in either case, considerably less than a comparable meal would cost across the Atlantic.

More important, the well-traveled, upscale diner seems far happier in more amiable surroundings -- especially when the food and wine are just as wonderful, and often less expensive. Once upon a time, great cooking was monopolized by expensive French restaurants with heavy draperies, crystal chandeliers and ornate candelabras. But over the past two decades, other fine-dining restaurants have improved their cooking techniques, the quality of their food and the depth and breadth of their wine lists. They also have focused on colorful, personalized decors and a commitment to gracious, friendly service. The price of dinner for two at one of these restaurants would only cover one person's meal at an haute cuisine establishment. Indeed, the culinary distinctions between the two styles -- I won't say "classes" -- of restaurant have grown so narrow as to flow into each other.

Classifying a great New York restaurant such as Gotham Bar & Grill or an influential one such as Spago Beverly Hills becomes moot. Brand the menu anything you like at great restaurants as varied as The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Alan Wong's in Honolulu and Striped Bass in Philadelphia -- whose underlying techniques are unquestionably French. Some of the most exciting food in the world is served at such places as the French-Indian restaurant Mantra in Boston and the elegant Vietnamese Crustacean in Beverly Hills, to name just two. These restaurants all share a very American ebullience in relatively unfussy dining rooms with enticing menus full of personal style. The dedication of the chefs, their cooking, the ingredients used and the passion for good wine are of primary importance.

Witness California's Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, who won last year's World Master of Culinary Arts Award, as chosen by an international committee of chefs and food writers. Then he topped this year's list of the 50 best restaurants in the world in a poll of 300 chefs and restaurant critics by Restaurant magazine. It might also be noted that Keller's 10-course tasting menu is a mere $135, in comparison with starred restaurants in France that charge considerably more than that for three courses.

By the same token, the happy appropriation by French chefs of foods and techniques of other countries has done everything to enrich and change French haute cuisine. Rare is the French chef who has not been influenced by the spices of Southeast Asia, the olive oils and balsamic vinegars of Italy, or the highly eclectic technical innovations of Spain's Ferran Adrià. These days, the idea of French "classicism" seems somehow quaint. By what French appellation does one describe Pierre Gagnaire's mousseline of langoustines, with Malabar pepper, creamed passion fruit butter, a dice of langoustine and walnut shortcake on one plate, as served at Sketch in London? Or Ducasse's roast chicken with butternut squash, marmalade and gnocchi with a few drops of amaretto?

The survival of French chefs today is predicated on their ability to adapt, and not just their spices. Like haute couture, which is really a tour de force of fashion designed for a very few wealthy individuals, haute cuisine establishes the brand name, then sells the hell out of it to the masses in less expensive versions. Paris chef Guy Savoy says he makes 10 times the money in his various bistros as that he does in his three-star namesake restaurant. Ducasse makes most of his money from country inns in Provence and Spain's Basque country, his Spoon and other casual eateries around the world, cookbooks, a consultancy for Air France, a line of dishware and, now, something called "Goyard Chef's Trunks," which apparently is not underwear but luggage.

I have no doubt that French cuisine -- in all its myriad forms -- will survive the current crise du terroir, especially since very fine, very well-received French restaurants continue to open. I am ecstatic to see that L.A.'s new darling, Bastide, is resolutely French and booked three weeks out for dinner. Other recent exemplars include Joël in Atlanta, Lacroix at The Rittenhouse in Philadelphia, Jean-Robert at Pigall's in Cincinnati, and Atelier, Aix and Capitale in New York. But let's not forget that New York will soon welcome such diverse heavy-hitters as Thomas Keller, Masa Takayama of Ginza Sushi-Ko, Gray Kunz and perhaps Charlie Trotter in the new AOL Time Warner complex.

We, the customers, are savvier than ever and want more for our meager bucks -- and euros. We want variety. We want more casual dining rooms. We want the bill to be a little lighter. We expect quality above all. Restaurants that fail to honor the paradigm shift from the old French model to the new American-style era will drop away. So who killed haute cuisine? Certainly neither the recent and temporary anti-French sentiments nor economic vicissitudes -- Lespinasse, for example, hadn't made a profit in years.

The cause of death is haute cuisine's rigid adherence to outmoded prices, decor and service. After all, why would we pay so much to eat in such quiet, genteel rooms when we can dine so well and more cheaply at places with the kind of vitality American restaurateurs have so happily inspired the world to copy?

John Mariani's most recent book, co-authored with his wife, Galina, is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

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