I never was partial to fine dining until recently when a friend of mine who is a total foodie, started taking me to different restaurants around town that were home-grown, so to speak. Little did I know that a city has its own local chefs who thrive in their own community and all have different methodologies and visions for what goes on in their kitchens and what diners should experience.
Of course, when I get there I basically don’t know what most of the words are on the menu, with dishes and ingredients outside my staple diet of chicken, fish and salad. But the whole point was to try something new. Which is my point that I bring to you.
Break from the (National) Chain
The benefit of fine dining is that you are going to experience foods and flavors that you cannot find anywhere else. Not at Applebees, not at TGI Friday’s, not at Longhorn, etc. Those may be your safety blankets when it comes to ‘nice’ meals, but I dare you to take the chance to start investigating restaurants in your area that are not part of a chain.
While the dining experience may be pricier, what you pay for is (in my experience) completely worth it. You’re going off the beaten path and partaking in a chef’s vision. Don’t be surprised if the menu is set for the evening, meaning there’s not many choices – you come in and several courses are set for you. It’s nice in some instances to not have to even worry about what you’ll eat, but that you may sit back, have wine and try foods you’d never even think of ordering yourself.
The other benefit of going to a ‘fancy pants’ restaurant is that the food is usually fresh, free-range and culled from as many local distributors as possible. A lot of fine dining, although more expensive, is at least socially satisfying as well knowing that you are supporting your local community.
I recently ate with a friend at a local restaurant and ordered a steak with vegetables, which is not my normal fare but I wanted to take the risk. It was honestly the best tasting meal I’ve had in a very long time. The portions were not the ‘Big Gulp’ that you come to expect in a society built on supersizing, but were adequate and packed more punch than I had expected. One of the appetizers was so good that my dinner companion and I discussed the ingredients and asked the waiter what was in it and he was kind enough to get a copy of the recipe from the chef herself! Talk about service. (I’ve yet to try to prepare it on my own).
Finding a Nice Restaurant
So how can you figure out what’s worth your time and what isn’t? My first suggestion is to use the web service Yelp.com (or if you have an iPhone, get the app). Yelp helps you find all kinds of great local business in your areas, but more importantly can be helpful in that other people provide reviews, so just go there, enter your zip code and find some good places in your area. Reviews are subjective, so you just have to trust your gut.
The other thing to know is that once you’ve picked a spot, try to see if they have a website or some social network that gives updates on their menu if it changes daily. You’ll also be able to tell from their website or tone of conversation in their social networks what the level of sophistication is. Not all fine dining requires you to be in a suit and tie. But if you’re either on a date or a night on the town, treat the experience as a special one and commit to dressing a little nicer than you normally would. Go into it with the idea that you’re being fancy yourself, and just revel in the experience.
Let it also be known, that as a person who has no filter or couth, you really don’t have to be some kind of etiquette guru to dine at a nice restaurant. You don’t know what the words are on the menu? Ask. That’s what waiters are for. They are there to help you, guide you to what will suit your tastes for the evening. Don’t confuse professionalism with haughtiness – they’re just trying to make sure you have a great experience and that you tell your friends and come back.
Tapas, Perfect for Trying New and Strange Foods
Another idea that I see becoming more popular is the tapas themed restaurants. Not necessarily as frou-frou as your local fine-dining restaurant, tapas offers you the chance to try numerous small dishes that are perfect for splitting between two people. This also can lend itself to large groups where you just order a bevy of dishes and pass them all around and find new and exotic things, like bacon wrapped dates. Never in my life would I have ordered them, but I’ll be damned if I go back and don’t make someone else try them now.
When it comes to finding a ‘fancy’ restaurant – trust your judgment. Do your homework and decide what is within your comfort zone. Don’t feel that you have to throw all caution to the wind and eat foods that were part of dares on Fear Factor. I have the personal belief that eyeballs and testicles, no matter how well prepared, are not made for consumption. But you’ll need to follow your own heart (and stomach) on this.
As Julia Child would say, ‘Bon Appetite!’
And as I always say, ‘What’s for dessert?’