The democratisation of dining

Daniel During charts the demise of food elitism

Daniel G. During
Daniel G. During

There is a global shift towards the democratisation of eating out. I refer not only to socio-economic conditions, but to a trend that spans all classes and has more to do with our increasing awareness of food and how we choose to eat.
The way we dine has changed and continues to evolve due in large part to better-informed diners and innovative entrepreneurs.

If we look back just 100 years, if you were rich you had access to a wide array of foods, great chefs, travel and education — all factors in our eating choices. For everyone else, dining options were severely limited.

Today, within minutes I can see a scrimping student who seeks out French cheese and organic eggs for his omelette at the local shop, and a wealthy Bentley-driving Texan who eats a giant, greasy hamburger from a roadside stand.

Likewise, one of the biggest trends in America are the once-humble food trucks where you can now find treats such as game hot dogs with foie gras. Food trucks bring gourmet food to the people while opera singers perform seemingly impromptu at shopping malls.

Ten years ago, low carb, vegan or gluten-free diets were all oddities, certainly when it came to restaurant menus. Those who followed such diets probably did so on the advice of a doctor rather than through choice.

Today, people are better informed and make choices about their food lifestyles. Mainstream venues have started catering to these segments.

Flexible portions
Many who prefer small portions or those on a budget do not want to be relegated to appetisers, so more restaurants are incorporating half-portions, or lower price point items.

For these last few recession-tainted years, unusual and cheaper cuts of meat and offal have re-emerged — prepared by knowledgeable and creative chefs, they can be delectable and certainly less costly.

Small dishes continue to be popular, and sliders are bigger than ever. However, here is the backlash: in high-end restaurants, dishes were shrinking while prices were getting higher and while small dishes are lots of fun and a great choice for a social occasions, the tab becomes ludicrous when you make a full meal out of them. Some restaurants went in the opposite direction towards communal platters.

As frugality fatigue sets in, families start to go out again and many great restaurants are finding success by offering reasonably-priced family events in the form of beautifully prepared roasts or stews to share.

Many parents want to expose their kids to good, interesting food and flavours without breaking the budget. They do not want to feed their children the same three items from every restaurant’s typical children’s menu. Both large sharing portions and half-portions work well.

I think restaurants should look at their price architecture and think more creatively. In France, certain cafés charge less for an espresso taken at the bar rather than on the terrace. Perhaps dinner and lunch menus should be completely different. Price points should certainly lower during the least busy period to incentivise business.

Brand extensions
Perhaps the cleverest approach has been the creation of brand extensions. Higher priced, limited-availability restaurants have developed cheaper, more accessible offshoots, such as Nobu Next Door, a more relaxed version of Nobu with lower prices.

In Brussels (one of my favourite food cities for its ‘good food — no pretence’ approach) I saw two takes on this: Papillion Pizza by Chef, serving inexpensive ‘pizza al taglio’ creations by three of Belgium’s Michelin-star chefs, and Junk Food Deluxe, an offshoot of the restaurant and wine bar, Quentin. Its small menu includes mini burgers (organic chicken and Boursin), salads and tartines. This is democratising food.

Has food elitism disappeared? Certainly not. But it has morphed into a celebration of information and individuality, something that is much more varied and nuanced than it has been in our 1000-year dining history, even, for that matter, in the last decade.

About Daniel G. During
Daniel G. During is the principal and managing director of Thomas Klein International, which delivers a range design, consulting and management services for investors and operators in the hospitality, entertainment and leisure sectors throughout the Middle East and beyond.

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