Say you’re on a first date and want to make a good impression. You decide to splurge and take them to a local fine dining establishment that recently opened in your community and has been getting rave reviews. You call them up, and, miraculously, they have a table free at the exact time you hoped.
You and your date arrive and are shown to your seat by a host in a fancy suit. The lighting is low, giving the evening a romantic ambiance. Around you, other diners speak in low tones as servers hover close by, making sure drinks are constantly refilled. The menu is prix fixe, meaning there’s only a few options, but it’s several courses fixed at one total price. The food takes a long time to prepare, giving you and your date plenty of time to get to know one another.
When it finally arrives and you bite into it, it’s the most delicious thing you’ve ever had: quality ingredients, cooked to perfection, with just the right amount of seasoning. Truly, this is one of the best dining experiences you’ve ever had…until the check comes. After your server thanks you and walks away, your stomach drops as you double check the bottom line. You’ve hit it off with your date and you can tell there will be a second one, but you hope that next time around, they’ll pay. You’ll be feeling this one in your wallet for a long time to come.
By contrast, picture taking the same first date to a local fast food chain. Under fluorescent lighting, you order a combo meal that’s ready in under two minutes, cutting your conversation short. As you and your date try to find a table that’s not covered in dried ketchup, rowdy children throw french fries into your path. When you bite into your burger, it’s a little cold, the lettuce a tad wilted, and you can tell your stomach will pay for it later.
But for now, you’ve barely paid at all. It’s the cheapest date you’ve ever had. You’re just not sure there will be another one.
Splitting the Bill
As these two illustrations show, there’s a big difference between fine dining and fast food establishments. A fine dining restaurant is like the food equivalent of a five-star hotel. They’re marked by their atmosphere, excellent customer service, and high-quality menu options. Your comfort and experience are at the top of the staff’s concerns.
By contrast, fast food chains prioritize low prices and convenience. What’s more, ingredients are often chock-full of antibiotics, which can lead to a dangerous build up of intolerance to their effects.
But according to food writer Daniela Galarza, there’s more to it than the food. Galarza holds a BA in Cultural Food Studies from Cornell University and a Certificate of Pastry Arts from the International Culinary Center. She studied bread and pastries in France and worked a few years in the restaurant industry before writing about food full-time. Galarza says that there are three main differences between fine dining and fast food.
The first and most obvious difference is price, in both cost of ingredients and cost to consumers. The second is style of service.
“At fast food or fast casual restaurants, diners order at a counter, and either receive food at the counter, or food is brought to them at a table,” she says. “At fine dining restaurants, diners order at a table and food is brought to them.”
The third difference is one that many diners don’t consider very often: how they pay. “In fine dining, the diner is always paying at the table, and in either fast casual or fast food [restaurants], the diner is paying at the counter,” Galarza says.
Fine and Dine
According to Galarza, fine dining restaurants are also sometimes known as “white tablecloth” establishments. The entire concept is elevated in both price and offerings. “Generally, [with] fine dining, customers are expecting a really well-crafted service experience,” she says. “They’re expecting hospitality but also for their needs to be anticipated by the server.”
Further, Galarza points out that the style of service can often differ even within the fine dining industry.
“Classic European fine dining differs from classic Asian fine dining,” she says. “In many ways, a lot of fine sushi restaurants are fine dining, [where] you’ll be sitting at a counter and the chef will be serving you.”
But even then, servers are anticipating your every need. “You should never have to want for anything, and the chef or the server is really there to make sure you have everything you need,” she says.
Then there’s the food. In fine dining, “The food is of a much higher standard—presented elegantly, and the quality is very high.”
While fine dining may sound like an amazing experience for the diner, all of that comfort and convenience comes at a cost to the staff. “As you move into finer dining, people get much more career-minded and serious about it,” says Joel Payne, a chef who’s worked on everything from food trucks in downtown St. Louis to French fine dining restaurants in NYC.
“Fine dining clientele are very, very rich, [and] very particular about how everything is. If it’s not perfect, if they didn’t eat the entire plate [or] sent anything back, then it’s assumed something was wrong.”
That need for perfection takes its toll on the cooks and servers. Payne doesn’t mince words when describing the contrasts between his fine dining customers and those he served from a food truck. “On a food truck, it’s like, ‘Oh, thanks for the barbecue! This is awesome, I’m going to enjoy my life and not hate myself,’ like a lot of fine dining people do,” he says.
The higher one moves in the restaurant industry, the less mistakes are tolerated. Part of what creates so much stress is the extremely limited margins fine dining restaurants often have.
“People are stretched so thin because the margins in the food industry are razor-thin,” Payne says. “So you’re only going to have as small of a number as humanly possible to accomplish the work that needs doing, as far as laborers go. Chefs are going to be doing far too many things for one person, and if you have an issue, he’s going to be instantly mad at you because he’s stretched so thin.”
Payne says that in his French fine dining restaurant, he heard his fair share of yelling, cursing, and belittling of subordinates. He quit when a vacation request he put in months in advance was not honored. That attitude persists, he says, because the standards are so high that people feel they have a right to take their frustrations out on their subordinates since they had to deal with similar abuse themselves when they started out.
An Alternative Arises
What if you don’t want to splurge for a fine dining experience but are looking for something a little more respectable than fast food? In recent decades, a third dining option has emerged: fast casual. Many fine dining chefs are getting into the fast casual business.
A fast casual restaurant is a chain like Chipotle, Panera Bread, or the NYC staple Shake Shack. In fact, Shake Shack was started by fine dining restauranteur Danny Meyer, whose Gramercy Tavern establishment made a huge splash in New York’s restaurant landscape when it opened in 1994. Shake Shack itself has seen enormous growth since it opened, growing from 60 stores when it opened publicly to 134 worldwide.
Galarza says there’s a lot more nuance in the differences between fast casual restaurants and fast food. “Fast casual started a few decades ago, and it started small. There were a lot of smaller players that were doing it in cities across the U.S.,” she says. “But the chain that took it wide was Chipotle…they became [this] national landmark for a lot of restaurants who wanted to copy their success.”
Chipotle offered a few distinct features to diners that separated it from fast food: higher-quality ingredients; an assembly line approach that was right in front of customers so they could see exactly what was going into their food; and a slightly higher price point.
“I’d say that fast casual restaurants, on average, are 20–30 percent more [expensive] than fast food restaurants are, and they are at least marketing themselves as serving a higher quality product with more transparency,” Galarza says.
In addition, there are a few more subtle differences in the way the food is prepared and delivered at fast casual restaurants. Sometimes a dish will be ordered at the counter that might not be ready immediately.
“Often at fast casual restaurants, depending on the style, the diner may take a ticket and then be called up to their food, or the food might be brought over to their table,” Galarza says.
The Final Course
Knowing that there are healthier options like fast casual out there, why would anyone eat fast food? Galarza says that fast food chains have their place in the dining economy as well. While fast food is not necessarily the most nutritious, people are getting a meal that’s quick, affordable, and convenient.
“Because of fast food ubiquity, you can find it everywhere in the country [and] you know exactly what you’re going to get,” she says, adding, “And for the most part, it doesn’t taste bad. It’s designed to taste good to the human tongue. So whether or not it’s nutritious or good for the human body aside, it’s meeting a lot of needs for a variety of consumers.”