Fine Dining Takes on Fast Casual

Chefs are bringing a fine-dining mindset to quick casual menus

Forget the notion that the fine-dining industry regards fast food with disdain. Evidence is mounting against it.

High-profile chefs and restaurateurs are adjusting their tunnel vision to fit a variety of limited-service styles, such as the customizable format popularized by Chipotle and the better-for-you options carved out by Panera Bread a decade ago.

“We’re seeing creative chefs—the ones who would have typically gone for a 40- seat fine-dining restaurant—launch fine fast-casual concepts because they can see the great growth potential,” says Darren Tristano, president of foodservice research firm Technomic Inc.

And why not? Their culinary chops translate easily to fast-casual menus. The result has been what restaurant impresario and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer termed “fine casual”: the fusion of a fine dining mindset with a fast-casual style and price point. Early signs show that convenience and value coupled with high quality, responsible sourcing and engaged staff create lines out the door.

Here’s what you need to know about the hottest food segment to date.

Chefs In the Fast Lane

Jose Andres

CREDENTIALS: Winner of multiple James Beard Foundation Awards, credited for introducing Americans to small plates with national Spanish tapas concept, Jaleo.
CONCEPT:  Beefsteak (Washington, D.C., Philadelphia) "Fresh, market-driven vegetables (taking) center stage."
SAMPLE DISH: Yellow squash, potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, savory cabbage, broccoli and roasted garlic yogurt sauce topped with romaine, almonds, cherry tomatoes, radishes and extra virgin olive oil ($7.49)
DEBUT: 2015

UNITS: 5

PRICE RANGE: All-day menu, $5.99 to $8.49

Dave Cruz

CREDENTIALS: Thomas Keller alumnus who earned 3-star rating from San Francisco Chronicle as chef de cuisine at Ad Hoc in Yountville, California.
CONCEPT: Little Gem (San Francisco) “…fresh, seasonal ingredients to make wholesome, flavorful dishes. All of our cooking also happens to be naturally free of gluten, dairy and refined sugar.”
SAMPLE DISH: Grilled trumpet mushrooms on beans and rice bowl, Rancho Gordo beans, Tuscan kale, trumpet mushrooms, tomato-bacon stew ($10.50)
DEBUT: 2015
UNITS: 1
PRICE RANGE: Breakfast, $2 to $9.50; lunch, $5 to $13; dinner, $5 to $23

Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson

CREDENTIALS: Popularized food truck movement with Kogi (Choi); two-Michelin star chef for Coi and regional James Beard award winner (Patterson).
CONCEPT: Locol (Los Angeles) Bringing healthful and affordable food to underserved communities to ultimately redefine fast food as nutritious food. 
SAMPLE DISHES: Beef and veggie burgers  ($4) and Noodleman bowl with ginger, chili and lime ($6)
DEBUT: January
UNITS: 1 (in Los Angeles; units in San Francisco and Oakland, California, to open later this year). 
PRICE RANGE: $2 to $6

Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and  Bobby Stuckey

CREDENTIALS: Regional James Beard Award for best chef (Mackinnon-Patterson); master sommelier and recipient of two James Beard Awards for outstanding wine service (Stuckey).
CONCEPT: Pizzeria Locale (Denver, Cincinnati Kansas City, Missouri) “From Italian fine dining to quick-serve pizza…” housemade hand-stretched dough then topped with exceptional ingredients.
SAMPLE DISH: Diavola, sauce, smoked mozzarella, pepperoni, basil, chili flake pizza ($7.75)
UNITS: 4 with three to come in Mason, Ohio, and Oak Park, Kansas.
PRICE RANGE: $3.50 to $8.25

Deuki Hong and LeE annE Wong

CREDENTIALS: Listed in 2015 Eater Young Guns (Hong); “Top Chef” contestant and culinary producer (Wong)
CONCEPT: Sweetcatch Poke (New York City) Creative variations of poke, a classic Hawaiian dish of rice, raw fish and vegetables.
UNITS: Opening first location in New York City this year.
PRICE RANGE: Under $10

Ahead of the Game

Two tried-and-true concepts that have successfully tied together the concept of live healthy, eat happy.

Mendocino Farms
Founded in 2005 
12 locations; three more opening this year
Los Angeles area

Caramelized onions, apple chutney, spinach, Gruyere, smoked Gouda and house mustard (many of them sourced locally) typifies the ingredients sourced by Chef Judy Han at this vanguard sandwich shop. Mendocino Farms, which repurposes fine-dining entrees as high-end sandwiches, has attracted private equity funding with its central-kitchen efficiencies and high sales. Last year, founders Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen struck a deal with Whole Foods to open outposts in its northern California grocery stores. 

Modern Market
Founded in 2009
17 locations; more to come
Arizona, Colorado and Texas

The eating more plants than animals ethos informs the culinary philosophy at Modern Market. Cash register receipts list nutritionals as well as the items ordered. The non-restaurateur founders—Anthony Pigliacampo (an engineer) and Rob McColgan (a Wall Street executive)—opened the first restaurant in Boulder with a locally sourced and chemical-, additive and preservative-free menu at breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

ON THE MENU: WORDS THAT SPEAK

Nutritionally correct menus define fine fast-casual concepts as well as higher quality ingredients.

Beetsteak sandwich with pickled onions, house mayo, greens and sea salt on an olive oil brioche bun, ($6.75), Beefsteak, multiple units.

Cheese-stuffed sausage, fig-onion relish, wild arugula, almonds, mustard aioli ($6.99), Dog Haus/Pig and the Fig, multiple units.

Maple Dijon pulled Red Bird chicken thighs, Muenster cheese, creminelli prosciutto, arugula, and mustard on ciabatta. ($8), Modern Market, multiple units.

Gluten-free black bean and butternut squash soup with coconut oil, onion, garlic, cabbage, cumin, cacao and chipotle powder, cayenne pepper ($8.95), Local Thyme, New York

Organic semolina, pasta grilled chicken, pomodoro sauce, Grana Pandano and crispy garlic, ($7.95), Porano Pasta, St, Louis

Burroti of paneer bhurjee with crumbled Indian cheese with peas, roma tomatoes, bell peppers (vegetarian, gluten-free) ($8.25),  Tava Indian Kitchen, San Francisco

Signposts of Fine Casual

Fine-casual menus can’t resist culinary buzzwords. You’ll find a variation of these on nearly every menu: “sustainable,” “farm-to-table,” “humanely raised,” “grass-fed,” “gluten-free,” “healthy fats,” “antibiotic-free,” “seasonal” and “local whenever possible.”

Upscale ingredients 

The offbeat rules: acai, chia seeds, coconut water, edamame, harissa, molasses, pumpkin seeds, miso glaze, foraged mushrooms, hemp seeds, agave nectar. 

Beverage dispensers 

Pouring proprietary soft drinks sweetened with agave or sugar. Five-gallon plastic beverage dispensers for cold-pressed fresh juices and agua frescas. 

Design element equipment 

Transparency is the general rule. Modern Market and Dog Haus employ six-burner stoves, for example, to emphasize that food is cooked fresh. Pizzeria Locale’s gleaming Italian prosciutto slicer makes a quality statement. Same goes for the ceramic beverage dispensers at Lyfe Kitchen and Piada Italian Street Food.

Alcoholic beverages 

Pizzeria Locale offers wine on tap by the glass and carafe. Little Gem serves three French, one Italian and one California wines, all by the glass. 

Sustainable decor 

Minimizing the restaurant’s environmental impact often goes beyond responsible sourcing. Healthy concept Lyfe Kitchen used recycled bleacher wood from an athletic stadium in its first restaurant, while the bar and shelving at Little Gem is built with wood from a single tree in Marin County, California.

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