I completely understand why fine dining has been the subject of much ridicule and social commentary this year (and many years prior). These high-end restaurants are stuffy, expensive, a watering hole for the world’s biggest assholes. It’s also well documented that the old-school, by-the-book, Michelin-star-chasing fine dining kitchen is synonymous with the most toxic of workplace environments. But, despite its portrayal on shows like The Bear, or the direct hate from Alton Brown, or the scathing commentary embedded into the new movie The Menu, I still think that, at its core, fine dining is all right. You just have to think of it as tourism.
High-end dining can be approachable, and should be. I say this as someone who has both made fun of haute cuisine in the past and has lived most of his life dirt poor. Forget for a moment that tasting menus have been largely claimed by Wall Street bros and billionaire CEOs and know-it-all food snobs (each a type of person I wish desperately would fuck off), and focus instead on the fact that, at its best, an elaborate restaurant is more like Disneyland: It’s a vacation. A theme park. A ridiculous, frivolous thrill ride. The type of experience you have and then talk about ad nauseam at parties.
Am I, Danny Palumbo, a guy with multiple outstanding parking tickets, not allowed to enjoy the same meals that rich assholes do? I can decide whether to spend my hard earned cash on a vacation to Hawaii or a dinner at the French Laundry, and one actually costs way less. Whichever I choose, the end result is the same: A memorable, luxurious experience that’s designed to be a break from the monotony of everyday life. The fact that one experience lasts a few days longer doesn’t make it the better option.
And the monotony of life is everywhere, my guy. People in my hometown go to the beach for summer vacation because they’re sick of the pervasive gloom of Pennsylvania weather. The same is true of food: There a certain monotony to eating $20 meals that gets broken up by restaurants with sophisticated, intricate presentations and preparations.
Terms like “molecular gastronomy” might cause everyone but the C-suite to roll their eyes, but you can’t tell me there’s not at least a little bit of chaotic good in seeing Eric Andre enjoying dinner at Alinea. Like just about every other form of tourism, a high-end meal is meant to enrich one’s life. And even if the trappings of these prix fixe tastings are co-opted by elites, your own experience won’t be made to feel any less special.
I have attended a fancy tasting menu once in my life. Some of you Chicagoans may remember L20, the high-end, two-Michelin-starred seafood restaurant that closed in 2015. I went there in 2014 with my brother and a mutual friend named Rodney. As soon as we walked through the heavy, dramatic, gates-of-Rome-ass doors, we were met with a stunning and uncomfortable silence, the type of quiet that signals elegance. We don’t belong here, we thought.
And we didn’t. Rodney had the type of neatly trimmed chinstrap beard you usually see paired with camouflage cargo shorts and a Steelers jersey. I distinctly remember being seated at our table, holding up my pants because I forgot to wear a belt like a schlub. The bill itself would be half of my total worth at the time, and it’s also worth noting that the three of us showed up to the restaurant already drunk. In short, we were idiots. But there’s something thrilling about pretending like you belong somewhere when you so clearly do not.
And make no mistake, to casually sit down at any establishment that charges over $400 for a meal takes some amount of pretending. The first dish to come out that night was a crab chip glued to some kind of wooden orb. We ate the chip in one bite and then they took our orbs away. That crab chip set the tone, not just for the marvelously executed seafood-focused menu, but for our collective change in attitude. In a matter of minutes, we went from “We don’t belong here” to “Yes, you may take away the orbs now. We’re finished.”
There was a palpable, unforgettable giddiness inside each of us during that meal. We were kids being invited to make-believe that we were kings.
What followed the crab chip was an onslaught of thoughtful, labor-intensive, exquisitely constructed dishes that we simply were not prepared for. Chefs Matthew Kirkley and Bob Broskey served us 20+ courses of pure luxury. A mussel tart that dissolved away in my mouth with such a richness that it made my eyes wide and my body tingle. A gluttonous salade gourmande with foie gras, mojama, haricots verts, and truffle that I think was the chefs trying to kill us. Oysters, geoduck, abalone, and, at some point, pigeon brains. There was also a deliciously sinister lobster minestrone, with each vegetable cut individually to mimic ditalini pasta.
Every time a dish left our table, we knew another was coming that was going to upstage the previous both in presentation and flavor. By the end, the meal had taken our breath away, and I would argue that the three of us appreciated that experience all the more because we were so financially challenged.
It never once dawned on me that I would never eat like this again. You can’t fully grasp a once-in-a-lifetime experience while you’re having it. I simply just gave into the restaurant’s will, and as a result, I think I felt my self esteem rise: I do deserve this. Everyone does.
Today, L20's menu stays plastered to a wall in my kitchen like a photo of me and my family posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a reminder of my brother and I spending time together. A memento from the last time I was in Chicago. That outlandishly expensive meal has sentimental value—and the wealthiest, most successful people at L20 that night ate exactly the same menu I did.
The problem isn’t the institution of fine dining as a whole; the problem is that it’s been corrupted by the insatiable appetites of the stupidly rich. As a result, fine dining gets lumped in with stunt foods, items covered in truffles and gemstones and caviar and gold leaf—but those simply aren’t the same. A $12,000 pizza is not okay. A well-executed tasting menu has artistry, vision, and respect for its customers. These restaurants exist to serve any diner willing to take the ride, and to knock them on their ass. $400 for that experience? Not the worst use of my money. It costs more to get good seats at Wrestlemania.
Fine dining’s biggest flaws are often unrelated to the food. Dress codes, for example, can absolutely get fucked. I went to a fancy Brazilian restaurant in downtown LA called Caboco. It was dimly lit, pricy, and stunningly delicious—and sitting next to me was a man wearing a tank top and shorts, sharing a meal with his son. It was beautiful. That some restaurants commit to pretentiousness with dress codes is a giant mistake, one that reinforces the stigma of fancy food.
Not everyone has to enjoy this type of dining experience, or seek it out at all. But it’s not the irreparably stuffy institution we make it out to be. It’s an experience that, when done well, can completely upend you. And I hope that by making my modest living and still patronizing such restaurants, I am, in some small way, taking the experience back from its worst proponents. Because in the end, fine dining is like a theme park: open to everyone, and designed to satisfy in a way few other places can.