It used to be that you could choose between either going out for a fancy meal or taking the entire family out to a casual restaurant, but to do both at the same time did not exist. Fine dining restaurants seemed to go out of their way to discourage people from bringing their children with them, and the restaurants that did welcome families at best offered variations of the same meals and at worse came with animatronic animals singing happy birthday every ten minutes. Luckily for families, that trend has been shifting, and today there is a thriving restaurant subset known as casual fine dining that combines the best of both worlds.
The driving force behind this trend has been privately owned restaurants that are not beholden to a corporate parent that dictates their menu choices. These restaurants have the freedom to explore menu options that they enjoy. Many of them tend to be ethnic and fusion restaurants and not simply ethnically themed establishments that offer a few token dishes amid tacky décor. Many of these new restaurant owners and chefs are preparing meals that they grew up with, and the concept of including the family comes natural to them.
It is almost as if their businesses are an extension of the kitchens and dining rooms they grew up in. They realize that if given the option, there are many things children would like to eat besides grilled cheese and chicken fingers. The chefs know how to prepare the dishes so that they include all of the flavor without being overly spicy or otherwise off-putting to children.
Just as importantly is making sure that the parents have a chance to enjoy the food as well. This means offering an expansive menu that ranges beyond the typical pasta, chicken and sandwiches that dominate the menu at most family restaurants. It also means establishing a bar program that compliments the food selections. Many of these new casual fine dining restaurants have an extensive wine list, both by the bottle and the glass, and a cocktail list that includes both classic drinks as well as new creations.
Casual fine dining may sound like a contradiction in terms, and maybe a generation ago it was. Today it represents one of the fastest growing segments in the restaurant industry, primarily because of the appeal it holds for families. It offers them the opportunity to bring everyone out for a nice meal, allows their children the chance to try something new while giving the parents the selections they are looking for as well, all without breaking the budget, being in a stuffy atmosphere or having to avoid the screaming six year olds in the ball pit.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been involved in the food and beverage industry for over 20 years.