In her tenure as a restaurant critic at the New York Times, Ruth Reichl was notorious for lavishing praise on dingy restaurants with great food. Her rapturous reviews of downscale Asian joints like New York Noodletown helped convince the world that white tablecloths and fresh peonies weren't prerequisites for culinary merit. She played a key part in the great culinary coup de grace of our time: the fall of staid haute cuisine institutions like Lutece and Le Bec Fin and the rise of casual eateries like Mission Chinese and Baco Mercat.
But in a recent interview with Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times, Reichl predicts that fine dining is headed for a comeback, and that the young diners who have led the charge away from ivory candles and tuxedoed waiters will be in the vanguard of the counter-revolution.
"Those places they're eating now aren’t cheap," Reichl told Parsons. "I predict you’re going to start seeing -- not this year or next year, but within five years -- the comeback of the formal dining experience. They’re going to want to go out and get more for their money than just another place you can get good food and shout at each other."
This prediction defies traditional wisdom about today's younger diners -- that they like to keep things casual. A Boston Consulting Group study on millennial consumption habits released in November, for example, noted that diners between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely than others to order takeout and to visit restaurants during off-peak hours. To judge by analyses like these, the restaurants of the future are more likely to be 24-hour-delivery pork bun shops than reincarnations of La Caravelle.
But another, less often noted feature of today's 20- and 30-somethings is their respect for traditional aesthetics. Young people now, much more so than the young people of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, love old, pretty, refined things. This veneration is at the heart of the revival of pre-Prohibition cocktails and the popularity of "Downton Abbey."
Dinner at a fancy restaurant (unlike, say, $14 Corpse Revivers) still costs enough that it remains out of reach for most people under the age of 34. But as millenials age and come into more disposable income, their conservative tastes could conflict with their relaxed dining habits. Maybe the the Reichl Prophecy will prove true -- or maybe the clash will breed a new kind of restaurant for a new kind of diner.