When former Glass Haus chef Ian Boden left the Charlottesville fine dining circuit, it was in a hail of bullets. The market was too small. People didn’t get it. People didn’t have enough money for it.
The latest departure from C’ville’s haute cuisine scene, by l’etoile last week, has been lower key. Chef and owner Mark Gresge is a longtime local fixture, having started his French white tablecloth restaurant in 1993, and he said the closure was due not to flagging business or an unsupportive populace but to his and his wife Vickie’s desire to focus their efforts on catering.
The effect of l’etoile’s shutdown feels no less profound than Glass Haus’, though, and Charlottesvillians have to begin to wonder just what level of restaurant they can expect their fellow foodies to support. What, at the end of the meal, does “fine dining” even mean in a market like this? And what will it mean in the future?
Gresge himself admits to feeling a shift away from the traditional notion of fine dining to a more casual affair. While “the guests kept coming” to his restaurant, the current crop of foodies seems to be looking for something a bit different than they were in the past.
“The hipsters or millennials or whatever, they want more of a communal dining experience,” Gresge said. “They want small plates. If they are out with three or four other people, they want to be able to say, ‘Hey, what does that taste like?’”
A newcomer to C’ville’s restaurant scene, Justin Ross of Parallel 38, agrees with Gresge. While Ross’ background is loaded with fine dining experience, including working with renowned chef Jose Andres in Washington, D.C., the restaurant he opened last year is decidedly more casual.
“We don’t consider ourselves a fine dining establishment, but we hold our staff and food to the same level,” Ross said. “We want to draw the fine dining crowd in, but we don’t want it to be once or twice a year on a special occasion. We want them to come several times a month.”
Ross doesn’t feel Charlottesville is particularly unique in the way fine dining is trending, suggesting “even in D.C. it is sort of dying.” But others agree with Boden that the size of the local market makes it difficult to operate a place that most people can only afford on the rarest occasion.
Michael Keaveny of local Italian standard tavola noted fine dining restaurants have a much better chance of survival in bigger cities because there are more people willing to splurge on any given night. He said his model at tavola is similar to Ross’ in that he wants people to come in even when they’re not celebrating.
“I would be very nervous opening a fine dining restaurant in Charlottesville,” Keaveny said. “If you can have a kind of casual restaurant that serves amazing food that has great service without it being snooty and happening to adhere to the old French service rules, in this day and age, it gives you a better opportunity to exceed expectations.”
Still, Charlottesville maintains its old guard. Just outside town, Keswick’s Fossett’s, Ivy Inn, and Clifton Inn provide the type of experience and doting service, along with innovative and well-executed food, that most everyone would associate with fine dining. Inside city limits, Fleurie’s Brian Helleberg is protecting the mantle.
Helleberg said his restaurant’s goal is to provide service that anticipates diners’ needs rather than reacting to them. At the same time, he believes Fleurie achieves that goal without being stuffy.
“I don’t think the definition of fine dining has changed,” Helleberg said. “Formal and fine dining aren’t the same thing. ‘Fine’ means there is structure. You want the guest to dictate their evening.”
Despite the movement toward shared experiences among the current generation, Helleberg said there will always be a place for the traditional dining experience that focuses more on the individual. Indeed, as increasing numbers of restaurants look to follow the trend toward a more casual atmosphere, the traditional establishments that remain should only strengthen.
“It’s not something that’s never going to be heard from again,” Helleberg said. “We’re not going to go away. We are going to keep doing our thing, and business is booming. We’re having one of our best years, and people are happy. When people aren’t calling or coming in, I may think differently.”
Meanwhile, in Staunton, Boden has opened The Shack, a small, unassuming restaurant that’s received the kind of attention traditionally reserved for only fine dining rooms. He and his former business partner Jean-Francois Legault seem no less salty about the local restaurant scene, though—neither of them could find the time to comment for this article.