By Marsha Fottler –
In the restaurant industry, the words “fast food” don’t exist anymore. Today, places such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or Popeye’s call themselves is Quick Service. The product and the delivery system haven’t changed, just the name because in today’s cuisine world, fast food sounds cheap and unwholesome, which it is.
The categories that eateries place themselves can tell consumers a lot about what to expect in terms of service, food preparation and price. For example with Quick Service you’re dealing with counter service, production-line food preparation, a place to eat in (usually), and a bill that come in under $6 for one person. Quick Service is at the low end of the eating-out experience and usually includes a drive-through option.
Fast Casual is a step above and includes places such as Chipolte Grill, Panera, Five Guys Burger, Bob Evans, The Melt, Cracker Barrel or Denny’s. Generally there’s a place inside to sit and eat. Usually you get a paper place mat or the tables are bare. Most Fast Casual places deal in counter service, others employ a limited waitstaff. Price range around $10-$12 for a meal with a beverage. At some Fast Casual places, you leave a tip since someone serves you. There’s no bar, soft drinks are it. The Fast Casual category is the one that is currently growing most rapidly and is probably the next big restaurant trend in America. These places are cost efficient to operate (most of them are franchise opportunities) and they are a “cheap eat” for the consumer.
Then there’s Casual Dining, which is the sweet spot for most American restaurants. In this category you find places such as Bonefish Grill, P.F. Chang China Bistro, Bar Louie, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday, Applebee’s, Carrabbas or The Cheesecake Factory. You sit down, you have a server, there is a definite decor theme going on. Usually the tables are bare and you may or may not get a cloth napkin. Often there’s a bar, which is good for the proprietors because alcohol usually averages 25-30% of total sales at restaurants that have bars. The average check as a Casual Dining place is about $15, certainly higher if you drink.
Upscale Casual is the place where you’re likely to see a tablecloth, a trained waitstaff and a full bar. This category is also called Polished Casual and the average check is $25-$50 per person. Some of the better known Upscale Casual restaurants are Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Max’s Wine Dive, Marlow’s Tavern, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, Rosa Mexicano and Burtons Grill. The Polished Casual restaurant is where you feel like you’re having a bit of a luxury treatment without the formality of a full fine dining experience. Upscale or Polished Casual restaurants generally have a good bar featuring signature cocktails and a decent wine list.
Fine Dining is the restaurant where you are pampered. The wine list is vast. The signature cocktails are many. Often you are tended to by more than one server and a wine expert will drop by your table too. You pay for what you get in terms of food quality and how the experience makes you feel. Expect high prices. Many of America’s finest hotels are reliable destinations for fine dining. There’s Borgne at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency, Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel Air in California, Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons in Baltimore or the Chef’s Club at the St. Regis in Aspen. Since most fine dining restaurants are not chains (as are most of the restaurants that fill out the other categories we’re talking about), you’ll find fine dining restaurants in your local area that are independently owned and have a loyal following of gourmands who appreciate the combination of food quality, creative and expert presentation, ambience, and service. Probably the best known (and most widely respected) fine dining chain restaurant is Ruth’s Chris Steak House followed by Morton’s The Steakhouse and McCormick & Schmick’s. Most people view fine dining establishments as a special occasion choice (birthday, anniversary) or the place to pick if you’re blessed with a generous expense account.
No matter where you dine – the drive through at Wendy’s or the Ritz-Carlton hotel in your city, it’s helpful to know what category your preferred restaurant fits into. That way, you’ll know exactly what to expect and how much you should be paying. The two categories with the most crossover are Casual Dining and Upscale Casual. A lot of restaurants in those two categories have an identity crisis and can’t quite make up their minds. You do it for them. Observe, taste and evaluate. You’ll be able to tell.