A casual affair: Has upscale dining gone downhill?

Within recent years, New York has mourned the loss of no less than four of its most venerable, high-end restaurants: Lutèce, La Caravelle, Le Cirque 2000, and La Côte Basque - leaving some of us to wonder whether the concept of ultra upmarket dining has finally reached its expiration date.

Before its closure in May 2004, New York's highly-esteemed restaurant La Caravelle had catered to the some of the world's most distinguished guests, including Salvador Dali, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Vladamir Horowitz - patrons who took great pleasure in crisp, white linen tablecloths and $66 prix-fixe meals. In the late 1990s, however, New York's desire for less-formal dining was on the rise, a trend that former co-owner Rita Jammet attributes to the increase of dot-coms and other casual industries. "Dot-commers are very casual," she says. "They dress down for work. They don't want to be required to wear a jacket and tie when they go out to eat." While La Caravelle eventually revoked their tie requirement and strived to keep their menu current, the restaurant's doors eventually closed for good.

While La Caravelle has no plans to reopen under a more casual guise, many high-end restaurants are doing just that - reinventing themselves to appeal to the increasing number of diners who "desire to eat well-prepared food without all the pomp and circumstance of formal service," according to David Gingrass, owner of Hawthorne Lane restaurant in San Francisco. After offering its customers upmarket cuisine for 11 years, the establishment is set to close at the end of 2006 and reopen as the more informal restaurant, TWO.

"We want our clientele to be able to visit the restaurant any night of the week because they're hungry and want well-cooked food, not just during the weekend or on special occasions," says Gingrass. While the decor will become more colorful and eclectic, the food will be simpler and more ingredient-driven. It will be a return to authentic California cuisine," he says, "which is basically the antitheses of formal, four-star French dining."

In San Francisco's South Market district, 12-year old Bizou restaurant recently reestablished itself as the more casual CoCo500 in order to keep up with the evolving neighborhood's clientele. "The area has become incredibly vibrant and many young people have returned to the neighborhood. We really want to make the restaurant more accessible to them," says general manager, Clay Reynolds.

While some of Bizou's menu items are still offered, the kitchen now focuses on dishes that can be shared in a communal, more casual way. "People used to be very territorial about their food. Sharing between customers was an uphill battle," says Reynolds. "Now, they really enjoy trying a wide variety of different flavors, so we offer a lot of items a la carte." Reynolds hasn't seen a significant difference between CoCo500's price margins compared to Bizou. "People will always consume the same amount of food, regardless of whether or not it's served a la carte."

Considered a New York institution for over four decades, La Côte Basque underwent a metamorphosis in 2004 to become the more laid-back LCB Brasserie Rachou. While luxury still lurks amidst the foie gras and black truffles on the menu here, the restaurant's menu and atmosphere has become more casual and accessible to a wider demographic. "The tradition of formal dining is definitely out," says Lee Bacon, LCB Brasserie's resident mixologist. "There's much more of a demand for contemporary dining, especially by young people. If we hadn't remodeled the restaurant, I don't think we would be in business today."

Glancing at his customers one afternoon, Bacon noted the dining room's interesting mix of clientele - some in suits and ties, others in polos, and still others in t-shirts. "Even by looking at the clothes people are wearing, you can see how our customer base has grown," he says. "If we hadn't changed the restaurant, many people would never eat here."