In the 1990s, Gray Kunz was executive chef of Lespinasse, one of New York City’s many fine-dining temples. Located in the St. Regis Hotel, it was known for its elegance, its formality, its creative yet super-elegant food—it was one of just a few restaurants to hold the maximum four stars from The New York Times—and, within the restaurant industry, for what was reportedly an unlimited food budget.
Lespinasse closed several years ago. Alain Ducasse, who exited from his New York Times four-star and Michelin three-star venture at the Essex House, is reportedly opening a restaurant in the old Lespinasse space, but details are sketchy and rumor has it that his presence there will be more in the capacity of a consultant than an actual chef.
His former space in the Essex House is now a casual dining room with no particular dress code, where you can get yeomanlike chops and salads and chocolate desserts.
Aquavit has relocated, and like many fine-dining restaurants in New York, which I think most people with opinions on such things would agree is the capital of high-end dining in the United States, the new operation features a casual cafe as well as a fine-dining room.
Several fine-dining chefs were at the opening of Grayz, so was Lon Symensma, the executive chef of Buddakan , a massive 300-plus-seat restaurant that churns out Asian-fusion food and high-concept cocktails to a packed house nightly.
Symensma seemed quite happy with his job, but the fine-dining chefs at the event were wondering about the future of their operations. Business was OK, but customers weren’t exactly beating down the doors. One of the chefs, of a seafood restaurant in Midtown, said the restaurant’s owners were planning to re-evaluate the restaurant once their lease expired next year, possibly redoing it as a more casual spot.
Another fine-dining chef, in a hotel restaurant, had already eliminated the dress code and was planning to serve more straightforward food. Both agreed that the problem with fine dining in New York wasn’t that customers didn’t want to pay the high prices for the food; they just didn’t want to dress up and sit for three hours to eat it.
Signs are spreading of a decline in fine dining in New York. Fine-dining chef Tom Colicchio has been focusing much of his energy on his fast-casual concept ’wichcraft , although he says he did recently lose 15 pounds with the opening of Craft in Los Angeles, where he has been working on the line. But a reporter from Forbes magazine who recently ate at Craft  said while the food and prices were certainly high-end, the format was casual.
A fine-dining rising star, Josh DeChellis, recently threw in the towel at Sumile Sushi , which he had already made a bit less formal than its former incarnation, Sumile. Now he operates a tempura shop named Barfry.
Chef Daniel Boulud, whose flagship restaurant Daniel remains a fine-dining bastion, has been moving more casual for decades with the opening of Café Boulud, followed by db Bistro Moderne, where the signature dish is a hamburger. It’s a burger with short ribs and foie gras, but it’s still marketed as a burger. His latest venture, Bar Boulud, scheduled to open in December or January, will be a wine bar with a culinary focus on pâté and cheese.
This past June, at the Food & Wine magazine Classic in Aspen, Colo., that magazine’s editor in chief Dana Cowin moderated a panel on the future of fine dining in which Chipotle  chief executive Steve Ells, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America  who got his start under fine-dining chef Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco, sat with Colicchio, New York-based restaurateur Drew Nieporent, and bicoastal fine-dining chef Thomas Keller, who runs the superfine-dining restaurants The French Laundry  and Per Se , but also the very casual Bouchon , Bouchon Bakery  and Ad Hoc .
Nieporent, who operates several Nobu  restaurants in New York and elsewhere, Rubicon in San Francisco, and Tribeca Grill  in New York, among other restaurants, has been opening decidedly more casual places in recent years, such as Centrico, which is Mexican, and the mostly Vietnamese Mai House . His most formal of restaurants, Montrachet , was closed in May of 2006 and the space remains fallow.
On the panel, the restaurateurs talked about the democratization of fine food, and many chefs I talk to these days talk about how customers expect their food to be good, and made from top-quality ingredients, wherever they eat. In the meantime, this fall, traditionally a very busy time for restaurant openings in New York, hardly any of the new ones have white tablecloths.
That’s not to say that the food’s getting worse. I’ve been getting superb meals recently in restaurants where I would feel comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, which have wine lists that would allow me to spend as much as I want to and creative cocktails worth the steep prices they’re charging.
And I’m OK with that.