The best polished-casual concepts are a marriage of opposites that hits just the right balance: Fine food in a fun setting for guests who want quality without pretension or fuss. See also: Caviar and tater tots. High tops with a tuxedo. Southern rock music and a dry-aged steak. Grilled chicken and brown rice bowls for dogs. Chandeliers and graffiti. Sloppy hot chicken sandos on a velvet sofa. Taquitos with tail-on shrimp. Carrot-fed Angus beef burgers with mac ‘n cheese balls.
Why would these contrasting elements of style and flavor appeal so much to a restaurateur or chef? The many guests who want to wear flip-flops while eating fine fare.
Vacation vibes in Southern California, dog days on the menu
Leigh Lupinacci conjures up a few of these hypothetical guests to create the experience at Esperanza, the polished casual restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where Lupinacci is partner and director of food and beverage.
“A guest may stop by after the beach for a light seafood crudo-driven meal of fresh-cut seabass ceviche blanco and Sonoran scallop aquachile, then return a few nights later for a beautiful cut of New York steak, Oaxacan carnitas or pollo mole blanco,” she said. “Guests can stroll in after a beach day in flip flops and shorts or come in at night for a special celebration they’ve been planning for months."
Like the Southern California vibe itself, this concept can oscillate between flip-flops to haute couture high heels, from beach volleyball game to glamorous gala.
The key constant for a polished casual concept? “The attention to every detail of your visit will be the same every time,” Lupinacci said.
That connection to guests and tuning into the kind of experience they want also drives Lazy Dog, a polished-casual concept with about 50 locations from LaBrea to Boca.
“We’re continuing to find new ways to connect with our guests where and when they need us with fun offerings like our frozen, scratch-made TV Dinners and our Lazy Dog Beer Club, a membership program with themed quarterly releases and in-restaurant perks,” said CMO John Williams.
What’s on the menu for polished casual perfection?
Esperanza’s Lupinacci illustrates the difference between “casual” and “polished casual” with menu items: “Chile rellenos are delicious, but not every Mexican restaurant features one with fresh lobster tail, Mexican white shrimp and grilled corn,” she says. “Everyone loves a traditional crispy taco and enchilada, so we take it up a notch by using shredded short rib and natural chicken, blends of artisanal Mexican cheese and hand-mashed Peruvian white beans.”
She adds that polished casual is also a perfect description for Manhattan Beach. “We mirror that vibe back to our guests by serving modern, elevated food and drinks in a beautiful, inviting, one-of-a-kind atmosphere while providing welcoming and friendly service and hospitality,” she said.
Polished casual’s endgame should be an experience that guests will seek out and even crave.
“Everything has been created with the goal of the guest saying, ‘I’m craving something that I can only get at Esperanza…let’s go!’” Lupinacci said.
That sense of elevated fun foods is also strong at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, where an unassuming platter of nachos and cheese dip is blasted into the stratosphere of polished casual by becoming lobster and spinach queso.
Chandeliers and spray paint, super empanadas and Super Mario
The high-low aesthetic is at it again at Agave & Rye’s 10 locations, located in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. “We know our guests are looking for something that’s approachable,” said Yavonne Sarber, founder and CEO of the boozy taco concept. “Guests are looking for an experience and a unique ambiance.”
That one-of-a-kind aspect is more important now than ever, Sarber has concluded. “Over the past year or more, people have also learned that they can cook at home,” she said. “Many have gotten set in their ways, with cooking at home becoming a comfortable habit. Now they’re looking for an escape that makes it worthwhile to venture out.”
Agave & Rye’s experience includes full-scale, old-school arcade rooms with games that tug at just the right nostalgia strings for adult “kids at heart” who grew up playing Mario Bros. The murals on the wall drive home the sensory-memory experience.
Growing into polished casual
Sarber revealed that plans are in development for Papi Jocho’s, a Mexican street-food concept with franchising and licensing opportunities for employees, and a third, unnamed concept that “caters to a specific niche of guests who may not want to be ‘wined and dined’ in a stuffy environment but still want the luxury of the food often served in that type of environment,” she says. “We want to bring a little Southern rock and tattoos to steak.