For a guy who made his mark in fine dining, Danny Meyer shows a lot of fire for the restaurant niche he calls fine casual. Others might know it as fast casual, albeit at the higher end.
“We are in such an exciting moment,” says the New York City restaurateur, who is already betting on that sector through his interests in the Shake Shack burger concept and the Sweetgreen salad chain. He sees places of that sort as a continuation of the better-dining democratization he kindled with the opening of his top-rated Union Square Café in 1985.
“We wanted to open a restaurant that was fine-dining, but down to earth, offering fair value, where you could go in jeans and people would feel they don’t have to wait until their anniversary,” says the St. Louis native. “Things have changed, but in other ways they’ve stayed the same.”
Fine dining would shed its fancy duds and loosen up considerably, but the reverence for good food and service would deepen. Indeed, so many talented chefs and restaurateurs parlayed their passion into fine but accessible food that the public’s perception of the business changed. It clearly won society’s respect, if not its adoration.
“We have so many talented chefs and restaurateurs today that our industry is completely validated—restaurateurs are contributing greatly to their communities, and are appreciated for doing that,” says Meyer. “So now the thinking is, ‘What if we could make more of this goodness accessible?’”
Voila: Quality meals, made with ingredients and preparations worth boasting about, but available at an everyday price. It’s fine casual in a small plate.
“There’s no going back,” says Meyer. “People are not going to stop caring about where their food comes from, about what it tastes like.”
Nor is there any doubt about the modern-day industry’s ability to satisfy those heightened preferences. “There are so many people out there today who have the talent to succeed, who have the taste to succeed,” says Meyer.
He wouldn’t reveal what his next involvement sector might be. He already has a full-service entrant in the pizza business, Marta, and one specializing in barbecue, Blue Smoke, along with scaled-down versions of that concept in the Mets’ Citi Field and John F. Kennedy International Airport. Citi Field also sports a limited-service taqueria, El Verano Taco, that’s run by Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. All those concepts serve what have been leading hotbeds of fast-casual concepts.
He won’t say what other areas appeal to him as fine-casual possibilities. “We’re still only going to open restaurants if there’s a need, if it can provide leadership and distinction in the category it serves,” he says.