Last week I walked into a five-star Manhattan hotel to find a guy sprawled on the lobby’s brocade sofa, shoes off and feet kicked up, eating a hamburger in his robe. In his robe. Nobody was giving him any grief, least of all the hotel staff. Sometimes I wonder if we all just want to be at home in the world, literally. We make ourselves at home in places where we never have before. Realms once considered public are now treated like private playrooms; activities that once demanded a certain rigor of presentation—on behalf of the host and the guest, the provider and the provided—are increasingly open to interpretation. Some people even think it’s okay to wear shorts on airplanes.
It’s not just us. The places that cater to us are undoing the proverbial top button—even the really good places. Nowadays the most transporting experiences often come in the least assuming locations, and vice-versa. Lately I’ve had revelatory meals on mismatched plates and dead-boring dinners on Limoges china. I’ve had gracious service from dudes in Wilco shirts and desultory service at Michelin-starred restaurants with five waiters to a table. You never can tell. More than ever, the old rules—our trusted measuring sticks for gauging worth and ambition—no longer apply. This is most evident in the food world, where the dichotomy of high-end versus low-end, of casual versus “fine” dining, has finally lost all meaning. But it holds true for all aspects of travel, from hotels to shopping to nightlife. The welcome result is an explosion of possibilities in how we identify great experiences and where we expect to find them.
One of my favorite recent meals out was at Animal, a deceptively relaxed restaurant in Los Angeles. In the spartan, concrete-floored dining room, the atmosphere is more noisy canteen than culinary mecca. But the service is warm and engaging, the cooking inventive and unfathomably delicious. “When we opened, we were just focused on making good food,” says co-owner and chef Vinny Dotolo. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe we should hang some art or something?’ But we haven’t gotten much further.” Indeed, the stripped-down look has become part of the Animal gestalt—a necessity that wound up a statement.
Given the critical acclaim the restaurant has garnered, Dotolo’s main concern these days is managing expectations. “Animal is not fine dining,” he warns. “It’s loud in here. The service is not overly elaborate. But we still use fine-dining ingredients—sustainable meats, farmers’ market produce, foie gras and sweetbreads.” The intention, he says, is “to take great food off the pedestal and bring it onto our own stage.”
More and more restaurants are on a similar tack, blurring the lines between upscale and down to coax out something thrillingly in-between. Dotolo cites the pioneering example of Noma, in Copenhagen, which has a similarly raw, bare-bones interior—yet recently topped a list of the world’s best restaurants. The haute-casual mash-up finds its apogee in Paris’s burgeoning bistronomie scene, where upstarts such as Le Chateaubriand and Rino offer hyper-creative cooking at modest prices in an unpretentious, homespun setting.
The dressing-down of hospitality is nothing new in itself. (Top-hatted doormen are so 1896.) The economy has certainly exacerbated the trend—witness the parade of chefs cashing in with recession-themed “comfort food”—but casualism was in play well before the bottom fell out. For one thing, the rigidity of formal service makes most people anxious. “The point of service is to make you comfortable, isn’t it?” asks Clark Wolf, a food-and-restaurant consultant. “Yet grand service often does the opposite. It’s like sitting up front at a comedy club. It requires participation and effort.” God forbid we make an effort.
But there’s a deeper reason as well. An absence of polish can actually connote honesty, integrity, authenticity. “Formality is about show, but we’re more interested in resonance,” Wolf says. “We want real. We want to grab the damn thing by the root and pull it out.” Think of casualism as less a revolution than a Reformation—a removal of vestigial trappings to bring us closer to the meaningful core. The field-to-fork movement is one example (drawing us closer to the farmer); pop-up shops and galleries are another (drawing us closer to the designer or artist). Glamour is still a powerful tool, but it can also be a liability, undercutting worth rather than conveying it. This explains why swank boutiques like to masquerade as thrift stores, draping $800 scarves over rusticated ladders; why A-list nightspots like to pretend they’re grungy dive bars; and why so many upmarket hotels are rejecting sleekness for homey, proletarian charm. (Never mind that they’re still as set-designed as any Philippe Starck fantasia.)
The latter underscores the pitfalls of the trend. The problem with buttoned-up formality, after all, was that its parameters were always too narrow, so everything fancy wound up looking or at least feeling the same. Now the risk is that our strict definitions simply invert themselves, such that in the future we’ll expect all great restaurants to have exposed ductwork, Porkslap ale in cans, and sleeve-tattooed waiters urging you to check out this super-gnarly celeriac, bro!
Of course casualism is about more than skinny jeans, Chilewich placemats, or any single aesthetic choice. It’s about choice itself. We’ve essentially shifted control from provider to consumer, from hotel to guest, from restaurant to diner. (Rare is the prix fixe stalwart that hasn’t given in and introduced a bar menu of small plates. And rare is the luxury resort that isn’t doing away with formalized check-in.) Mostly for better, occasionally for worse, no more will we be told what we can or can’t do. And we’ll enjoy our burgers right here on the sofa, thanks very much.
Still, let’s not write off formality just yet. The second-best meal I had recently was at Del Posto, in New York—a throwback wonderland of gilt and silk that recalls the captain’s dining room on a mid-century ocean liner. There’s even a pianist glissing out Gershwin tunes.
What’s weird is that the first time I went, five years ago, I kind of hated the place. It felt joyless and rote. It’s hard to say if the restaurant itself has improved (the New York Times thinks so, finally awarding Del Posto four stars last fall) or if I’ve just come around to a nostalgia for fancy old-school service. No longer musty and stiff, it felt….well, fun. And the plushness was frankly a relief. Liberating as the new casualism may be, there are only so many nights I can spend parked on a hardwood bench, shouting to be heard over the Black Keys.
“Fine dining isn’t going away, nor would I want it to,” Animal’s Dotolo says. “When it’s done right, it’s beautiful. The pacing of the courses, the smoothness of the service—it’s like synchronized swimming.” And there’s an inarguable appeal to, say, having a stool to put your handbag on, or watching your salad prepared tableside. You remember a time when going out for dinner, checking in to a hotel, and boarding a plane were occasions to wear something nice, sit up straight, and transcend the routine of the everyday.
So does all this downscaling mean we’ve become less discriminating, less sophisticated? I’d argue the opposite is true. Our standards haven’t fallen; our criteria are simply broader. Sophistication today demands another degree of discernment—the ability to distinguish an experience from its context, the value of a product from its packaging. We now answer to a new hierarchy of taste, founded not on traditional emblems of luxury but on a cultishly defined notion of quality. We’ll go out of our way to unearth it, and we’ll overlook the untidy edges, as long as they don’t compromise the thing itself.
“Today’s diners are far more knowledgeable about ingredients, cooking techniques, the nuances of food,” Wolf notes. “As a result, restaurant service has shifted from being about manners to being about information. We want a waiter to know where the chicken ran around, a bartender to describe every herb and twig that went into that cocktail. We’re not asking for less—we’re actually asking for more.”
I certainly don’t need a coat-check girl to tell me I’m having a fabulous meal. Not do I require a starched-collared butler to tell me I’m enjoying my stay. That feeling derives from the easy confidence of people who care about what they’re doing, and are doing it extremely well—no matter how wrinkly their T-shirts or unruly their beards.