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.