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24 Nov

Fast-Fine Dining Is The New Restaurant Frontier

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Media Noche—a Cuban joint in San Francisco’s Mission District—looks like a traditional restaurant. At dinnertime, its tables are full of people lingering over glasses of Riesling and turquoise-rimmed enamel bowls of slow-cooked ropa vieja. Its gorgeously designed, brightly tiled interior has made it a much-Instagrammed spot. But there is one difference between Media Noche and a typical restaurant: The people waiting aren’t vying for a table; they’re waiting to order food from a counter.

That’s because Media Noche is one of a new wave of so-called fast-fine restaurants, which provide the design aesthetic, ambience, and quality food of higher-end establishments without the formality (and the operating costs) of actual fine-dining restaurants. These places offer a quick-and-easy eating experience while also, as more than one fast-fine owner described it, being “nice enough to bring a date to.” Fast-fine businesses have been springing up around the country, though nowhere more so than in San Francisco, where spots like CorridorRT RotisserieBarzottoThe Kebabery, and Souvla have flourished by delivering a dining experience that’s perfectly suited to the city’s zeitgeist and its economic realities.

If there’s a Mark Zuckerberg of fast-fine dining, it’s Charles Bililies, who opened the Greek restaurant Souvla in Hayes Valley in 2014 and has since opened two more locations. “In cities, this is how people want to eat,” Bililies says. “They want high-quality, cool ambience, but they also want convenience and value.” (You can dine well at Souvla for $12 to $15 without wine.)

PHOTO BY ALEX LAU
PHOTO BY ALEX LAU

The spread at Souvla.

His model is well tailored to the workaholic culture that’s permeating most big cities. “In San Francisco, you have tons of young professionals who make good money, but they’re always working,” says Evan Rich, who with his wife, Sarah, opened the fast-fine RT Rotisserie after the success of their conventional fine-dining spot, Rich Table. “They have the money to go out to fancy restaurants, but during the week they want something that tastes great yet doesn’t require a four-course meal and that they can take home if they want.” (Takeout and delivery are crucial to the success of RT Rotisserie and Souvla.)

The approach also squares nicely with the Bay Area’s business culture since it offers the prospect of earning profits—and does so via the kind of innovation that Silicon Valley prides itself on. It’s notoriously difficult to make money in the restaurant business. So what fast-fine entrepreneurs are trying to build is a new, economically sustainable business model for high-quality food. And as they expand to other cities (which many are considering), they’ll likely rely in part on capital from investors within the tech industry, if only because restaurants are already where a lot of tech money is going. “I think it’s similar to bankers in New York in the early aughts: Once people have money, they want to be part of what’s happening, and this is one way for them to have clout,” says Jessie Barker, who, along with Madelyn Markoe, opened Media Noche in March with money from friends and family. “Everyone likes to say, ‘I’m a partial owner of a restaurant.’” It isn’t just for street cred, though. As Bililies adds, “We’re committed to returning capital, so we can’t afford to be unprofitable for years—we operate as a true business.”

Of course, ordering from the counter, then sitting down to dinner isn’t new. But fast-fine restaurants work hard to distinguish themselves from your local taqueria and fast-casual places like Shake Shack. “We wanted to make the experience of Media Noche different,” Barker says. “That means having real stemware for the wine, silverware that’s communal but not plastic, and beautiful bowls and plates.”

PHOTO BY: PHOTOFUSION/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES
PHOTO BY: PHOTOFUSION/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Nothing better than rotisserie chicken for dinner.

His model is well tailored to the workaholic culture that’s permeating most big cities. “In San Francisco, you have tons of young professionals who make good money, but they’re always working,” says Evan Rich, who with his wife, Sarah, opened the fast-fine RT Rotisserie after the success of their conventional fine-dining spot, Rich Table. “They have the money to go out to fancy restaurants, but during the week they want something that tastes great yet doesn’t require a four-course meal and that they can take home if they want.” (Takeout and delivery are crucial to the success of RT Rotisserie and Souvla.)

The approach also squares nicely with the Bay Area’s business culture since it offers the prospect of earning profits—and does so via the kind of innovation that Silicon Valley prides itself on. It’s notoriously difficult to make money in the restaurant business. So what fast-fine entrepreneurs are trying to build is a new, economically sustainable business model for high-quality food. And as they expand to other cities (which many are considering), they’ll likely rely in part on capital from investors within the tech industry, if only because restaurants are already where a lot of tech money is going. “I think it’s similar to bankers in New York in the early aughts: Once people have money, they want to be part of what’s happening, and this is one way for them to have clout,” says Jessie Barker, who, along with Madelyn Markoe, opened Media Noche in March with money from friends and family. “Everyone likes to say, ‘I’m a partial owner of a restaurant.’” It isn’t just for street cred, though. As Bililies adds, “We’re committed to returning capital, so we can’t afford to be unprofitable for years—we operate as a true business.”

Of course, ordering from the counter, then sitting down to dinner isn’t new. But fast-fine restaurants work hard to distinguish themselves from your local taqueria and fast-casual places like Shake Shack. “We wanted to make the experience of Media Noche different,” Barker says. “That means having real stemware for the wine, silverware that’s communal but not plastic, and beautiful bowls and plates.”

From Bon Appétit

Hannah Kim
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