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Earlier this year, when Noma—considered to be the best fine-dining restaurant in the world—announced it would close at the end of 2024, there was a collective foodie freakout. Is fine dining dead? Will we never again see tiny, tweezered olives made to look like figs again? Is it the end of the $300 foam-filled tasting menu? While the jury is still out on those trends, many wonder what this means for Denver’s restaurant scene. Is the future of fine dining endangered here, too, or is it merely changing with the times?
To find answers, I went to the sources. I talked to chef Troy Guard, who owns a steakhouse (Guard and Grace) and more casual restaurants (Los Chingones, Hashtag, and Bubu); Allison Anderson, director of experience at Denver’s first tasting-menu-only restaurant, Beckon; Lillian Lu, co-owner and pastry chef at Noisette, one of Denver’s most recent upscale entries; and the loudest source of them all these days—social media. Here’s are some key findings.
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Relax: fine dining appears to be safe.
Drop into the popular Facebook Denver Foodies group or the Reddit thread on Denver Food, and you’ll find people repeatedly asking about where to go for tasting menus and celebratory dinners. There will always be birthdays, anniversaries, and promotions to celebrate, when even everyday people who don’t routinely drop $250 at dinner want something a little spiffier.
“I always think it will be there,” Guard says of fine dining. His high-end Guard and Grace debuted downtown in 2014 and has performed so well that Guard opened another location in Houston in 2019.
At Beckon, where the current tasting menu rings in at $175 per person before a service charge and tax, the demand is high. Anderson says that they consistently have a waitlist for weekends, and sometimes for Wednesday and Thursday nights as well.
“Beckon’s doing very well,” Anderson says. “We trusted that Denver had that type of curious diner that is willing to spend a little extra money to participate in something unique and wonderful… They showed up in full force more than we could have ever hoped.”
Anderson says the restaurant has rebounded and then some post-COVID, and Guard agrees. “I’ve seen more celebrations and parties and people coming out than before,” he says. “[The number at Guard and Grace] went up almost 10 percent from 2019 to 2022, and [for the average check] at a restaurant like that, that’s pretty good. Ten percent is a big number.”
Fine dining is more casual now.
What has dropped off is the narrow definition of upscale experiences as fancy and fussy. Instead of waiters overly anxious to fold your napkin while you run to the loo, today’s fine dining is more about ingredients, technique, and warm hospitality (think: Tavernetta or A5 Steakhouse). “Fine dining doesn’t have to be white tablecloth,” Guard says. “Everyone is a little more casual, on the run, on the go.”
Noisette’s Lu is reluctant to even call the French restaurant she owns with her husband, Tim, fine dining, no less because its menu is built on elevated versions of bourgeois (French middle class) comfort foods. (At a $100 per person check average, though, the price point fits most people’s definition.) “We don’t really consider our restaurant to be fine dining,” she says. “Our food is basically to us meat and potatoes with gravy, but we’re using more technique and better ingredients.”
The category can be difficult to break into.
Noisette opened in LoHi last summer, and Lu says it’s been tough. “To be honest, I think our business could be busier,” she says. “People have told me it takes a year to get to a level where we’ll be happier with more people coming in.”
You won’t find French onion soup or tartare on the menu there, and Lu hopes unique entrées like Dover sole with escargot butter and guinea fowl in Riesling jus will ultimately set Noisette apart from other eateries. “We have very classic French dishes that you’d see in France,” Lu says. We try to push those unique items, and we’re just hoping people will respond positively to it.”
Costs for upmarket ingredients, a beautiful atmosphere, and workers that can execute more complex cooking and service are high, which can make opening a spot of this caliber intimidating for new restaurateurs. Anderson, who guided Beckon in acquiring start-up materials from chairs to stemware when it opened in late 2018, stresses that there are endless details that a restaurant’s income may go toward.
“That $175 isn’t going into the pocket of the business,” she says. “It’s supporting the staff, paying insurance, paying our florist who keeps it beautiful year-round, so many things that make this go.”
There will always be people with cash to spend.
Just like Elon Musk isn’t going to wake up one day and not want to be hyperbolically rich, people with money are going to want to spend it.
I’m betting that Beckon will continue to have a waitlist, that Guard and Grace will sell loads of $80 steaks, and that Facebook and Reddit groups will see their fair shares of posts looking for the best celebratory dinner spots. Fine dining is not extinct, and, judging by many, doesn’t even seem to be endangered.
“I don’t believe fine dining is going anywhere,” Anderson says. “That’s like saying high fashion is going to be unlikeable and that people are going to stop buying nice things and treating themselves. People will always want [fine dining], whether they can afford it consistently or it’s once a year. People will always want to splurge and celebrate. Denver loves these places where you can go and experience a little bit of magic.”